Monday, March 28, 2005

How convenient

This may have been a coincidence, but if so it sure is a lucky one for the Frankenfood industry. Just days after genetically-modified foods were found to have failed another test of their environmental safety, comes news via the BBC that
UK scientists have developed a new genetically modified strain of "golden rice", producing more beta-carotene.

The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, and this strain produces around 20 times as much as previous varieties.
Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness in developing nations, affecting, by World Health Organization estimates, 250,000-500,000 children every year, half of who subsequently die within a year. When so-called "golden rice" (because the extra beta-carotene gives it a characteristic yellow-gold color) was first introduced in 2000, it was actively promoted by the GM industry as a godsend for the world's poor - maybe you, along with me, remember the proliferation of ads touting the rice as "proof" of what gene-splicing could do for humanity.

It quickly became clear, though, that this was corporate PR, not science. For example, it turned out that to get sufficient Vitamin A, an adult woman would have to eat 16 pounds of cooked golden rice per day; a child would need to eat 12 pounds. What's more,
[i]n order to absorb beta carotene, the human body requires adequate amounts of zinc, protein and fats, elements often lacking in the diets of poor people. Those with diarrhea - common in developing countries - are also unable to obtain vitamin A from golden rice.
By February of 2004, the Beeb was calling the promise of golden rice a "mirage."
The genes for beta-carotene are already present in conventional rice.

It is just that they do not work as well in the "natural" varieties as in the novel version.

Beyond that though, poorly-fed people are unlikely to be able to absorb beta-carotene even when they eat golden rice. To use it, they need a diverse diet, including green leafy vegetables.

But the sorts of vegetables people used to be able to find have declined in number as the green revolution of the 60s and 70s emphasised monocultures of new varieties.

Household consumption of vegetables in India has fallen by 12% in two decades.
And now, just like before, and just at a moment the future of GM foods had hit another wall, we have the "New! Improved!" rice that, just like before, is going to save the world from blindness, even though, just like before, the related nutritional issues are unaddressed, and the seed for which, just like before, is being offered for free for field trials by the biotechnology corporation that designed it.

In this case, the company is Syngenta, a Swiss-based multinational pressing ahead on a variety of GM crops. It's not necessary to wonder if Syngenta's motives are altruistic or just for public-image buffing: They are neither. The purpose is good, old-fashioned greed. A couple of years ago Syngenta was pushing Japan for permission to introduce a different GM rice there.
The rice has been modified to remove a protein responsible for allergic reactions and is being aimed at kidney dialysis patients in Asia who cannot eat normal rice because of an intolerance to the cereal's high protein content. Michael Pragnell chief executive of Syngenta talking about the GM rice said:

"It's a niche market, but it's a latch-lifter, the regulators either have to become less fastidious or deny benefits to patients. We are pursuing these markets not because we will make a fortune, but because it will introduce some regulatory tension."
It was, in a different cliche, the camel's nose under the tent, simply a means to pry open the market. I see absolutely no reason to imagine their intent here is a whit different.

BBC closes its report on the new strain with this:
Some agricultural experts and environmental groups say aiming for a balanced diet across the board would be a better solution.

But it is the first concrete evidence that GM technology can produce crops aimed at solving the pressing problems of the developing world, rather than increasing the profits of western biotechnology companies.
An argument which is, yet again, just like before. Which leaves me saying, just like before, when will we learn?

Footnote: Notice, too, that part of the cause of the lack of a balanced diet is that "the green revolution of the 60s and 70s emphasized monocultures of new varieties." The "green revolution," intended to reduce hunger, has not only trapped many developing nations in a cycle of dependence on Western technologies to make efficient use of the seeds, it has also encouraged monoculture and through that increased the risk of blindness among the same people it was intended to help. The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again.

One last thing on this: Dr. Norman Borlaug, often called the "father" of the "green revolution," has been both praised and damned for it. He himself, while certainly a supporter of technology, took more of a middle path. In a speech in 1970,
Dr. Borlaug expressed his social views as follows: "I've worked with wheat, but wheat is merely a catalyst, a part of the picture. I'm interested in the total economic development in all countries. Only by attacking the whole problem can we raise the standard of living for all people in all communities, so that they will be able to live decent lives. This is something we wish for all people on this planet."
In another context, he said that the "green revolution" would not solve the problems of hunger and resource depletion, only that it would give us, he suggested, a few more decades in which to act.

That time has run out and instead of being a catalyst for further change, the "green revolution" quickly became an excuse to avoid it. When, when, when will we learn that what puts more control in the hands of corporations will do us no good if we don't control those corporations?

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