The GMO Cornucopia: The half-truths and hyperbole swirling around Golden Rice

Genetically modified organisms elicit visceral responses from people. It’s one of those topics that seems to have departed the realm of the rational for permanent residence in the Looney Land. Accusations, innuendo, and outright threats have replaced civil discourse and even when advocates on both sides manage to not scream, they speak at each other. They’re only interested in proving their point.

I’m actually indifferent to GMOs. If I’m wearing a shirt made of genetically modified cotton, I won’t throw a fit. If my shorts are made of humanely and organically grown cotton, I might feel a tinge of pride but I certainly won’t humble brag about them. Same goes for my food. And while, yes, I am writing in a science-centered blog, I’m not pro-dying-early so if there’s a evidence of a real threat of harm, I won’t be burying data. I’m not gallant enough for self-sacrifice just to prove a point. Being wrong is fine with me. Sometimes, it’s even healthy.

The first time I really took notice of the debate swirling around GMOs came while living on a farm in the Philippines. The head of the household was a 75-year old rice farmer who woke up at 4AM everyday and spent ten to twelve hours a day tending to his crops under the most brutal, tropical sun imaginable. Naturally, it had me thinking about food staple. I was also looking to write a positive story about the country amidst a disheartening local war on drugs that was killing hundreds of people by the week. I scoured my brain and the internet (the handful of hours a day it was actually working) for ideas. Eventually, I found my story. It was about a new breed of rice called Golden Rice and it was being developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) down in Los Baños.

The IRRI is one of the most famous international operations in the Philippines, along with the Asian Development Bank. During the 1960s, rice shortages plagued countries like India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. In response, international money — mostly from the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation — poured into agricultural research with the aim of using modern scientific tools to address an urgent problem. (We’ll avoid the geopolitical intentions and implications of a new, technologically advanced rice for the time being.) They even constructed a brand new complex in Los Baños designed by a world-famous architect.

Eventually, a rice breed called IR-8 — dubbed “miracle rice” — emerged from the institute, and for a brief moment in history, it appeared as if the world’s hunger problems could be solved. Historically rice importing countries like the Philippines became net exporters almost over night. It was a seminal moment in what would come to be known as the Green Revolution. Its legacy, however, would be plagued by controversy.

Golden Rice belongs to the same tradition as IR8, only in this case biotechnology coaxes rice into producing vitamin A rather than increasing yield. It was first conceptualized by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg.

According to the Golden Rice Project:

“The search for a Golden Rice started off as a Rockefeller Foundation initiative in 1982. After years of research by various research groups, a meeting of experts was convened in New York in 1992. There, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer met for the first time, and subsequently decided to embark on the project that would lead to the development of Golden Rice in 1999.”

In 2000, the new breed was formally introduced to the scientific community in the journal, Science. In 2004, Louisiana State University conducted the first field trials of GR and the IRRI eventually assumed the mantle for further developing the crop. It didn’t take long for it to earn the ire of anti-GMO and environmental activists such as Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva. Unlike its biotechnological antecedent, Golden Rice struggled to make it onto the market, cursed by low-yields that made its production unrealistic. That reality did not stop it from being one of the most hotly debated agricultural products never to be grown.

There’s only one way to describe people’s reaction to Golden Rice. Trigger. The name alone elicits destructive emotions. Walls go up without fail. It almost demands parties take sides and defend their position regardless of and irrespective of evidence. It’s a three-ring circus featuring performers whose primary talent lies in speaking out both sides of their mouths. When it comes to Golden Rice, hyperbole and half-truths are the name of the game.

Of the groups critical of the genetically modified rice, Greenpeace has been the most vocal (as you’d expect from an organization whose core strategy involves screaming IN ITS MANY FORMS!!!!). There’s no bend to their bamboo and they’re willing to employ intellectual vandalism to achieve their goals. They’re also more than happy engage in scaremongering that would make an anti-vaxxer committee proud.

Per the Greenpeace Philippines website,

“Greenpeace opposes the release of GE crops, including GE ‘Golden’ rice, into the environment. GE crops are prone to unexpected effects which can pose a risk to environmental and food safety. GE ‘Golden’ rice has long been a poster child for the GE crop industry in an attempt to gain acceptance of GE crops worldwide. However, using GE crops to try to solve problems of malnutrition is simply the wrong approach, and a risky distraction away from real solutions.

GE ‘Golden’ rice does not address the underlying causes of VAD, which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a healthy and varied diet. This GE rice is a technological fix that may generate new problems. For example, the single-crop approach of GE ‘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.”

This official statement illustrates a common strategy that entails framing the potential effects of GR only in terms of negative outcomes, willfully ignoring any possibility not in line with their agenda. To say that GE crops are “prone to unexpected effects” is to say nothing but sounds logical. Specifics count. What’s more, painting with broad, ambiguous, all-encompassing brush strokes like posing “a risk to environmental and food safety” makes it hard to refute. Of course, that’s not the point. Discourse isn’t the objective. Neither is persuasion. It’s all about screaming and not listening.

