GE Rice-A Blind Approach to Curing Vitamin A Deficiency
in the Developing World--by Vandana Shiva


Dr.Vandana Shiva
Feb. 14 2000

Genetically engineered Vitamin A rice has been proclaimed as a miracle cure
for blindness - "a break through in efforts to improve the health of
billions of poor people, most of them in Asia".

More than $100m have been spent over 10 years to produce a transgenic rice
at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich. The Zurich research team headed by Ingo Potrykens
and Xudong Ye introduced three genes taken from a daffodil and a bacterium
into a rice strain to produce a yellow rice with high levels of
beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A within the body.

The rice is being promoted as a cure for blindness since Vitamin A
deficiency causes vision impairment and can lead to blindness . According
to the UN, more than 2 million children are at risk due to Vitamin A

The work in Zurich was funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation--the
agency which had launched chemical agriculture in Asia through the
Green Revolution which led to erosion of biodiversity and erosion of
diverse sources of nutrition for the poor. In addition, the Swiss
Government and the European Community has also supported the research.

It will however take millions more in dollars and another decade of
development work at the International Rice Research Institute to produce
Vitamin A rice varieties that can be grown in farmers fields.

Is the "golden" rice a miracle that is the only means for preventing
blindness for Asia or will it introduce new ecological problems like the
Green Revolution did and create new health hazards like other genetically
engineered foods?

The genetic engineering of Vitamin A rice deepens the genetic reductionism
of the Green Revolution. Instead of millions of farmers breeding and
growing thousands of crop varieties to adapt to diverse ecosystems and
diverse food systems, the Green Revolution reduced agriculture to a few
varieties of a few crops (mainly rice, wheat and maize) bred in one
centralised research centre (IRRI for rice and CIMMYT for wheat and maize).
The Green Revolution led to massive genetic erosion in farmers fields and
knowledge, erosion among farming communities, besides leading to large
scale environmental pollution due to use of toxic agrichemicals and
wasteful use of water.

Genetically engineered rice as part of the second Green Revolution is
repeating the mistakes of the Green Revolution while adding new hazards in
terms of ecological and health risks.

The "selling" of Vitamin A rice as a miracle cure for blindness is based on
blindness to alternatives for removing vitamin A deficiency and blindness
to the unknown risks of producing Vitamin A through genetic engineering.

Eclipsing Alternatives.

The first deficiency of genetic engineering rice to produce Vitamin A is
the eclipsing of alternative sources of vitamin A. Per Pinstripe Anderson,
Head of the International Rice Research Institute has said that Vitamin A
rice is necessary for the poor in Asia, because "we cannot reach very many
of the malnourished in the world with pills".
However, there are many alternatives to pills for Vitamin A supply.
Vitamin A is provided by lever, egg yolk, chicken, meat, milk, butter.
Beta-carotene, the vitamin A precursor is provided by dark green leafy
vegetables, spinach, carrot, pumpkin, mango and drumstick.

Women farmers in Bengal use more than 100 plants for green leafy vegetables.

The lower cost, accessible and safer alternative to genetically engineered
rice is to increase biodiversity in agriculture. Further, since those who
suffer from vitamin A deficiency suffer from malnutrition generally,
increasing the food security and nutritional security of the poor through
increasing the diversity of crops and diversity of diets of poor people who
suffer the highest rates of deficiency is the reliable means for overcoming
nutritional deficiencies.

Sources of Vitamin A in the form of green leafy vegetables are being
destroyed by the Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering which promote the
use of herbicides in agriculture. The spread of herbicide resistant crops
will further aggravate this biodiversity erosion with major consequences
for increase in nutritional deficiency. For example, bathua a very popular
leafy vegetable in North India has been pushed to extinction in Green
Revolution areas where intensive herbicide use is a part of the chemical

Environmental costs of vitamin A rice.

Vitamin A from native greens and fruits is produced without irrigation and
wastage of scarce water resources. Introducing Vitamin A in rice implies a
shift from water conserving alternatives for Vitamin A to water a intensive
system of production since so called high yielding rice varieties are
highly water demanding. Vitamin A rice will therefore lead to mining of
ground water or intensive irrigation from large dams with all the
associated environmental problems of water-logging and salinisation.

