GM rice doesn’t address poverty, lack of biodiversity – Organic Matters Column

CORRECTION: An earlier online version of this column erroneously stated Golden Rice is offered as a solution to vitamin D deficiency.

Golden rice is a product of genetically modified technology that is offered as a solution to vitamin A deficiency for poor people in Africa and South Asia.

On first glance it is a public relations dream for the GMO community, but I think there are far more benefits in an organic, ecosystem approach.

Before golden rice, the benefits of GM crops were targeted toward farmers: herbicide resistance or inclusion of systemic pesticides. However, golden rice is targeted at the public and food aid community.

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Vitamin A deficiency is devastating among people who depend on rice as their only major food source. The deficiency leads to night blindness, delayed development, total blindness and eventually death. It is a widespread failure of the food system for the poor.

True, making rice more nutritious might prevent specific deficiencies, but how much more appropriate would it be to reduce these people’s dependence on rice as their only food.

The core issue here is not that rice is insufficiently nutritious. The real problem is that rice is the sole food source for vulnerable people.

“For vulnerable rural families, for instance in Africa and Southeast Asia, growing fruits and vegetables in home gardens complements dietary diversification and fortification and contributes to better lifelong health,” says the World Health Organization

Many vegetables and fruits provide vitamin A or its precursors. They also offer many additional nutritional benefits.

Organic methods of growing food are widely recognized as offering the best potential to increase yields on small holdings without poisoning the food and the environment and relying on expensive first world inputs.

Organic farming also offers a supplementary approach for larger holdings. Eliminating herbicides and pesticides in rice paddies may reduce rice yields but would allow farmers to harvest a more diverse range of products.

Diversity has a number of benefits.

A diverse diet is considered ideal for maintaining optimal health. This is true for people, and it is true in ecosystems.

A range of harvestable “weeds” would be one benefit. Leafy greens are particularly nutritious additions to a carbohydrate-based diet. Many weeds are especially rich in nutrients, such as beta-carotene, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Some of the plants we consider weeds have a long cultural history of use as food plants.

Another benefit from replacing herbicides and pesticides with organic methods is that paddies might provide aquatic habitat, allowing the harvesting of fish and other proteins. They may attract other animals as well, with further harvesting options.

Moving from high-input monoculture rice to organic, diverse holdings could better address the “rice issue,” and do it more healthfully than tinkering with rice itself.

Of course, poverty is the underlying cause of vitamin A deficiency. It reduces farmers’ ability to negotiate a reasonable position in the agricultural system, which would provide the means for a healthful diet.

It is hard to see how entering into a patent protected process with powerful first world companies will increase African or Asian farmers’ ability to secure viable options.

The more relevant cause of malnutrition is the loss of agricultural and ecosystem biodiversity. This results from the increasing dominance of large-scale monoculture agriculture and from the widespread use of herbicides, which kill everything else, including nutritious weeds.

Increasing the vitamin A potential of rice is not going to solve these problems. Malnutrition needs to be addressed as an ecosystem process, which considers our first world influence and its intended and unintended consequences.

Golden rice seems an attempt to solve a problem of poverty and agricultural failure, but it does not address the root causes of either of these problems.

Eliminating herbicides, eating weeds and diversifying the agro-ecosystem seems to be a more effective option than more dependence on First World technology.

Who would truly benefit from golden rice? Perhaps its patent holders, but I doubt that this is the best way to bring benefits to those who suffer the most from a skewed agricultural system.

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