Their eyes tell their sad stories as ghostly white irises give way to vacant stares. We can look at them but they can’t look back at us. They’ve gone blind because of malnutrition.
I see these poor people all over India, where I live, but their suffering knows no borders: The problem of vitamin-A deficiency curses dozens of countries in the developing world. It causes visual impairment in millions of people. As many as half a million children go blind each year. Hundreds of thousands die within months of losing their eyesight.
What a heart-rending tragedy.
The good news is that science teaches us how to prevent this crisis. The bad news is that manmade complications keep getting in the way.
The solution is simple: We must commercialize golden rice, a crop that fights the problem of vitamin-A deficiency.
Golden rice gets its name from its yellow color, which comes from beta-carotene, a rich source of vitamin A. Through the innovative technology of genetic modification, scientists have learned how to pack extra beta-carotene into golden rice, promising to improve the quality of life for countless numbers of people.
Just about everybody eats rice, but people in the United States and Europe tend to underestimate the importance of this staple crop in the developing world. An American friend recently asked me about my eating habits in India. I mentioned that I eat rice at lunch and dinner and even at breakfast, often as a pancake-like food called “idli.” Asians consume about 90 percent of all the world’s rice.
In a normal Indian diet, about three-quarters of our calories come from carbohydrates. This is more than ideal, but it’s also a fact of life in a nation that relies on rice—a food that plays an important role in Hindu rituals and whose history traces back to millennia-old Vedic scriptures.
Because of its cultural and economic significance, rice is a perfect delivery mechanism for essential nutrients, and advances in biotechnology have taught us how to put them there. Around the world, scientific organizations and Nobel laureates have confirmed the safety and potential of golden rice.
As a farmer, I know the value of GMOs. They’ve improved my ability to grow cotton, for example. I also recognize the challenges: It takes years of laboratory experiments and field trials before a biotech crop reaches the market.
Golden rice now stands on the threshold of success. Research organizations in the Philippines—a country plagued by vitamin-A deficiency—are seeking the approval of their government to move forward with commercialization. This is an essential step and it would put the Philippines in a position to demonstrate the potential of golden rice to the rest of the world. In the future, millions of people in India and elsewhere would benefit from its pioneering choice.
Yet the Philippines cannot act alone. We live in a global economy. Almost nothing happens in isolation anymore—and so Australia and New Zealand face their own important decision.
There are currently no plans to grow golden rice in Australia or New Zealand, wealthy nations where hunger and malnutrition are almost nonexistent. Yet both countries trade heavily with the Philippines. They also work together on food standards. Because of this, they must adopt regulations that will allow trace amounts of golden rice to show up in the rice they import from the Philippines. If they refuse, they will disrupt Filipino agriculture and smother a life-saving innovation with unprecedented potential.
That would be a tremendous shame. Nobody has anything to fear from golden rice. It’s as safe to eat as any other kind of rice. The only difference between golden rice and conventional rice is the added benefit of biofortification. Rice, our staple food when fortified with Vitamin A will be most effective because it is our routine food. Whether rich or poor, no one will be missed.
We have a remarkable chance to take advantage of a brand-new tool for beating vitamin-A deficiency. Rice farmers like me can not only produce food to drive away hunger, we can also eradicate hidden hunger as well. I believe that gives us a moral obligation to help the children who will go blind without our intervention. Shouldn’t they enjoy the opportunity to live normal lives? Failing to help them is a crime against humanity.
At least that’s how it looks from India, where I see evidence of this symptom of malnutrition in the eyes of children every day as I walk through my village.
I am hopeful that the governments of the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand will see the light—and not deny it to a new generation of doomed children.