Further, as in the case of other genetically engineered crops, rice with
Vitamin A will have impact on the food web. The ecological impact on soil
organisms and other organisms dependent on rice in the food chain should be
part of the biosafety analysis of genetically engineered rice before it is
released for production. Research has already shown that indigenous rice
varieties support far more species than Green Revolution varieties. How
will genetically engineered rice impact biodiversity and the potential for
disease and pest vulnerability?

Health risks of vitamin A Rice.

Since rice is a staple eaten in large quantities in Asian societies,
vitamin A rice could lead to excessive intake of vitamin A especially among
those who do not suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Excess vitamin A can
lead to hypervitaminosis A or vitamin A toxicity. Such toxicity is known
to occur due to over ingestion of vitamin A rich food eg. Polar bear liver
or by food faddism by over solicitous parents, or as side effects of
inappropriate therapy.

Vitamin A toxicity can lead to abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness,
popillidena, bulging fontanelle.

Chronic toxicity of vitamin A can occur after ingestion of large quantities
of vitamin A for protracted periods. Chronic at toxicity is characterized
by bone and joint pain, hyperotosis, hair loss, dryness and fissures of
lips, a nausea intraeranial hypertension, low grade fever, pruritis, weight
loss, hepatosplenomegaly.

Natural sources of vitamin A are consumed seasonally and in small
quantities as greens, relishes, fruits and hence do not carry the risks of
vitamin A toxicity. Rice eating regions have been found to be associated
with higher malnutrition than wheat eating regions, especially after the
Green Revolution which destroyed fish and plant biodiversity necessary for
a balanced diet. These regions also have higher prevalence of water borne
diseases like diarrhea, amoebiasis hepatitis A and E, dysentery, and vector
borne diseases like malaria, which unlike in earlier years when it was a
less hazardous form of malaria caused by plasmodium vivax is increasingly
becoming falciparum malaria. These health problems are known to involve
damage to the lever. The additional risks of vitamin A toxicity under
these conditions of vulnerable health situation of the poor in Asia needs
to be assessed with care before a large scale push is given to genetically
engineered rice.

Further, the globalisation of agriculture is leading to an increase in
malnutrition in the Third World, as the most fertile ecosystems are
diverted to luxury export crops, and as domestic markets are destroyed due
to dumping of subsidised agricultural commodities. In India, per capita
consumption of cereals has declined by 12 per cent in rural areas over the
past two decades. The shift from policies based on the "right to food" to
free trade policies will push millions into hunger and poverty.

Genetically engineered rice is part of a package of globalised agriculture
which is creating malnutrition. It cannot solve the problems of
nutritional deficiency but it can introduce new risks of food safety.
Since the vitamin A in rice is not naturally occurring and is genetically
engineered, novel health
risks posed by vitamin A rice will need to be investigated before the rice
is promoted by IRRI and aid agencies or commercialised.

The risk assessment for living modified organisms intended for direct use
as feed is given in Annexe II of the recently finalized Biosafety Protocol
under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The risk assessment of vitamin A rice should therefore involve the
following steps.

a) An identification of any novel genotypic and phenotypic characteristics
associated with the vitamin A rice that may have adverse effects on
biological diversity in the likely potential receiving environment, taking
also into account risks to human health.

b) An evaluation of the likelihood of these adverse effects being realised
taking into account the level and kind of exposure of the likely potential
receiving environment.

c) An evaluation of the consequences should these adverse effects be realised.

The risk assessment also needs to take into account the vectors used, the
insects, the ecological differences between transgenic vitamin A rice, and
conventional rice varieties. The diverse contexts in which the rice is to
be potentially introduced also needs to be taken into account. This
includes information on the location, geographical, climatic and ecological
characteristics, including relevant information on biological diversity and
centres of origin of the likely potential receiving environment.

It is these potential risks which have put a question mark on genetic
engineering in agriculture. The genetically engineered vitamin A rice is
now being used as a Trojan horse to push genetically engineered crops and

Mr. Pinstrup Anderson, the IRRI Director has suggested that the "vitamin A
rice could provide a public relations boost for plant biotechnology, which
has been criticised by some environmentalists and consumer activists for
promoting "Franken foods"". It has yet to be established that genetically
engineered rice is not a Franken food.

But one thing is clear. Promoting it as a tool against blindness while
ignoring safer, cheaper, available alternatives provided by our rich
agrobiodiversity is nothing short of a blind approach to blindness control.

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