Golden Rice – blessing or threat?

IMG_4284Golden Rice is genetically engineered rice enriched with the provitamin beta-carotene. It was developed by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in the 1990’ with a humanitarian purpose to help prevent Vitamin A Deficiency and avoid its often severe and sometimes deadly consequences in rice-eating populations in developing countries. However, several organisations both in Europe and in countries where rice is grown have been campaigning against it. In their view, this GMO would open the door to more GMOs and also to the power of big corporations as well as potentially prevent the introduction of a more diversified diet in poor countries. Thus, the development, testing and distribution of Golden Rice have been hampered in the past 15 years, especially because large-scale testing was prevented by activists who destroyed crops.

At an event organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom on the occasion of World Food Day, experts discussed the potentials and risks of Golden Rice and GMOs in general to tackle food security and malnutrition. Dr. Christel Happach-Kasan, former Member of the German Bundestag and Speaker on Food and Agriculture for the FDP, explained how Golden Rice was developed to address the consequences of the lack in Vitamin A, especially in preschool children. Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 250’000 children under the age of 5 suffer from Vitamin A Deficiency.IMG_4289

The aim of the Golden Rice project is to distribute the seeds for free to small-scale farmers with an annual income of less than 10’000 euro. Therefore, in Dr. Happach-Kasan’s view, the counter-argument pointing at the possible loss of control of small scale farmers and the monopoly situation of big companies, is not valid in the case of Golden Rice. She explained how Golden Rice can be a part of a bigger solution to address Food Security and the question of how to feed the world. But, she also underlined that Golden Rice and other GMOs can only be a part of a wider solution and that much attention should also be given to education, diversification, better distribution mechanisms, investment, research and tackling climate change in order to feed a rapidly growing world population.

IMG_4279Prof. Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, deplored that “we are being held back by ideology”. As chief scientific adviser she reported that there is no scientific evidence that genetically modified products have higher risks in terms of food safety than other crops. She also pointed out that Europe imports genetically modified products or animal products which were fed with genetically modified crops, though Europe does not grow GMOs on a large scale. Opposition against GMOs in Europe seems to rather hold back the development and food security in other countries – a fact she described as hypocritical. Prof. Glover also explained why in her view, instead of regulating the development of GMO crops, regulation should concentrate on testing the safety of the product and on introducing competition in order to avoid monopoly situations. Dr. Gijs A. Kleter, Vice-Chair of the Panel on GMO at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), coincided with Prof. Glover in saying that the EU and its member states should put the focus on the safety of food products, for which international and European guidelines have been developed and the EFSA was set up, instead of focusing on how these products are being developed. He further talked about how GMOs are tested and approved in the EU. In his view the current (over-)regulation of GMOs actually supports the big corporations, while hampering smaller companies in developing and commercialising their products.

In order to change the status quo, Prof. Glover called for politicians to “stand up and say that GMOs are safe, but of course that citizens should have all the necessary information and be able to choose.” In her view, if politicians would base their opinion on scientific evidence, people would also gradually change their mindset.

Julie Cantalou