Bangladesh is on the verge of making one of the most important decisions in the history of GM crops: It may become the first country to commercialize and grow golden rice.
This miracle crop promises to save lives and prevent blindness in children. Packed with beta carotene in the yellow grains that inspire its name, golden rice holds the potential to wipe out the vitamin-A deficiencies that have caused so much suffering in the developing world.
The toll is enormous: An estimated 1 million people die each year because they don’t have enough vitamin A in their food. Most of them are children. An additional half million people go blind.
I’ve observed poverty, malnutrition and disease up close here in the Philippines, where I’m a farmer who grows corn and rice. More than one in five of my fellow Filipinos lives in dire poverty. The situation is even worse in Bangladesh. Its per-capita GDP is about half of what we enjoy in the Philippines.
Poverty is a root cause of malnutrition and malnutrition gives rise to any number of severe problems with long-term consequences. It can stunt growth in every nightmarish way, from physical stature to mental capacity. In the worse cases, it kills.
The good news is that golden rice would fuel the consumption of vitamin A in poor countries where rice is a staple food. Its regulatory approval would keep people alive and their vision intact. All they’d have to do is keep eating the rice-based meals just like they do today.
Science shows that golden rice is safe. We’ve studied it for two decades. Regulators in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States have accepted it—but hardly anybody in those countries needs golden rice. They get enough vitamin A in their diets so there is no commercial market.
The situation is different in Asia. Over here, golden rice would help hundreds of millions of people in countries such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Bangladesh and the Philippines also would benefit, which is why scientists in our two countries have studied golden rice and pushed for its commercialization. I’ve tried to do my small part as well, writing on behalf of golden rice here and here.
Several weeks ago, word got out that Bangladesh would make an important announcement about golden rice on November 15. Anticipating its regulatory approval, media around the world prepared its coverage. Would Bangladesh indeed become the first developing nation to accept this GMO? Would other countries then follow its example, approving the crop for their own farmers to grow and consumers to eat?
Yet November 15 came and went without an announcement. Perhaps a decision will arrive next week, or maybe next month. We just don’t know.
We remain right where we’ve been, stuck in the maddening limbo of recognizing a bad problem, knowing a specific solution, and doing nothing.
The reasons behind Bangladesh’s delay are unclear, but it’s easy to speculate about the political pressures its policymakers face. Here in the Philippines, poorly informed environmental activists destroyed a golden-rice testing site in 2013. Beholden to an ideology that refuses to tolerate scientific inquiry, they launched a violent attack on a tool that can fight malnutrition—and their extreme tactics unfortunately have succeeded in delaying the approval of golden rice.
I’ve planted GM corn on my farm for years. I prefer these crops because they’ve protected my crops from pests that would have destroyed it, allowing me to grow more food on less land. That’s good for the environment as well as the food security of my country. It’s also good for me as a farmer. The extra income has helped me pay for the education of my children.
I’d love to have the opportunity to plant golden rice—and I’m hoping that an approval in Bangladesh would lead to an approval in the Philippines.
A new book by Ed Regis—a science writer with a doctorate in philosophy—makes a persuasive case for this innovative crop. “The effects of withholding, delaying, or retarding golden rice development through overcautious regulation has imposed unconscionable costs in terms of sight and lives lost,” he writes in “Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
It’s time to stop the suffering and take up golden rice. I’m hopeful Bangladesh does the right thing and shows us the way.