An Analysis of the Dangers and Health Benefits from the Consumption of Golden Rice

This is a research essay that I originally posted on LinkedIn and Researchgate. It is a long read but I hope you find it useful and insightful.


Introduction


Rice is one of the chief foods produced and consumed around the world with over 481.21 million metric tons of rice consumed each year (Statista, 2015). Even though the availability of rice is high, vitamin deficiency continues to plague underdeveloped and at-risk populations (Gain, 2015). Vitamin A deficiency, in particular, affects 33% of impoverished people globally (WHO, 2009). A lack of sufficient vitamin A can be quite serious as it can cause blindness in children, weaken immune systems, and can also affect developmental growth (Johnson, L, 2009). According to Black, et al (2008), 670,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from Vitamin A deficiency.


A solution to reduce the risk of vitamin deficiencies has been to fortify foods, usually artificially, to provide the nutrients that a body needs for good health. Honein, et al, 2001, produced a study showing how fortifying the US grain supply with Folic acid helped reduce incidences of neural tube defects by 19%. Studies like Honein’s paved the way to show that it is possible to improve the health of millions via the addition of nutritive supplementation.

In 2000, researchers, led by Igor Potrykus, produced the first viable rice plant with genes that are able to produce beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A) in the endosperm (Al-Babili, Ye, et al, 2001). The pathway to create beta-carotene was already present in rice but the gene sequence was turned-off. In order to turn these pathways back on, researchers inserted two genes, a plant phytoene synthase from daffodils (psy) and a bacterial phytoene desaturase (crt I). The result was a rice grain with a yellowish hue dubbed, Golden Rice (Gold Rice Project, n.d.).


In 2005, scientists improved upon the biological mechanisms that produce beta-carotene by creating a species that was able to produce more beta-carotene than the original Golden Rice. Researchers hypothesized that the daffodil version of the psy gene was limiting the synthesizing of beta-carotene. They replaced the daffodil psy gene with a corn variety and the results were a 23-fold increase in carotenoid production with much of it being beta-carotene (Paine, Shipton, et. al, 2005). This rice has been dubbed, Golden Rice 2, but the public is mostly unaware of the evolution of Golden Rice.


Reversing the public’s misunderstanding of science continues to challenge scientists and educators. A recent poll reported that 57% of respondents believe that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), are generally unsafe to eat (PewResearch, 2015). It probably isn’t clear to the general public how plant modifications are taking place and some even view it as interfering with the natural order of things (Meyer, n.d.). There are thousands of anti-GMO websites instilling fear in their readers about the negative consequences on human health by allowing the proliferation of GMOs (Greenpeace, n.d.). These groups tend to disregard any GMO. They are considered bad no matter the species and no matter the scientific evidence to the contrary.

Despite the success of genetically modified foods over the millennia, the general public still views genetically modified foods as dangerous (Langer, 2015) and over 90% of Americans believe that GMOs should be labeled as such (Kopicki, 2013). Why does the public have these views? What does the science actually say?

Literature Review

Health complications without dietary Vitamin A have been empirically demonstrated; and thus, the health benefits of adequate vitamin A is conclusive (Black, et al, 2008). But does Golden Rice provide enough Vitamin A? Some groups have argued that it would take a consumer eating 3 to 12 times the amount of Golden Rice to receive an adequate dose of Vitamin A (GreenPeace, 2005). This claim has been debunked by a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing the serol levels of retinol (the converted form of Vitamin A in the body) was more than adequate after ingesting Golden Rice for 30 days (Tang, Qin, et al, 2009 & Vitamin A, n.d.). In another study conducted on 68 children in Hunan Province, China, Golden Rice was proven to be more effective in delivering Vitamin A over Spinach and Vitamin A oil in capsules (Tang, Hu, et al, 2012).

In a study on the allergenic properties of Golden Rice 2, it was determined that the proteins introduced into the rice did not increase any chance of allergic reaction (Goodman and Wise, 2006):


“Results from the three search methods or strategies were negative, that is the criteria for suspected cross-reactivity were not reached. This demonstrated that there is not suspected to be any significant risk of cross-reactivity for those who are allergic to known allergies. In fact, based on these results, it would not be possible to identify allergic individuals who would be at a heightened risk.”