Greenpeace also falls back on making dubious statements that insinuate a stance among reasonable advocates (though perhaps not Golden Rice evangelists) such as the laughable statement, “For example, the single-crop approach of GE ‘Golden’ rice could make malnutrition worse because it encourages a diet based solely on rice.” I don’t think anyone in their right mind is promoting a diet consisting of rice and only rice. (Even the Monsanto/Bayern of the world want people eating the rest of their products, right?) Golden Rice is just a tool in a wide arsenal, but if you listened to characterizations by anti-GMO activists, you’d never guess it. Again, it’s just a tactic meant to stifle discourse.

So where did all the sky-is-falling rhetoric lead? A physical attack on a rice field in IRRI by local anti-GMO activists. As per the New York Times, “One bright morning this month, 400 protesters smashed down the high fences surrounding a field in the Bicol region of the Philippines and uprooted the genetically modified rice plants growing inside.”

The stunt smacked of desperation since resorting to physical violence reflects an incompetence on the part of the attacker, as anyone who has ever had an argument can attest. It was the nadir of intellectual discourse, if ever there was one. But hey, the activists made their point and, more importantly for world-saving narcissists, they made the news.

Golden Rice advocates were in the prime position of winning over the public. The stunt turnout out to be an own-goal.

In general, the public’s wariness over genetically modified crops appears to be waning. Just look at food superhero, Michael Pollan, who recently conceded that some GMOs may not be the poison anti-GMO activists said it was.

Unfortunately, GR advocates are pissing away an opportunity they may never get again. How? By engaging in the same, harmful hyperbole and half-truths their opponents utilize unabashedly. Rather than allow the growing Golden Rice literature to speak for itself, advocates have transformed the tiny orange seeds into the malnutrition cure to end all ailments. Pollyanna here they come.

Measles? No problem.

Tuberculosis? Got that covered too.

I mean why bother taking any medicine or seeing a doctor when all you need to do is ingest some Golden Rice?

Mind you, this is from the “Golden Rice Humanitarian Board” website. If you thought a group of scientists would be able to exercise some self-restraint, you’d be so wrong you’d almost be right. Again, hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims appears to be the tactic of choice. (And if you are going to believe the argument that since vitamin A strengthens the immune system, it’s obvious that it will protect against disease, there’s not much hope. It just doesn’t hold until it’s been tested and retested.)

It only gets worse with these people. In perhaps the most disingenuous piece of free association, GR advocates wave the intellectual dishonesty wand as if they were conducting an orchestra.

Again from the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board website,

“The 2016 World Food Prize has been awarded to the group of scientists who have tirelessly worked on breeding and introducing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes [OFSP] to Africa and thus benefitting millions of people, especially children, who are most susceptible to a lack of provitamin A…

The outcome of this project calls for rapid introduction and adoption of a number of biofortified crops, like Golden Rice, biofortified bananas, cassava, sorghum, and other crops rich in other micronutrients like iron and zinc, which would address other major, widely spread nutritional deficiencies.”

A quick fact check shows they were being on the level when they stated that the World Food Prize was awarded to the scientists responsible for the production and adoption of OFSP in Africa. However, associating Golden Rice with OFSP is a bit of a stretch. A deeper dig shows that OFSP was produced using standard breeding techniques. Beta-keratin producing sweet potatoes exist in nature. The scientists improved the product; they didn’t invent it from scratch. Golden Rice is different and it’s the “difference” that freaks people out. It’s the genetically-modified bit that makes the luddites see red. Glossing over that fact is just intellectually dishonest. Obviously, GR advocates were trying to absorb some of that shine coming from the sweet potato people. Smacks of desperation, as well, if you ask me.

I used Golden Rice as an introduction to this series on GMO safety because it perfectly encapsulates the general discussion. If it all seems very messy and confusing, don’t feel bad because it is. It’s hard to keep up with the dubious claims and disingenuous counter-claims. (There are many more examples than I discussed here.) Everyone tried so hard to muddy the water that now nobody can even see through the glass.

And that is why we’ve chosen to focus on one, single claim regarding GM food. So that we can have even a little clarity on a limited subject. In our eyes, it’s a start. The literature is out there, it just takes time to sift through it. And who’s got time these days?

Can GMOs kill you? That’s what our series “The GMO Cornucopia” will try to address. Health concerns regarding genetically modified foods seem to be the most common criticism and elicits the strongest responses. Rightly so. Food is something we literally internalize and incorporate into our bodies.

Rather than dismiss the terrifying and unforgettable images of tumor-riddled rats who had been fed GM corn that did the rounds a few years ago, we will embrace it as our starting point. The images spoke to something deep in our subconscious. A wariness of science. It affirmed what we implicitly believed we knew. GMOs destroy your body.

But do they?

Over the course of this long series, we’ll find out.

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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