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Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood

Golden Rice was unusual both in its origin and gestation. I had written an earlier book (Regenesis, 2012) with the Harvard molecular biologist George Church, who was a man of exceptional intelligence and a wide reach of knowledge. I came to regard him as a person who knew everything. And so in 2016, when I read an interview with Church I believed what he said, which was: (1) that a product called Golden Rice was “ready” in 2002, (2) that the environmentalist organization Greenpeace was responsible for delaying its introduction for 13 years, with the result that (3) millions of people died, and (4) that Greenpeace was therefore guilty of a crime against humanity for this wanton act of mass murder.  All this made me so mad that I decided more or less on the spot that I had to write a book about Golden Rice to inform the public of this unspeakable atrocity. 

During the course of my research and writing, however, I gradually discovered that except for (3), all the other claims were false! 

Golden Rice is form of rice that has been genetically engineered to contain beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the human body. Its purpose is to combat vitamin A deficiency, a disease that is responsible for the blindnesses and deaths of up to a million people each year, mostly children and pregnant women in undeveloped countries. Now, it is true that a form of Golden Rice existed in 2002, but this was only an experimental, prototype, laboratory version, and its kernels did not contain nearly enough beta carotene to successfully combat vitamin A deficiency. It was certainly not “ready” for release to farmers, and would require many additional years of further product development and optimization before it would be. 

It is also true that Greenpeace had criticized and denounced Golden Rice, mocked and ridiculed it as an unrealistic, impractical, and even a dangerous foodstuff. Over the years since the prototype version was announced, Greenpeace had issued a practically endless stream of press releases, position papers, and miscellaneous other statements about Golden Rice that were filled with factual inaccuracies, distortions, and wild exaggerations of the truth. I learned, however, that none of these diatribes had done anything to stop, slow down, or interfere with the process of Golden Rice research and development, which proceeded at its own steady, albeit deliberate, pace.

Nor was Greenpeace guilty of mass murder or “crimes against humanity.” For even if their accusations against Golden Rice had the effect of retarding its development (which in fact they hadn’t), those accusations were not intended to cause harm, much less death, whereas murder is above all an intentional act. 

Why then did it take 20 years to bring Golden Rice to its present robust form and to win approval for release in four countries (Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada)? Two reasons. The first is that it takes a long time to breed increasingly higher concentrations of beta carotene (or any other valuable trait) into new strains of rice (or any other plant). Plant breeding is not like a chemistry experiment that can be repeated as many times as you want, on a daily basis. Rather, plant growth is an inherently slow and glacial process that can’t be speeded up meaningfully except under certain special laboratory conditions that are hard to foster and sustain. 

The second reason why it took 20 years to develop the final version of Golden Rice is the retarding force of government regulations on GMO crop development. Those regulations, which cover plant breeding, experimentation, and field trials, among other things, are so oppressively burdensome that they make compliance inordinately time-consuming and expensive. Such regulations exist because of irrational fears of GMOs, ignorance of the science involved, and overzealous adherence to the precautionary principle. Ingo Potrykus, one of the co-inventors of Golden Rice, has estimated that compliance with government regulations on GMOs caused a delay of up to ten years in the development of his final product.  

Ironically, in view of all the good that Golden Rice could have been doing in ameliorating vitamin A deficiency, blindness, and death during those ten years, it was precisely the government agencies that were supposed to protect people’s health that turned out to be the major impediments to faster development of this life-saving and sight-saving superfood. As it was, countless women and children died or went blind in those intervening years as a result of government-imposed regulatory delays. While that is not a “crime against humanity,” it is nevertheless a modern tragedy. And that is the story told in this book.

Ed Regis is a science writer whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Harper's, Wired, Nature, Discover, and the New York Times, among other publications. He is the author of ten books, including Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood.