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Genetically modified Golden Rice falls short on lifesaving promises

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Genetically modified Golden Rice falls short on lifesaving promises

GMO activists not to blame for scientific challenges slowing introduction, study finds

Rice fields in the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon, the Philippines
Famous for heirloom rice grown on the spectacular terraces of the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon, the Philippines has become a hotbed for protests over the development of genetically modified Golden Rice. (Photo: Glenn Stone)

Heralded on the cover of Time magazine in 2000 as a genetically modified (GMO) crop with the potential to save millions of lives in the Third World, Golden Rice is still years away from field introduction and even then, may fall short of lofty health benefits still cited regularly by GMO advocates, suggests a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

“Golden Rice is still not ready for the market, but we find little support for the common claim that environmental activists are responsible for stalling its introduction. GMO opponents have not been the problem,” said lead author Glenn Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies in Arts & Sciences.

Golden Rice on Time cover
Proclaimed as a potential life saver 16 years ago on the cover of Time, Golden Rice may still be years away from approval.

First conceived in the 1980s and a focus of research since 1992, Golden Rice has been a lightning rod in the battle over genetically modified crops.

GMO advocates have long touted the innovation as a practical way to provide poor farmers in remote areas with a subsistence crop capable of adding much-needed Vitamin A to local diets. A problem in many poor countries in the Global South, Vitamin A deficiencies leave millions at high risk for infection, diseases and other maladies, such as blindness.

Some anti-GMO groups view Golden Rice as an over-hyped Trojan Horse that biotechnology corporations and their allies hope will pave the way for the global approval of other more profitable GMO crops.

GMO proponents often claim that environmental groups such as Greenpeace should be blamed for slowing the introduction of Golden Rice and thus, prolonging the misery of poor people who suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies.

In a recent article in the journal Agriculture & Human Values, Stone and co-author Dominic Glover, a rice researcher at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex, find little evidence that anti-GMO activists are to blame for Golden Rice’s unfulfilled promises.

Washington University anthropologist Glenn Stone, shown here with an agricultural field agent, has studied rice cultivation and research in the Philippines since 2013.
Washington University anthropologist Glenn Stone, shown here with an agricultural field agent, has studied rice cultivation and research in the Philippines since 2013. (Photo: Glenn Stone)

“The rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done,” Stone said. “It has not even been submitted for approval to the regulatory agency, the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).”

“A few months ago, the Philippine Supreme Court did issue a temporary suspension of GMO crop trials,” Stone said. “Depending on how long it lasts, the suspension could definitely impact GMO crop development. But it’s hard to blame the lack of success with Golden Rice on this recent action.”

Patrick Moore tweet on Golden Rice
Golden Rice proponent Patrick Moore has used Twitter,
and other media to blame environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, for prolonging the suffering of  children with Vitamin A deficiencies.

While activists did destroy one Golden Rice test plot in a 2013 protest, it is unlikely that this action had any significant impact on the approval of Golden Rice.

“Destroying test plots is a dubious way to express opposition, but this was only one small plot out of many plots in multiple locations over many years,” he said. “Moreover, they have been calling Golden Rice critics ‘murderers’ for over a decade.”

Stone, an internationally recognized expert on the human side of global agricultural trends, was an early advocate for keeping an open mind about “humanitarian” GMO crops, such as Golden Rice.

He has also supported the development of a genetically modified strain of cassava, a starchy root crop eaten by subsistence farmers across much of Africa. Unfortunately, efforts to develop a genetically improved, more productive and disease-resistant strain of cassava also appear to be a long way from practical field introduction, he notes.

“Golden Rice was a promising idea backed by good intentions,” Stone said. “In contrast to anti-GMO activists, I argued that it deserved a chance to succeed. But if we are actually interested in the welfare of poor children — instead of just fighting over GMOs — then we have to make unbiased assessments of possible solutions. The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”

Since 2013, Stone has directed a major Templeton Foundation-funded research project on rice in the Philippines. His research compares Golden Rice to other types of rice developed and cultivated in the Philippines. These include high-yield “Green Revolution” rice strains developed in the 1960s in an effort to industrialize rice farming, and ‘‘heirloom’’ landrace varieties long cultivated on the spectacular terraces of the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon.

Golden Rice (top) has a distinctive yellow hue.
Golden Rice (top) has a distinctive yellow hue. (Photo: International Rice Research Institute via Wikimedia Commons)

As part of the Golden Rice initiative, researchers introduce genes into existing rice strains to coax these GMO plants into producing the micronutrient beta carotene in the edible part of the grain. The presence of beta carotene gives the genetically modified rice a yellow hue, which explains the “golden” in its name.

As Stone and Glover note in the article, researchers continue to have problems developing beta carotene-enriched strains that yield as well as non-GMO strains already being grown by farmers.

Researchers in Bangladesh also are in the early stages of confined field trials of Golden Rice, but it is doubtful that these efforts will progress any quicker than in the Philippines.

Even if genetic modification succeeds in creating a strain of rice productive enough for poor farmers to grow successfully, it’s unclear how much impact the rice will have on children’s health.

As Stone and Glover point out, it is still unknown if the beta carotene in Golden Rice can even be converted to Vitamin A in the bodies of badly undernourished children. There also has been little research on how well the beta carotene in Golden Rice will hold up when stored for long periods between harvest seasons, or when cooked using traditional methods common in remote rural locations, they argue.

Meanwhile, as the development of Golden Rice creeps along, the Philippines has managed to slash the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency by non-GMO methods, Stone said.



Theory is one thing....practice is another... and since I've recently seen "golden" rice held up as an actual beneficial thing right now....