Longitudinal Positive Studies

The review of literature didn’t produce any long-term studies regarding the health impacts of at-risk populations consuming Golden Rice. One reason asserted is because organizations such as Greenpeace instill fear in the public and put pressure on government organizations to not allow Golden Rice crops (AllowGoldenRiceNow.org, n.d.). Greenpeace has also been accused of organizing youth activist groups to destroy test crops (Lynas, 2013). Government fears, uber-strict regulations, destruction of test crops, and disinformation by activists are believed to be the main reason why Golden Rice has not been able to launch successfully and provide the much-needed data to win public hearts and minds.


Despite this drawback, there are studies on GMOs in general that may not reflect long-term health analyses, but they reflect positively on the technology. The result of a study in 2014 concluded that Genetically Modified Crops have reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68% (Klümper and Qaim, 2014). As pesticide overuse and increasing food yields safely are a concern of anti-GMO groups, this study directly addresses some of those concerns.

Negative Studies

After an exhaustive search within google scholar and Clemson university library resources, there hasn’t been found any peer-reviewed studies revealing any evidence that GMO Rice is bad for public consumption. Most of the arguments against Golden Rice, and GMOs in particular, are precautionary and/or fear-based (Greenpeace, n.d.). If any resources or studies make any scientific claims, the studies have been proven flawed, poorly designed, or just don’t exist (Katiraee, 2015). None of the alleged studies uncovered have been peer-reviewed by any independent scientific organization.


One headline read, “New Study Links GMOs to Gluten Disorders That Affect 18 Million Americans”. There is no scientific of peer-reviewed study supporting this claim. The headline appears to come from an anti-GMO activist website, the Institute for Responsible Technology, which has no scientific resources available to test this claim.

A study by Aziz and LeBlanc claimed that insecticide metabolites were found in women and fetal tissue (Aziz and LeBlanc, 2011). It was later discovered that an unreliable assay was used to detect these metabolites and the paper itself was not peer-reviewed.

In another popular study used by anti-GMO groups, Spisák, et al, 2013, reported that complete DNA sequences from GMO’s may pass into bloodstream. This report fails to mention that any food you eat may pass genes into your bloodstream, not just GMOs. In fact, this is normal.


One potential blow to GMOs was a study published by Séralini, Clair, et al, 2012, in which he stated that rats fed GMO corn developed significant maladies including cancer. This report led to some governments halting the use of GMOs. The report was later retracted as it was later challenged by scientists on many fronts from sample size, to the ethical treatment of the rats, to the kind of rats used (some species are simply more prone to cancer). The paper was re-published in 2014 without peer-review.


One of the more compelling studies concerning the risk of GMOs is the compound glyphosate that is found in Roundup Ready crops. Glyphosphate is an herbicide designed to control weeds. Roundup Ready crops can resist the effects of glyphosate and grow in conditions were competitor species cannot proliferate. The concern then is that Roundup Ready crops may accumulate glyphosate in levels that may be toxic to humans. A study conducted in 2013 showed that breast cancer cells may be able to proliferate in the presence of glyphosate (Thongprakaisang, 2013). The study doesn't indicate that it causes cancer, but this was enough to perpetuate the idea that it possibly does cause cancer. Activist and media groups fed upon this fear (Charles, 2015).


Other claims found on the internet against GMOs are that they contribute to: birth defects, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and inflammation. None of these sites contained supporting data nor links to peer-reviewed studies that support their claims. Most are from anti-GMO websites and are not from reputable scientific sources.


One researcher has concerns that in our zeal to eliminate Vitamin A deficiency that improper uptake of Vitamin A could result. She argues that the intake of Vitamin A from such supplement programs should be closely monitored to prevent overdosing (Tanumihardjo, 2014). Research shows however that as Golden Rice doesn’t actually have vitamin A in it, that this isn’t a concern. Golden Rice has beta carotene in it, of which, the human body safely regulates how much is converted to Vitamin A for even further conversion (National Academy Press, 2000).

