Imagine if you stumbled across a naturally-occurring variety of rice that was rich in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A found in carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. A lack of vitamin A in the body leads to an increased risk of blindness and increased susceptibility to disease, which can in turn lead to premature death in small children. If you could get people in poor rice-based societies to substitute this newfound variety of rice for the kind of rice they normally eat, then you could help them dramatically improve their health.
Well, no such naturally-occurring variety of rice exists on Earth. Fortunately, though, some very intelligent human beings have created such a variety through genetic modification or genetic engineering (GE). It is called “Golden Rice” because of its golden colour. But far from celebrating this life-saving invention, groups like Greenpeace are fighting to stop it from being accepted and implemented. My first reaction to this was that the good people at Greenpeace and similar groups are out of their gourds. But skeptical though I was, I wanted to give them a chance to change my mind, to prove me wrong. What I found was not very impressive. Here are some of the reasons the organization gives(1) for claiming that “Golden Rice is environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and could compromise food, nutrition and financial security.”
1) “The tens of millions of dollars invested in Golden Rice would have been better spent on VAD [vitamin A deficiency] solutions that are already available and working, such as food supplements, food fortification and home gardening.” Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But who is to decide where money is better spent? I personally would rather have lots of people trying lots of different things. The best solutions will win out in the marketplace if people are free to choose. Oh, and Golden Rice is a form of food fortification. It just takes place at the genetic level.
2) “If cross-pollination or seed mix-up causes Golden Rice contamination, it could prove difficult, if not impossible to eradicate.” The use of words like ‘contamination’ and ‘eradicate’ are clearly meant to poison the debate, to get people to equate Golden Rice with dangerous diseases and harmful radiation. Rhetoric aside, is there any reason to expect more cross-pollination or seed mix-ups with Golden Rice than with other varieties? Are we afraid that basmati might cross-pollinate jasmine rice?
3) “If any hazardous, unexpected effects would develop from Golden Rice, the GE contamination would affect countries where rice is an essential staple and put people and food security at risk.” The reason they have to imagine hypothetical hazardous effects is that as far as anyone can tell, Golden Rice has no actual hazardous effects. It’s safe. It’s been tested. In the absence of any indication that it is harmful, we should go ahead and consume it. Or at least let other people consume it if we ourselves are filled with irrational fear.
4) “It is irresponsible to impose Golden Rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs, cultural heritage and sense of identity, or simply because they do not want it.” Uh, no argument here. It’s not just irresponsible, it’s completely immoral. But who, exactly, is talking about imposing anything on anyone? Groups like Greenpeace are the ones that want to prevent people from being able to choose Golden Rice. I’m unaware of anyone who wants to force people to eat it, or farmers to grow it.
5) “Golden Rice does not address the underlying causes of VAD, which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a healthy and varied diet.” So what? An artificial knee doesn’t address the underlying causes of bone density loss, but it sure makes life better for people whose natural knees are worn out. Getting at underlying causes is great, and I am certainly all for the economic freedom that will help the poor escape poverty. But in the meantime, treating some of the more dire symptoms of poverty also seems like a good idea.
6) “[T]he single-crop approach of Golden Rice could make malnutrition worse because it encourages a diet based solely on rice, rather than increasing access to a diverse diet of fruits and vegetables, considered crucial to combatting VAD and other nutrient deficiencies.” Golden Rice is a food, not an approach. The sooner the people in poor rice-based societies can get access to a diverse diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, the better, but again, in the meantime, Golden Rice can help. To forbid this option while holding out for a better one is perverse.
7) “Despite all the hype surrounding Golden Rice, it still remains unproven whether daily consumption of Golden Rice would actually improve the vitamin A status of people who are deficient.” This is patently false. Scientific studies have shown that the beta-carotene contained in Golden Rice is “highly available and easily taken up into the bloodstream by the human digestive system.” There is no reason to believe that Golden Rice would not improve the vitamin A status of people who are deficient, and every reason to believe that it would.
Since the reasons Greenpeace gives for opposing Golden Rice are so transparently inadequate, I have to wonder what the real, unstated reasons are. I can’t help but think that the people in charge of this campaign are unscientifically opposed to the transformative technology of genetic engineering itself, despite all of its potential to improve human lives. It really seems to me that they are motivated by an ecological religion whose goal is not to make human life better, but to preserve the non-human natural world for its own sake, and to stop us from altering it in any way unless it is to return it to a previous state before humans started altering it, which was somehow a better state despite being less suited to human survival and flourishing.
I’m all for reducing pollution and dealing with other environmental problems to the extent that doing so actually improves the human condition. Prioritizing the environment to the detriment of human well-being, though, I can’t get behind. And preventing the deployment of beneficial technologies that we have no reason to think would have any harmful effects on people or the environment? That is simply indefensible. Greenpeace should cease its harmful campaign against Golden Rice and get behind this life-saving technology.
1. Greenpeace refers to Golden Rice as “GE ‘Golden’ rice,” which I find clunky. For the sake of readability, I have replaced every instance of “GE ‘Golden’ rice” with “Golden Rice” in quotations from the Greenpeace website.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.