A March 7, 2013 piece on Morning Edition, the morning news program from National Public Radio, raised a lot of questions. “In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods” told the story of golden rice, a beautiful yellow rice enhanced with beta-carotene, or Vitamin A. This rice was ostensibly developed to be grown in developing countries, where foods high in Vitamin A either are uncommon or are expensive. This was the single most important modification to rice suggested many years ago by Peter Jennings, a legendary rice breeder.
A lot of discussion involves how this might benefit children in many developing nations and how evil corporations (my term) are in this only for the money. The piece touches on the concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) affecting unmodified crops, but much of the piece focuses on the fact that this rice was tested in China, and neither those in the test group nor those in the control group were notified about the “risks” of eating this modified rice.
Testing in China continues to have issues; China simply does not have the same recent sensitivity to informed consent, among other rights. That raises a problem for both the company sponsoring the test and for the subjects of the test. But that does not condemn the product.
What this article probably demonstrates more than anything is a continuing ignorance about many factors in GMOs. Genetically modified foods are not inherently evil. They are improving nutrition and yields in many parts of the world.
They usually do sell at a premium, which makes them more expensive for poor farmers. Developing these foods costs a lot. The companies that develop them take that risk. Those companies, of course, expect to receive something for that.
GMOs also can contaminate unmodified crops if they produce pollen that is not contained. Many countries ban or tightly control GMOs, including many countries in the EU. Companies producing these GMOs are working to reduce this perceived risk.
I find it frustrating that both the opponents and the press do not try to “separate the wheat from the chaff” in this. The reality is that we have been genetically modifying both plants and animals for thousands of years. In the past, we did it by selective breeding. Now we use more scientific methods, including combining traits of different species of plant, so-called “Frankenfoods.” But this different method often leads to sophistry. Some of these products do have little benefit and high risk, but some GMOs seem to have virtually no downside. Golden rice may be such a product. Test it, yes, and test it fairly. Label it, if you must. Find ways to restrict it to the places you plant it. But don’t condemn a positive development only because science was used to develop it, or because someone may profit from it. That helps no one.