Last week we wrote of the rather disturbing news that 24 Chinese children had been fed genetically engineered (GE) Golden Rice in a trial backed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), despite state authorities having come out publicly with clear directives against this very experiment.

But exactly what is this craftily named rice, and the Vitamin A deficiency it claims to assist? A 2010 Greenpeace report took an in-depth look:

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) continues to be one of the most serious health problems in the developing world. The last two decades have seen tremendous improvements in the treatment of VAD, and it has been virtually eliminated among specific sectors of the population in many countries. The number of countries achieving vitamin A supplementation (VAS) targets nearly doubled between 2003 and 2005. These improvements are due to a combination of four strategies, well-tested and proven to be successful: 

- Vitamin A supplementation with capsules
- The fortification of food with vitamins and minerals
- Oral supplements or food additives
- Dietary diversification.

However, VAD has also been used as a reason to develop so-called 'golden' rice - a variety of rice that has been genetically-engineered (GE) to biosynthesise beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the inner edible parts (endosperm) of rice.

Greenpeace considers the term 'golden rice' to be a misnomer – calling this rice 'golden' suggests that it is a panacea or miracle cure, which - after 20 years of development, millions of dollars of funding and significant promotion by a number of organisations - it clearly is not.

The marketing of so-called golden rice is often promoted as a solution to VAD in countries where rice is a staple food. This solution is not only ecologically irresponsible - introducing GE rice on the Asian continent, a centre of origin and diversity for rice, has the potential to contaminate invaluable genetic resources for combating future disease in rice varieties - but it also misses the point: VAD is routinely associated with other nutritional deficiencies.

Thus, programmes that improve the intake of all necessary vitamins and minerals and promote access to a healthy balanced diet are the only truly sustainable solution to the widespread problem of chronic undernourishment.

Examples of successful VAD programmes that do not include GE can be found in all areas of the world, and many of them include an effort to increase dietary diversity, the most sustainable method of dealing with VAD, which simultaneously addresses multiple micronutrient deficiencies.

We believe that the generous funding channelled into the development of golden rice would be far better applied toward existing methods to fight VAD, those which favour sustainable food systems, provide food security and increase agricultural diversity in a way that is empowering women, providing income to rural farmers, and improving the nutritional status of women and children around the globe.

Read the full report: Golden rice's lack of lustre

Image © Greenpeace / John Novis