Mobile  |  About us  |  Photos  |  Videos  |  Subscriptions  |  RSS Feeds  |  Today's Paper  |  Classifieds  |  Contact Us
The Daily Star
SATURDAY, 19 APR 2014
10:19 AM Beirut time
Weather    
Beirut
22 °C
Blom Index
BLOM
1,214.01down
Commentary
Follow this story Print RSS Feed ePaper share this
A golden rice opportunity to reduce children’s vitamin deficiency
A+ A-

Finally, after 12 years of delay caused by opponents of genetically modified foods, so-called “golden rice” with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines. Over those 12 years, about 8 million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency. Are anti-GM advocates not partly responsible? Golden rice is the most prominent example in the global controversy over GM foods, which pits a technology with some risks but incredible potential against the resistance of feel-good campaigning. Three billion people depend on rice as their staple food, with 10 percent at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which, according to the World Health Organization, causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind each year. Of these, half die within a year. A study from the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of 5 each year.

Yet despite the cost in human lives, anti-GM campaigners – from Greenpeace to Naomi Klein – have derided efforts to use golden rice to avoid vitamin A deficiency. In India, Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and adviser to the government, called golden rice “a hoax” that is “creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it.”

The New York Times Magazine reported in 2001 that one would need to “eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day” to get enough vitamin A. What was an exaggeration then is demonstrably wrong now. Two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition show that just 50 grams (roughly two ounces) of golden rice can provide 60 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. They show that golden rice is even better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children.

Opponents maintain that there are better ways to deal with vitamin A deficiency. In its latest statement, Greenpeace says that golden rice is “neither needed nor necessary,” and calls instead for supplementation and fortification, which are described as “cost-effective.”

To be sure, handing out vitamin pills or adding vitamin A to staple products can make a difference. But it is not a sustainable solution to vitamin A deficiency. And while it is cost-effective, recent published estimates indicate that golden rice is much more so.

Supplementation programs cost $4,300 for every life they save in India, whereas fortification programs cost about $2,700 for each life saved. Both are great deals. But golden rice would cost just $100 for every life saved from vitamin A deficiency.

Similarly, it is argued that golden rice will not be adopted, because most Asians eschew brown rice. But brown rice is substantially different in taste and spoils easily in hot climates. The people, not Greenpeace, should decide whether they will adopt vitamin A-rich rice for themselves and their children.

Most ironic is the self-fulfilling critique that many activists now use. Greenpeace calls golden rice a “failure,” because it “has been in development for almost 20 years and has still not made any impact on the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency.” But as Ingo Potrykus, the scientist who developed golden rice, has made clear, that failure is due almost entirely to relentless opposition to GM foods – often by rich, well-meaning Westerners far removed from the risks of actual vitamin A deficiency.

Regulation of goods and services for public health clearly is a good idea; but it must always be balanced against potential costs – in this case, the cost of not providing more vitamin A to 8 million children over the past 12 years.

As an illustration, current regulations for GM foods, if applied to non-GM products, would bar the sale of potatoes and tomatoes, which can contain poisonous glycoalkaloids; celery, which contains carcinogenic psoralens; rhubarb and spinach (oxalic acid); and cassava, which feeds about half a billion people, but contains toxic cyanogenic alkaloids. Foodstuffs like soy, wheat, milk, eggs, crustaceans, fish, sesame, peanuts and kiwi would likewise be banned, because they can cause food allergies.

Here it is worth noting that there have been no documented human health effects from GM foods. But campaigners have claimed other effects. A common story, still repeated by Shiva, is that GM corn with Bt toxin kills Monarch butterflies. Several peer-reviewed studies, however, have established that “the impact of Bt corn pollen from current commercial hybrids on monarch butterfly populations is negligible.”

Greenpeace and many others claim that GM foods merely enable big companies like Monsanto to wield near-monopoly power. But that puts the cart before the horse: The predominance of big companies partly reflects anti-GM activism, which has made the approval process so long and costly that only rich companies catering to first-world farmers can afford to see it through.

Finally, it is often claimed that GM crops simply mean costlier seeds and less money for farmers. But farmers have a choice. More than 5 million cotton farmers in India have flocked to GM cotton, because it yields higher net incomes. Yes, the seeds are more expensive, but the rise in production offsets the cost.

Of course, no technology is without flaws, so regulatory oversight is useful. But it is worth maintaining some perspective. In 2010, the European Commission, after considering 25 years of GM-organisms research, concluded that “there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Now, finally, golden rice will come to the Philippines; after that, it is expected in Bangladesh and Indonesia. But for 8 million kids, the wait was too long. True to form, Greenpeace is already protesting that “the next ‘golden rice’ guinea pigs might be Filipino children.” The 4.4 million Filipino kids with vitamin A deficiency might not mind so much.

Bjorn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, founded and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 19, 2013, on page 7.
Home Commentary
 
     
 
golden rice / India / Bangladesh
Advertisement
Comments  

Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

comments powered by Disqus
More from
Bjorn Lomborg
Wasting money on renewables leaves the poor by the wayside
To do good, start cleaning up the erroneous climate debate
When all looks bleak, remember that there is much good news
We must accept trade-offs in order to improve the lives of the poor
The EU’s climate change policies are poor and getting poorer still
Advertisement


Baabda 2014
Advertisement
Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Linked In Follow us on Google+ Subscribe to our Live Feed
Multimedia
Images  
Pictures of the day
A selection of images from around the world- Friday April 18, 2014
View all view all
Advertisement
Rami G. Khouri
Rami G. Khouri
Why Israeli-Palestinian talks fail
Michael Young
Michael Young
Why confuse gibberish with knowledge?
David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Echoes of 1914 characterize the Ukraine crisis
View all view all
Advertisement
cartoon
 
Click to View Articles
 
 
News
Business
Opinion
Sports
Culture
Technology
Entertainment
Privacy Policy | Anti-Spamming Policy | Disclaimer | Copyright Notice
© 2014 The Daily Star - All Rights Reserved - Designed and Developed By IDS