GM Free Cymru

Golden Rice Project shoots itself in the foot -- yet again

Was there ever a more accident-prone high-powered pro-GM campaign in history? One fiasco after another. The latest one all started with a gratuitous and poorly-researched puff for the Golden Rice campaign by the Oberver's Science Editor, Robin McKie, on 2nd February. It was entitled: "After 30 years, is a GM food breakthrough finally here?" and was so full of bias and basic errors that it was all rather embarrassing. McKie was probably briefed by Adrian Dubock and then heavily (obsessively?) supported in the following discussion by a Canadian biotechnologist called Robert Wager. Then, on 15th February, another article appeared on the web, entitled "A Golden Rice Opportunity" and written by a Dane called Bjorn Lomberg. This was even more extreme and biased, and attracted pretty heavy criticism from readers of the blog site called "Project Syndicate." Lomberg might know a lot about political science, but he does not know much about Golden Rice, and it shows.

That might have been that, but suddenly the IRRI found it necessary to issue a rebuttal of these two articles, as copied below. This is a very strange development, which must be quite unsettling for the Golden Rice Project and the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, which are both utterly dependent upon the goodwill of IRRI. Bill Gates is probably not best pleased either, having pumped millions of dollars into the Golden Rice coffers over a good many years.

But this is by no means the first time that the Golden Rice people have shot themselves in the feet......

** Right from the beginning, the Golden Rice campaign has contained more hype than substance, with great stress placed on the near-miraculous manner in which the "Vitamin A deficiency" of large parts of the global population would be addressed through the beta-carotene component in the rice, once it is incorporated into the daily diet of millions of people. This was supposed to solve not only widespread general health problems but in particular the problem of blindness, which is one of the manifestations of Vitamin A deficiency. However, many observers pointed out that in order to obtain an efficacious dose of beta carotene and Vitamin A, consumers would have to consume several kilos of this rice every day, and consume virtually nothing else in their diets. In any case, this problem could be addressed much more cheaply and easily by introducing other vegetables into the diets of poor people, or even by giving Vitamin A supplements in tablet form. Later versions of golden rice have had higher concentrations of beta carotene, but the essential absurdity of addressing Vitamin A deficiency problems through this "dietary technofix" still remains.

** The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board has never been prepared to admit in its publicity materials that their miracle product is a GM variety which MIGHT be dangerous to those who consume it because, like other GM varieties, it contains novel proteins created in the GM breeding process. We have no idea whether the body can absorb and deal with these proteins or not. Golden Rice has never been characterised properly in the specialist literature, and the Project managers have steadfastly refused to conform to regulatory procedures on the pretext that their product is "substantially equivalent" to ordinary rice. Many NGOs have commented on this tactic, noting that the Humanitarian Board is seeking to use golden rice as a "philanthropic Trojan Horse" by which a full-blown GM basic food crop for direct human consumption can be pumped into the global food supply chain without any effective controls, checks and balances. The problem of perception could be dealt with easily by the Humanitarian Board by commissioning animal feeding experiments and reporting on them; but it maintains its arrogant and secretive stance, making matters worse by accusing its critics of contributing to the unnecessary deaths of millions of poor starving peasants.

** The idea that Golden Rice is being "given to the world" as a grand humanitarian gesture, with the high-profile support of the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, is a scam -- as realised by many observers even in the early days of the project. Syngenta owns the patents and the commercial rights in Golden Rice. It is not "giving away" the technology but sub-licensing it with very specific conditions. The only farmers entitled to use the technology without charge are those earning less than $10,000 per year from farming. Any larger farmers, and any trading of the Golden Rice or cross-bred varieties containing the Golden Rice traits, would be subject to agreements, conditions and royalties levied by Syngenta. Syngenta gives no warranties relating to safety or nutritional quality, and expressly states it will accept no liabilities or costs arising from the breeding, growing or consumption of the rice crop. So Syngenta keeps ownership, spreads the financial risk, accepts no liability, undermines the regulatory system, puts moral pressure on those who stand in the way of its ambitions, and still stands to make a killing if anybody (other than a small farmer) grows any Golden Rice hybrid in the future. Many NGOs have pointed this out, but the Humanitarian Board persists with its lies about Golden Rice being the product of a grant philanthropic gesture.

** As far as we know, no toxicology testing has ever been conducted on Golden Rice, using the standard protocols with rats or other small mammals. So it CANNOT simply be assumed that Golden Rice is safe for human beings to consume. In spite of this, clinical trials involving both children and adults were conducted in 2004-2005 under the auspices of Tufts University in the USA. Other trials around the same time were conducted on sick children in China, and there were further trials involving both healthy and sick children in the USA in 2009. Details of these trials are difficult to obtain, since they were surrounded by secrecy and evasion by both the research teams and the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. Nonetheless, when it became clear that the conduct of these trials involved major breaches of the medical ethics code, a stiff letter of protest signed by 22 senior scientists was sent to Tufts University and published on the web.

** Quite undeterred by that fiasco, the Golden Rice research teams then went and did it all again, in a manner that was even more crass. The Tufts University team went ahead and published the results of a 2008 feeding trial, involving Chinese children, in August 2012. Press releases went out to the global news agencies. But this tub-thumping immediately triggered an investigation in China, where the Tufts University team and Chinese colleagues were heavily criticised for using poor Chinese children for unethical tests, without informing their parents that the Golden Rice used was a GM variety which has never been tested for toxicity. Indeed, at least one of the children is reported to have fallen ill following the feeding trial. Three Chinese officials were sacked for "for violating regulations, scientific ethics and academic integrity" -- but it is not known what sanctions have been imposed on Guangwen Tang, the lead researcher of the Tufts University team. Whatever the truth of the matter, even the august "Nature" journal admitted that there had been lies, evasion and obsessive secrecy involved, and that this was a PR disaster for the Golden Rice Project. Tufts University found that it even had an international diplomatic spat to deal with -- as well as having to deal with the attentions of the global news media.

