| April 28, 2015

Golden Rice and the Growing Battle over GMOs

According to the World Health Organization, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) “is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections.” More than half a million children under the age of five die each year from VAD. The medical solution to VAD is relatively simple: these children need vitamin A as a supplement to their diets. Gardening programs and direct supplements are options, but broadly providing vitamin A to the millions in need, most of whom live in Africa and Asia, requires a more comprehensive solution.

Enter golden rice.

Fifteen years ago, scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer created a type of yellow rice that produces beta-carotene, something the human body needs in order to produce vitamin A. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, just one bowl of golden rice provides 60 percent of a child’s daily requirement for vitamin A.

While field trials in the Philippines and Bangladesh may enable golden rice to make its way to market this year, golden rice is not currently being commercially farmed or consumed in the countries suffering the most from VAD.

So what is keeping such a potentially helpful food from the people who could most benefit from its production?

According to Potrykus, golden rice’s status as a genetically modified organism (GMO) has proven a tremendous hurdle. “If it were not a GMO, golden rice would have been used since 2002 and have saved millions of children from blindness and death,” Potrykus noted.

Popular opposition to GMOs is a significant global issue both in terms of food security and international trade. The United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada are generally hospitable environments to GMOs, while many European nations have restricted or entirely banned GMOs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly emphasized that foods from “genetically engineered (GE) plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as foods from traditionally bred plants.” Despite significant marketing and public relations campaigns against GE plants by groups such as Greenpeace, the vast majority of several major American staple crops are genetically modified. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), GE crops accounted for 96 percent of cotton acreage, 94 percent of soybeans, and 93 percent of corn in 2014.

Although GMO detractors argue otherwise, the federal government heavily regulates GE crops and food products. It oversees field-testing, production, and consumption through the USDA, FDA, and EPA. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) authorizes initial testing, gathers information about the genetic modifications, and ultimately makes a determination regarding moving the crops to non-regulated status for commercial use. If a plant is engineered to produce a substance that “prevents, destroys, repels, or mitigates a pest,” the EPA considers the GE plant a pesticide subject to further regulation. Once the product is ready for commercial farming, the FDA regulates all food uses of such crops to ensure that GMOs are safe for consumers to eat.

Where GE plants and animals meet the same safety thresholds as their traditionally bred counterparts, they should be used, especially when they are able to solve significant health issues for vulnerable populations. At the same time, the United States must be more proactive in responding with international dialogue over GMOs if we are to protect our ability to export crops and maintain an agricultural trade surplus that benefits both our domestic economy and access to lower-cost food around the world.

Both the U.S. Government and the industry participants benefiting from advances in biotechnology must take steps to clear the air of confusion surrounding the GMO discussion, provide transparency and accountability throughout the regulatory process, and thoroughly respond to reasonable concerns from GMO opponents.

The USDA has already started differentiating facts from fiction. Those opposed to GMOs argue that the engineered crops give multinational corporations the ability to gouge farmers by charging more for GE seeds than conventional varieties. A USDA study released last year did support the argument that the price of GE corn seed grew by about 50 percent from 2001 to 2010. The cost of cotton seed grew even faster. At the same time, because of higher yields, the USDA study also noted that GE cotton and corn “continue to be more profitable, as measured by net returns, than planting conventional seeds.”

The battle over GMOs is far from over and the future of golden rice remains uncertain. Rather than relying on biased papers and pontifications that only contain a kernel of truth, the United States would be wise to take the time to have a more robust exploration of the health and safety realities related to GMOs if it is to avoid serious trade, economic, and humanitarian consequences in the future.

Cameron Smith is southern region director and senior fellow at the R Street Institute, principal of Smith Strategies LLC, and a regular columnist for the Alabama Media Group.

This piece originally appeared in The Torch, a publication of The Liberty Foundation of America. Find out more at

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