Genetically modified food has been the object of extensive criticism by many, including in the pages of this magazine. Here is a different perspective. –The Editors
The technology that creates genetically modified organisms (GMOs)–for example, corn with built-in insecticide–has aroused opposition from much of the left equal in intensity to that induced by sweatshop labor and racism. Does GMO technology warrant this reflexive rejection, or can it make a contribution to human welfare?
Products that contribute little or nothing to improving human welfare do not justify taking even a small risk. Who needed bovine growth hormone? Does anyone really care that engineering an increase in potato starch content makes better potato chips? But GMO technology can also address extremely important issues. For example, the ravages of severe vitamin A deficiency among poor children, especially in Southeast Asia, annually results in the death of several million children and blindness in 250,000, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Work aimed at contributing to amelioration of this nutritional deficiency has resulted in the widely publicized “golden rice.” By adding two plant genes and one bacterial gene, this genetically modified variety allows beta carotene to be synthesized in the edible portion of rice, rather than primarily in its leaves. Beta carotene, whose main dietary source is deeply colored fruits and vegetables, is converted by humans to vitamin A. If society were to eliminate poverty so that families could afford a balanced, nutritious diet, there would be less need for attempting to fortify rice. But since that will not happen soon, surely improving the beta carotene content of rice is worth diligent effort.
Despite the apparent altruistic motive in developing golden rice, the anti-GMO movement has vigorously attacked the project and succeeded in influencing public debate. For example, in a March 4 New York Times Magazine essay, Michael Pollan concludes that golden rice is no more than a poster boy for biotech companies. This is ironic since the work was supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds with the commitment that golden rice would, in the words of Ingo Potrykus, a lead scientist on the project, “reach subsistence farmers free of charge and restrictions.”
Whether golden rice can make a positive contribution to health depends on the answers to a series of questions. But these involve empirical, not ideological, issues. Among them: Will poor Southeast Asians be able and willing to buy or grow golden rice? How much beta carotene will golden rice supply and with what efficiency can malnourished children convert it to vitamin A? Will the plausible three- to fivefold increase in beta carotene content be realized as the result of further research? And, as important, what impact might a product like golden rice have on the structure of agriculture, and how might those structural changes affect the rural poor?