** And then we have the latest fiasco, with new articles (no doubt published with the encouragement and active assistance of Adrian Dubock of the Golden Rice Project) extolling the wonders of Golden Rice and laying into those who have the temerity to ask serious questions about the product itself and the motives of its promoters. For the authors of these articles to be publicly rebuked on the IRRI web site is a carefully calculated rebuff for the Golden Rice Project.

Could it be that with major concerns now arising in both China and the Philippines about the manner in which this project is being run, the writing is on the wall......? Not a moment too early, you might say, after more than a decade of secrecy, media manipulation and hype, at vast expense, with nothing to show for it.

Statement from IRRI: Clarifying recent news about Golden Rice

Date: 21 February 2013

In February, two major stories about Golden Rice appeared in The Guardian and Project Syndicate, sparking a number of other articles. They describe the long history of Golden Rice development and note its important potential contribution to addressing vitamin A deficiency.

While we join others in hoping that Golden Rice will soon be found to be safe and efficacious so that it can be put to use to help some of the most vulnerable people suffering from vitamin A deficiency, we want to clear up two potential misunderstandings.

First, we've seen statements that "In a few months, golden rice… will be given to farmers in the Philippines for planting in the paddy fields," and "Finally, 'golden rice' with vitamin A will be grown in the Philippines." A few headlines indicate that Golden Rice is approved in the Philippines.

In fact, Golden Rice will not be available for planting by farmers in the Philippines or any other country in the next few months, or even this year.

The Philippine Rice Research Institute, in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute and other partners, have recently finished two seasons of field trials in the Philippines, but this doesn't mean that Golden Rice is now ready for planting by farmers. Data from these trials must next be submitted to Philippine government regulators for their evaluation as part of the biosafety approval process.

Secondly, the lead for the one story describes Golden Rice as "a new strain that boosts vitamin A levels and reduces blindness in developing countries."

It's true that human nutrition research indicates that the beta carotene in Golden Rice is readily converted to vitamin A in the body, providing encouraging evidence that eating Golden Rice could help reduce vitamin A deficiency.

However, it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness. If Golden Rice is approved by national regulators, Helen Keller International and university partners will conduct a controlled community study to ascertain if eating Golden Rice every day improves vitamin A status.

In short, Golden Rice will only be made available broadly to farmers and consumers in the Philippines if it is approved by national regulators and shown to reduce vitamin A deficiency in community conditions. This process may take another two years or more.

In the meantime, we're grateful for all the interest and support!

Links to recent stories about Golden Rice:

"After 30 years, is a GM food breakthrough finally here?" by Robin McKie, The Guardian

"A Golden Rice Opportunity," by Bjørn Lomborg, Project Syndicate

================================= The Golden Rice missionaries

Sunday, 10 February 2013 14:49

NOTE: The following letter, which hasn't been published, was sent to The Observer about last Sunday's article by Robin McKie, "After 30 years, is a GM food breakthrough finally here?".

McKie has always been staunchly pro-GM and the limitations of his journalism are reflected in his reference in the article to "Mark Lynas... one of the founders of the anti-GM crop movement." Dubock, who seems to have been McKie's source, used to work for Syngenta.

The Golden Rice Missionaries -- blind faith, and not much science

Robin McKie's gratuitous puff for GM crops in general and Golden Rice in particular continues your newspaper's GM campaign, which I am at a loss to understand. McKie has simply regurgitated the material fed to him by Adrian Dubock and the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, and he appears not to have done any of the research which we have a right to expect from a senior journalist.

He fails to understand that the key reason for the global opposition to Golden Rice is that the developers have never even tried to demonstrate that it is safe to eat. They never publicise the fact that it is a GM product. It is being used as a Trojan Horse by which a GM staple crop can be pushed into the global food supply chain without any regulatory control.

As far as I know, the GM rice has never undergone any toxicology testing on either animals or human beings. (If such tests have been done, we do not know about them, and neither do the food regulators.) In other words, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board is seeking to bypass established procedure with regard to GM crops for tactical and commercial reasons. That might not scare Robin McKie, but it sure as hell scares me -- since I am quite convinced from a growing peer-reviewed literature that some -- and maybe all -- GM crops induce chronic toxic effects in mammals when they are consumed.

McKie seems to share the synthetic outrage of Dubock and others about the PR disaster associated with the testing of Golden Rice on Chinese children. It was a fiasco entirely of their own making, linked to the ongoing lie that Golden Rice is just an "ordinary" rice with enhanced beta-carotene in it. Would McKie like to have had his own children involved in a highly secretive feeding experiment if they and he had been kept in the dark about how the plant had been bred, and about the fact that it had never undergone any prior toxicology testing? Some years ago I was one of 32 scientists who took the Golden Rice Project and Tufts University to task for an earlier round of feeding trials which were equally secretive and equally dishonest.

For our pains, Dubock referred to us as "degenerately immoral" and as "a failed bunch of cranks." That was very entertaining, but McKie has been around for quite long enough to know that those who promote Golden Rice are campaigning zealots who appear to have very little interest in sharing their science -- such as it is -- with the rest of the scientific community.

Brian John Newport, Pembrokeshire