Been following golden rice for a long time...the polarised views at each end of the spectrum are as bad as each other though.....


I had some high hopes for this.....but it aint a reality......not yet....

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Do the thing you do well WB, give us the tldr please.

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We've been trying to put vitamin A in rice in the form of beta carotene for awhile. It's often touted as how GMOs are good but so far it's never actually worked in the way it's supposed to.

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On 30/07/2016 at 7:15 PM, waterboy 2.0 said:



Theory is one thing....practice is another... and since I've recently seen "golden" rice held up as an actual beneficial thing right now....



Nice one WB <3


The GM debate has me frothing at the mouth. Always has. CRISPR has just added new dimensions to the froth.


Protip: I've worked in GM at a registered facility. No plants were ever released into the outdoors on my projects. My views there were pretty well known, but I'm familiar with the finer points of the technology as it was used up until CRISPR came in.


tl:dr: The GM debate is a classic example of fucked up politics. The public is lazy, and wants a bunch of sexy lab coated people to solve their problems for them.


We've had some very workable solutions to world hunger for years. Don't be a cunt. Share your things. Stop breeding like idiots.


But no, none of those debates have happened- and the elephant in the room is the question of overpopulation. It's a subject no government or religious organisation will sanction realistic discussions around. The debate has been, yet again, reduced to "Science will solve it".


One of my former supervisors- who was a very rare and remarkable individual in that he was a brilliant scientist and manager and a general sterling human being, once asked me how we were supposed to feed the increasing number of people on the planet without GM.


My response was that we have been tinkering with GM for nearly 40 years and it still isn't sufficiently functional to replace conventional agricultural output. In that time frame, all the money thrown at GM could have achieved quite dramatic results if it had been shuttled towards dealing with overpopulation and mis-allocation of economic and food resources. Those years are now lost to us. In that time the population has increased to stupid, and shows no signs of slowing.


There are many aspects of GM I have no problem with. Vat grown medicinal compounds which would otherwise be expensive or prohibitively complex to acquire- totally in favour of those. There are other examples.


Up until CRISPR I believed no viable replicable GM cells should leave the lab. All potentially replicable GM crops should contain non-viable pollen and/ or Terminator genetics. It hasn't been a popular position, but situations of crop contamination from GM pollen should not be possible, and horizontal transfer of artificial genetic material via bacteria should not be allowed.


Now we have CRISPR, and we're going to get ag GM in sideways fast, because nobody is going to say to little Janey or Tommy's mum that the cure to their child's crippling and possibly fatal genetic disease can't be dispensed to them because GM. CRISPR human trials are very much a thing- the public are going to increasingly accept- and rely- on GM tech. The discussion about possible inheritance of human CRISPR modifications won't happen, because blah blah nobody wants to talk about overpopulation. Thus agricultural GM- and industrial GM can wait quietly in the wings until the public is ready for that too. And isn't science great? So shiny.


I am a total fan. But not for the reasons and the circumstances and ethical climate which we are exist. Also: if you give scientists shiny toys, we will want to play with them. Historically, by the time we have worked out whether or not they're any good, or even safe to give out, some PR droid has sent out a bunch of glossy press releases and the public CBF with the ethical debate the lab crews have worked up.


The future will not be evenly distributed. Someone said that a while ago, and it holds true. Just because you can imagine problems being solved doesn't mean the solution won't be hijacked, confiscated, taken out of reach, or used for fucked. So yes, CRISPR and GM offer potential solutions, but who's going to be holding them out to whom? Is the media brouhaha about CRISPR and rare genetic disorders going to generate billions of dollars to solve the problems of a few rich people at the expense of solutions to existing problems which will benefit more people?


Save your seeds people. And buy from those who will. It's not 100% guarantee against famine, or starvation of people in countries you've never been to. But neither is locking your windows and doors 100% proof against burglary. It's just a good idea.


Interesting anecdote: A couple of mates who work in international aid programs were told by a village of subsistence farmers in the tropics that they were going back to their traditional varieties of rice, because it only took a small handful of their local rice to feed each person a day. Their local species was substantially more filling at each meal and thus they required less room to grow more rice. They also complained that the rice on offer from the major seed company in the area was prone to disease. So they learned, or re-learned how to save their own seed.


It only takes a generation to lose these skills, and they are gone.


Apologies for the randomness of my response, the larger GM debate is a sleight of hand and renders me incoherent.




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c'mon its not that long mushfun:)....lol... I just fck shit up, I tried:wink:

I'll only tap a near, if not incoherent ramble........been mentally scattered, still am...lol


However, If its used in an arguement/debate/diatribe ...its null and void .

My tl:dr response I'm still formulating.....currently there is too many fcks and fckns in it....lol

and I'm trying to be serious


a clever bunch of labcoats however managed to breed two varieties of maize biofortified with beta-caroteine AND improve its yield AND improve its disease resistance, and put the varieties into production in poverty striken africa..... in less than a decade..... just saying:wink: Barely hear shit about that.....


Plant breeders past, present and future I salute you.....we need you more than ever.....and the diverse germplasm to work with.



The GM debate has me frothing at the mouth. Always has.

^ I share that mate...lol....you are not alone, and thank you for your response:wink:You've touched on some great points, and provoked some more of my thoughts.


I'm not done with this topic....lol....not at all....but I want it to count, I want to provoke some thought.....

We need more rational and objective discussions about the technologies and the applications....

I want folk to think.....not parrot.


For the record I am most positive of the additional tools we have, and are developing. The applications we have in production  though are mostly lazy and havent advanced "us", might have put a few more dollars in the pockets of folk at the top of the agroproduction chains:wink:


Its a bloody complex subject.....

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