Science //

Worth its weight

Harry Stratton explores the role of genetic modification in preventing Vitamin A deficiency.

Artwork by Alexandra Mildenhall.
Artwork by Alexandra Mildenhall.
Artwork by Alexandra Mildenhall.

Here are some depressing facts. This year, Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to kill 700,000 children. It’s also on track to send another 370,000 kids irreversibly blind.

Here are some even more depressing facts. There is a solution to Vitamin A deficiency. The American Society for Nutrition, leading anti-blindness NGO Helen Keller International, and the CSIRO have all endorsed it. When it was trialled in parts of the Philippines, mortality due to VAD was reduced by 20 per cent within a year. But a baffling coalition of far-left environmentalists and far-right religious extremists has thus far kept this solution out of the hands of those who need it most.

Golden Rice is a strain of rice genetically modified to include beta-carotene, the chemical precursor to Vitamin A. There’s nothing particularly exciting about beta-carotene in and of itself – it’s the same ingredient that’s in foods we eat every day, like carrots, spinach and, if you live in Newtown, kale.

The reason that Golden Rice has researchers and health advocates so intrigued is the efficiency with which it delivers that Vitamin A and the ease with which it can be integrated into local food supply chains. A single cup of rice, the staple crop in the parts of the developing world where Vitamin A deficiency is most acute, promises to deliver up to 50 per cent of the average person’s daily Vitamin A requirements. Best of all, because the patent on Golden Rice is controlled by a humanitarian trust rather than a private corporation, modified seeds are distributed free of charge to farmers in developing countries, thanks in part to the humanitarian programs of biotechnology giants Syngenta and Monsanto. Contrary to the “terminator seed” myths of dystopian fiction, these farmers are actively encouraged to save and propagate these seeds.

In regions where governments have introduced Golden Rice programs, rice prices have remained stable without the need for state subsidies that developing world governments struggle to fund. According to the International Rice Institute, if there was ever an efficient method to get nutrients to those who need them the most, but are unable to afford them, this is it.

However, Golden Rice has proven to be very controversial. Last year, far-left guerilla organisation Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas posed as local farmers to attack the Filipino government’s trial rice crop. Closer to home, a related CSIRO fibre-enriched wheat project was destroyed by two Greenpeace eco-vandals.

Both the global scientific community and former Greenpeace kingpins Patrick Moore and Mark Lynas condemned these attacks, but not before controversial Indian nationalist and “Deep Ecologist” Vandana Shiva alleged that allowing Golden Rice in India was “like saying rapists should have the freedom to rape”. Ms Shiva is best known for calling on the government of India to withdraw food aid from cyclone-ravaged areas on the grounds that some of it might contain genetically modified wheat.

This led to panicked scenes of starving people besieging delivery convoys, desperate for something to eat.

It’s incredibly easy for first-world environmentalists and religious radicals to tell the developing world that they should just buy Vitamin A supplements. But telling starving people that they should just plant more carrots is like telling them to eat cake.

I say let them eat rice.