'Golden Rice': Who Would Have Thought Something So Dry Could Raise So Much Controversy?
Heated debate over the bioengineering of a type of rice that has come to be called 'golden rice' has been taking place in the past five years. Exploration of the possibilities that would follow the mapping of the rice genome began in response to the huge populations in developing countries that experience vitamin deficiencies; namely, vitamin A. When biotech company, Syngenta, announced that they had mapped the rice genome, a series of activist groups spoke out against a project that was, many argued, politically and financially motivated. This has been a topic of intense debate that I was surprised to find. Developing a kind of rice containing a vitamin that is lacking among large populations seems to be such a great idea. So why does so much controversy surround the project? There are many more disadvantages to the introduction of the new technology than one might anticipate. The following first explores the effects of vitamin a deficiency and then the arguments of the opposition and supporters' responses to it.
Vitamin A is an organic compound that is needed in small amounts in the human body; however a deficiency in this micronutrient can lead to problems and illnesses (3). The vitamin is found naturally in many plant and animal foods in the forms of retinal in animals and carotene in plants (3). Retinal pigments that are very important for night vision are produced by Vitamin A; the vitamin is also important in maintaining the strength of epithelial tissues (5). Without proper amounts of Vitamin A, the outer lining of the eyeball becomes dry and wrinkled, leading to redness and inflammation and, which brings potential of blindness (3). Sources vary, but on average it is believed that as many as two million children die a year due to vitamin A deficiencies and that another 500,000 go blind (2).
It is because of these kinds of numbers that researchers have been searching for ways to bring more vitamin A into foods that are part of the diets of people in at-risk countries, especially in Southeast Asia. A genetically engineered rice, 'golden rice,' has been named one potential solution. Rice is a staple food in most of the countries that have been experiencing numerous health issues due to malnutrition, the greatest deficiencies being of vitamin A. Traditional rice, however, lacks vitamin A; this is largely due to a process called rice polishing that was introduced by The Green Revolution (4). The process involves removing the aleurone layer, because it causes the rice to turn rancid more quickly while being stored (9). 'Golden rice' is meant to return the vitamin A, in the form of pro-vitamin b-carotene, to rice so that the millions of people who rely on it as a major food source gain some nutritional value from it (2).
The concept sounds noble and logical enough. It sounds like a perfect solution to a widespread problem. Why not add vitamin...