Economic Concerns

Recent arguments by Greenpeace state that Golden Rice doesn’t address the underlying cause of vitamin A deficiency, which is poverty (Golden Rice, n.d.).  Dr. Ingo Potrykus (n.d.) responds to this by stating:


“Rice plants do not produce carotenoid compounds in the grain consumed by humans. Consequently VAD (Vitamin A Deficiency) often occurs where rice is the major staple food”

It does appear to make practical sense to enrich a food source that is already consumed by a large portion of a poverty-stricken community. Grain.org, a large anti-GMO organization, informs the public that Golden Rice doesn’t supply enough vitamin A to reduce VAD and that poverty is the issue, not malnutrition (Grain.org, n.d.). This was previously addressed and shown to be false.


It has also been argued that distributing GMO Rice is not cost-effective. However, it has been shown that this is not the case and in fact, in comparison with other interventions, i.e. wheat fortification or supplementation, GMO Rice is a very cost-effective choice (Zimmermann, Qaim, 2004).


There have been concerns that Golden Rice may cross-pollinate with wild or domestic rice types effectively eliminating their biodiversity. It is possible that native species could be selected against, but they forget that humans are the ones that have been selecting and manipulating rice since the dawn of agriculture. Despite the fact that this would most likely create a more nutritious stock than the native species, the anti-GMO advocates are also concerned that any mixing could potentially harm their consumer's health; of which, there is no evidence that this could be the case. Anti-GMO groups also have concerns about the fact that Golden Rice is patented. They feel that farmers, that are victims of cross-pollination, will be subject to lawsuits as the farmers are now harvesting crops born from patented technology. The record shows that any farmer in any impoverished community is allowed to plant, grow, cultivate, and sell Golden Rice as long as they are earning less than $10K USD a year from Golden Rice's profits (Golden Rice and Intellectual Property, n.d.). What this also means is that communities are free to grow crops on their own without fears of legal actions against them. Syngenta, who is currently a license holder of Golden Rice, stated that it has no plans to commercialize Golden Rice and considers its efforts humanitarian. Other large companies have also contributed their own patented technology and have acquired licensing rights to ensure the success of (via technology and resources) the humanitarian vision set by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, who are also the owners of the Golden Rice patent.

Discussion

A survey of the literature shows that there are vast misunderstandings of the science behind genetically modified organisms. Most of the arguments against GMOs are not based on verifiable and peer-reviewed science. Many of the arguments against GMO technology also appear to be based on false information which also fuels the misunderstandings. Many of the discussions about GMOs are fueled with emotionalism rather than hard science and rational discourse.

Economic and political discussions get in the fray and convolute matters even more. Delays in-field testing and thus, subsequent distribution, have delayed the deployment of Golden Rice for over a decade. Anti-GMO activists have concerns that GMOs are unsafe and unhealthy; while at the same time, since their campaign and efforts against GMOs, 8 million people, mostly children have gone blind (AllowGoldenRiceNow, n.d.). These efforts by groups like Greenpeace have been called a “crime against humanity” as so many lives are being lost while fear, spawned by groups like Greenpeace, are slowing progress.

Conclusions

This study reveals that the current arguments in the literature and online against genetically modified foods such as Golden Rice, do not have a verifiable scientific-basis. The anti-GMO proponent’s largest concerns appear to be on the effect of GMO rice on public health. Even though evidence has shown that the proteins themselves are not hazardous, and that they are consumed in other “natural” foods, anti-GMO groups wish to ban completely or delay indefinitely research to bring GMOs to fruition.


Even though the benefits of Golden Rice, as far as delivering adequate amounts of Vitamin A have been shown in the short-term, this study also revealed that there are no long-term studies reflecting the positive efficacy of Golden Rice on at-risk populations. 

Despite this, based on analyses of the inserted proteins in Golden Rice, as well as studies revealing the efficacy of immediate vitamin A deficiency relief in trials, Golden Rice doesn’t appear to be unsafe; and in fact, it can help significantly reduce vitamin A deficiencies in communities dependent on rice.

Notes

References

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