‘Golden Rice’ does not solve the problem of hunger and can cause ecological and socio-economic damage

The introduction of genetically engineered plants was accompanied by the prospect of bringing products with improved properties to the market, e. g. with a higher nutrient content, longer shelf life or optimised quality characteristics. The best-known example of a transgenic plant believed to be beneficial to health is the so-called ‘Golden Rice’. The grains are assumed to have an increased content of β-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A that could be useful in combating symptoms of vitamin A deficiency, which is a serious problem in many developing countries.

Although the development of the genetically modified rice has been ongoing for almost 25 years, there is still a lack of essential data on food quality and safety. ‘Golden Rice’ was harvested for the first time in the Philippines in 2022. The harvested rice will be used to carry out further investigations regarding its actual benefits. There are, in fact, many open questions: data taken from authorisation applications actually show low β-carotene levels – with additional losses expected due to storage and cooking. Scientific studies have also confirmed very low levels of carotene content, depending on, amongst other things, the respective varieties (or their genetic background). It, therefore, appears questionable whether these plants can have any significant benefit for consumers.

From an ecological and socio-economic point of view, contamination of adjacent fields with genetically engineered rice would also be a particular problem, as the Philippines are one of the most important centres of rice biodiversity. The cultivation of ‘Golden Rice’ thus poses a considerable risk to the preservation of biodiversity and regional varieties. Genetically engineered rice plants could in addition pass on their genes to, amongst others, wild rice. This would enable the transgenes to return to the fields and into transgene-free rice via wild weedy rice, which is widespread near fields. Both the USA and China have in the past faced major problems with contamination from genetically engineered rice, even though there were only field trials, but no large-scale cultivation in these regions.

‘Golden Rice’ has now been approved for cultivation in the Philippines and is supposed to be introduced into food production systems. This has happened despite protests from the general public, gaps in the authorisation procedures, unclear environmental risks or risks to health, and even though locally available crops have sufficient vitamin A content. In the larger context, it appears that the Golden Rice Project was largely a campaign to create a breakthrough for genetically engineered food. In view of the many uncertainties, including those relating to the composition, genetic stability and effects on health, any actual benefits appear to be very small – in contrast to the vigorous assertions made by pressure groups.

Weighing up the actual expected benefits of genetically engineered plants against possible lower-risk alternatives should be the objective of a forward-looking technology assessment so that, in future, a differentiation could be made at an early stage between exaggerated promises and actual, genuine benefits.

Further information:
TA report
Comment on ‘Golden Rice’

This site is registered on wpml.org as a development site. Switch to a production site key to remove this banner.