Ed Regis is a science writer and the author, most recently, of “Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood.”
For more than two decades, researchers have worked to develop a rice that contained higher levels of beta carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A. The goal was to reduce the incidence of vitamin A deficiency — a health problem that is virtually unknown in rich Western countries but is a leading cause of childhood blindness and death in the developing world where rice is a staple, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the World Health Organization, “An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.” Also according to WHO, millions of pregnant women worldwide are at risk of night blindness and other health problems from vitamin A deficiency, which can harm fetal development, too.
Golden rice’s efficacy as a source of vitamin A has been shown in experiments going back to 2009 with human volunteers. But despite its promise, the rice has been attacked by critics of genetically modified foods ever since it was announced in the pages of the journal Science in 2000. Indian anti-GMO crusader Vandana Shiva called golden rice “a hoax.” As I found in researching a book on golden rice and the struggles to get it to those who need it, Greenpeace has variously derided the potentially lifesaving food as “Fools Gold,” “All glitter, no gold,” “More hype than substance,” “Propaganda for the genetic engineering industry” and a “Golden Illusion.”
Defenders of golden rice, including the more than 100 Nobel laureates who in 2016 signed a letter urging Greenpeace to stop bashing GMOs, and in particular golden rice, tend to blame activist opposition for preventing the approval and release of this superfood. But that is only one cause. The greatest impediment to the release and use of golden rice has been the regulatory apparatus of the health departments and agriculture ministries in the countries where the research was being done as well as in the nations where the biofortified rice was most needed.
In short, the very government agencies that were supposed to protect human lives and health have instead been inadvertently responsible for years of mass blindness and death.
The main source of the problem is the 2003 so-called Cartagena Protocol, a United Nations-sponsored resolution on “biosafety” governing the handling, transport and use of GMOs. A key component of the protocol was its embrace of a precautionary principle stating that “lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects” of a GMO on the environment or human health “shall not prevent” governments from taking action against the importation of the GMO in question.
That sounds like a simple “better safe than sorry” proposition, but in practice it became a bureaucratic doctrine of “guilty until proven innocent.” The worst of it was that the statement allowed the imposition of restrictions on a given GMO in the absence of any actual proof that it would cause harm, or even sufficient reason to believe that it would.
Governments responded by being not only cautious, but also zealously overcautious, when it came to GMOs. What this meant in real-world GMO science is illustrated by the set of rules created by the European Parliament in 2003, based on a directive regarding “the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms.”
The landmark legislation was legally binding on all member states of the European Union, and it governed virtually all aspects of GMO research, development and field testing. It provided, for example, that anyone wishing to conduct a field trial of a given GMO had to compile a technical dossier that furnished a virtually complete set of data about the plant at the molecular level, how it had been modified, with what genetic sequences and their origin — all of it in minute detail.
Ingo Potrykus, the co-inventor of golden rice, with Peter Beyer, has estimated that adherence to government regulations on GMOs resulting from the Cartagena Protocol and the precautionary principle caused a delay of up to 10 years in the development of the final product. During that decade, countless children in developing countries continued to go blind and die, and the health of pregnant women was also harmed. It was a potent illustration of the way erring on the side of caution can sometimes have fatal consequences.
If Bangladesh does indeed approve golden rice for release, and if the rice is consumed by vitamin A-deficient children and ends up saving their sight and lives, then many regulatory authorities — and GMO critics — will have a lot of explaining to do.