Golden Rice is Not the Answer

In the current mania for genetic engineering as the latest of science’s many technological marvels, one of the most highly-touted genetically-modified plants is something called “Golden Rice,” a rice that has been modified to contain beta-carotene, which is transformed by the human body into vitamin A.

As the Green Revolution miracle fades, the world’s technocrats are preparing its second wave: genetic modification. One of the first products we are seeing is Golden Rice, which is being proclaimed as a miracle cure for blindness. More than $100 million has been spent over ten years to produce this transgenic rice at the Institute of Plant Sciences in Zurich. The Zurich team introduced genes taken from daffodils and bacteria into a rice strain, to produce a yellow rice with high levels of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A within the body.[1]

But there’s one thing wrong with this picture: There is no scarcity of Vitamin A in the world! It is abundant in carrots, spinach, papaya, and leafy green vegetables—leaves of amaranth, coriander, curry, radish, and other foods historically common in, for example, the Indian diet. What’s lacking is not a new $100 million intervention to put Vitamin A inside rice. What’s lacking is people’s access to foods already rich in the nutrient.[2]

Golden Rice is a high-tech solution to the problem of malnutrition. There are several ways to consider this proposed solution. Economically, this high-tech solution makes no sense. Since wealthy consumers already have access to an abundance of fish, fruits, and vegetables that contain significant amounts of vitamin A or carotene, they would have no need for it. Moreover, they can afford to take vitamin supplements if they so desire. Thus, this rice has been developed primarily for those who live in poor countries and eat a very limited diet that is nutritionally inadequate. But because so much expensive research has gone into developing this genetically-modified rice, this substantial cost must be factored into the rice’s price. In addition, Golden Rice must be sold at a price that includes the significant annual profits that are expected by the shareholders of the company that produces, promotes, and markets it, not to mention the high salaries and bonuses which the company’s executives and its many other employees earn. Since the rice that poor people presently eat does not have to include all these additional costs, it will necessarily be much cheaper than Golden Rice. And if the rice farmer simply saves a part of the harvest from each year in order to sow it the next year, as farmers have been doing for as long as there have been farmers, then it only costs the foregone consumption that the seeds would have provided if they were eaten or sold.

These facts make it clear that Golden Rice will probably be too expensive for most of the people for whom it is intended. In many cases, the only way they could afford it is if their government were to subsidize its purchase. But such a course would increase the country’s indebtedness, which in turn would increase foreign corporate and government control over the country’s laws and its economic and political policies.

Let us consider another common case of malnutrition and how it was solved. In the past, sailors and others suffered from scurvy, a disease that was later discovered to be caused by a lack of vitamin C, which, as most people now know, is found in many fresh fruits and vegetables, in particular citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits. At the time, genetic engineering did not exist, and so, instead of trying to do something daft like modifying a wheat variety to contain vitamin C, since wheat is the basis of the diet of most Europeans, they did what any sensible person would do, namely, make sure that sailors who embarked on long sea voyages periodically consumed small amounts of lemons, oranges, or fermented cabbage. This was a no-tech solution to the problem of scurvy, a solution that was, moreover, relatively inexpensive and completely effective.

Today, the comparable no-tech solution to the problem of vitamin-A deficiency would be to teach farmers in poor countries where this problem exists to grow plants that contain vitamin A or carotene, and then try to modify the inhabitants’ dietary habits so they consume these plants or their fruits. There are many different vegetables to choose from, which can be selected to suit the particular climate and other agricultural conditions that exist in different countries. The only problem, however, considered from a purely economic perspective, is that it would be very difficult to make a profit from this no-tech solution, since neither the farmers nor the consumers would need to buy anything from those corporations that develop, promote, and sell high-tech products like Golden Rice.

Just like Doctor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, who told his naive pupil that we live “in the best of all possible worlds,” the silly economists would have us believe that the free market always produces the best possible outcome. But who would agree that spending 100 million dollars in order to develop a genetically-modified rice is the best or even a sensible solution to the problem of vitamin-A deficiency? In contrast, the no-tech solution would have required spending only a fraction of the 100 million dollars that was spent on developing Golden Rice, to provide vegetable seeds to farmers and educate them on how to grow these plants, and then to get poor people who suffer from vitamin-A deficiency to eat them.

I wonder to what extent the problem of malnutrition in poor countries is due to the economist’s constant exhortation to specialize in growing only one or a few crops for export. Unless they grow it themselves, most poor farmers will not have the means to purchase a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Hence, if they follow the economist’s foolish advice, they and their children will be at greater risk of suffering from malnutrition, since the small amount of money they are able to earn from selling their produce is needed to pay for other things such as clothes, medicine, fertilizer, tools, farm animals, and education for their children. In other words, advocating specialization in farming in poor countries, primarily for export, is a recipe for malnutrition. The obvious solution to malnutrition among the rural poor is to encourage them to do the opposite of what they are told by economists, which is to grow a wide variety of different foods for their own consumption.

What the example of Golden Rice clearly demonstrates is that, contrary to accepted free-market ideology, the free market can produce some incredibly stupid, wasteful, and inefficient outcomes that are examples, not of human ingenuity and wisdom, but of human folly. It should be a lesson to the many free-market zealots who continue to preach the virtues and superiority of free-market capitalism. The next time some fool extols the virtues of high-tech genetically-engineered solutions like Golden Rice as the answer to humanity’s nutritional problems, throw some vegetables at that person in the hope that they will knock some sense into the person’s technology-addled brain.

It is very important that people understand the following point: if it were ever widely marketed and sold in poor countries, Golden Rice has the potential to replicate the tragedy that ensued when Nestlé tried to sell its infant formula to nursing mothers living in poor countries. When these women stopped nursing their babies, instead substituting fortified powdered cow’s milk for their naturally-produced milk, their flow of milk stopped, meaning that they became dependent on the formula to nourish their babies, which is perhaps what Nestlé executives were hoping for, since this fact about nursing and weaning babies is common knowledge.[3] The only problem is that, being poor, they could not afford to continue buying the formula in the necessary quantities to nourish their babies. As a result, some of these mothers diluted the formula so that their babies became malnourished, which either adversely affected their development or caused their death. Moreover, many of these women were uneducated or illiterate, and so they did not understand the importance of sterilizing the bottles in which the formula was put before each feeding, and making sure the contents were consumed quickly before they spoiled.

In contrast, mothers do not need to disinfect their nipples before they feed their babies, and the milk, because it is stored inside their bodies, where their immune system prevents any potentially harmful bacteria from multiplying and making it dangerous, does not need to be protected from spoilage by being boiled or put into sterilized bottles. In every respect, the system devised by Nature that enables mammalian mothers to feed their young is clearly better than the clumsy, time and energy-consuming, and costly man-made alternative. This is a clear illustration of the fact that human solutions – the high-tech innovations in which so many foolish human beings have placed their unbounded trust – are often inferior to the countless wondrous innovations, techniques, and processes that have been developed by Nature.

In the 1980s, for example, Nestlé and many of its rivals were excoriated for aggressively marketing infant formula in developing countries. The companies worked assiduously to persuade mothers to switch from breastfeeding to formula — handing out free samples and paying local doctors to recommend the formula and denigrate breastfeeding — even as evidence mounted that the practice could be deadly. In Africa in particular, many mothers prepared the formula using contaminated local water; others, hoping to economize, so diluted the formula that their babies essentially starved to death. Nestlé and other formula makers reined in their aggressive promotional practices in Africa and have since become loud promoters of breast milk. But the controversy remains one of Nestlé’s most enduring public images — not least because Nestlé and its rivals, despite their professed support for breastfeeding, continue to earn billions of dollars a year selling infant formula in the emerging markets of Asia.[4]

This brings us to another important point, a point that is unfortunately ignored or overlooked by many executives of large multinational corporations and their greedy shareholders: it is immoral for any company to seek to make profits from poor people, such as by making them dependent on a costly product which is produced by the corporation. Often, such profits cause even greater poverty and misery, including the deaths of some of these individuals – those who are truly “the wretched of the earth,” who usually have no control over or understanding of the forces that dictate and control their lives. Such profits are literally blood money – ill-gotten gains that often do great harm to those from whom they are taken.

The aim of companies is to make people dependent on the things they produce. This is obvious in the case of cigarettes, which create a physical dependence in smokers. In the case of those who live in wealthy countries and have a regular source of income, this is not a problem, since they have the financial means to satisfy their many dependencies and artificial commercial cravings. But in the case of poor people who do not have a regular source of income, to apply the same marketing strategy by making them dependent on one’s product is a selfish and highly irresponsible manner of proceeding, since eventually they will no longer have the means to buy the product one is selling. In the case of inessential things, this will only lead to unsatisfied artificial desires; but in the case of essential things like food, this can lead to starvation and death. Hence, the desire to supplant inexpensive seeds and traditional farming methods with costly high-tech alternatives, such as genetically-modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, farm machinery, and automated irrigation systems, has the potential to cause serious hardships to poor farmers around the world – an important point that many economists, scientists, politicians, humanitarians, aid workers, and others have failed to understand in their development of and support for high-tech panaceas like Golden Rice.

[1] Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield, and Steven Gorelick, p. 53. Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, Connecticut, 2002.

[2] Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet For a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, p. 284. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2002.

[3] There are some societies where nursing mothers continue to nurse their infants until a very late age, such as four years, in order to reduce the number of children they have.

[4] The End of Food by Paul Roberts, pp. 48-49. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008.