GOLDEN GENES AND WORLD HUNGER: LET THEM EAT TRANSGENIC RICE?
One of the casualties of technology-dominated life has been the tradition
of conversation around the dinner table. Whatever words we do exchange at
mealtime are more likely aimed at the minimal coordination of our
centrifugally driven lives than at sustaining the richly patterned
textures of meaning conversation can evoke.
But our abandonment of conversation extends far beyond the dinner table.
Our broader social relations, and also our dialogue with the natural
world, have contracted toward mere informational exchange, leaving us
bereft of larger patterns of meaning. When you lose the shifting,
multiply-focused, metaphoric, and life-supporting qualities of
conversation, what you have left is the attempt -- useful as far as it
goes -- to formulate well-behaved problems susceptible to well-defined
solutions. To do this you must employ the narrow, precisely formed
language of manipulation and control -- a language we have come near to
perfecting. While this language may offer little in the way of
understanding or meaningful engagement with the other, it does bring the
very real satisfaction of more or less effective power.
If the impressive drive toward effective power has taken special hold in
any one scientific discipline, surely it is genetic engineering. And if
this drive can display beneficent potentials, how better to do it than by
placing a daily bowl of genetically engineered "golden rice" on the dinner
tables of millions of Asian children, thereby saving them from immense
This hope, many researchers believe, is now nearing fulfillment. But a
full conversation around that envisioned bowl of rice has yet to occur.
And until it does occur, we will have no means to assess the technical
achievements represented by the bowl. In what follows we venture some
preliminary contributions toward such a conversation.
Transgenic golden rice does not yet fill the bowls of hungry Asian
children. But the possibility that it will is the bright hope of
scientists and biotech companies beaten down by the consumer backlash
against the rapid and largely covert introduction of genetically modified
organisms into global food supplies. The advertisement for golden rice,
widely broadcast, is that it avoids all the pitfalls associated with the
ill-fated "Frankenfoods" that so unsettled the buying public.
What lends this new, experimental rice its golden color is the presence of
beta-carotene within the part of the kernel -- the endosperm -- that
remains behind (normally as "white rice") after milling and polishing (Ye
et al. 2000). Beta-carotene is a precursor of vitamin A; the human body
can use it to form the vitamin. This is important because millions of
children, especially in Asia, suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can
lead to blindness.
By most accounts the virtues of golden rice are many:
** It is not the product of profit-seeking biotech companies. The
research, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss government, and
the European Union, was performed at Swiss and German universities.
** The researchers stressed that, once the rice proves viable in field
plantings, it will be freely distributed. No patents will block access to
the rice by third-world farmers. (Just recently a slightly revised
version of this promise has emerged: the scientists announced that they
had reached a licensing agreement with the giant pharmaceutical company
AstraZeneca and a smaller German company, Greenovation. The companies
will donate seeds to developing countries and sell seeds to developed
countries. Donated seeds will be distributed to government-run centers
that will pass the seeds on to farmers. As long as the farmers do not
earn more than $10,000 annually from the sale of golden rice, they need
not pay any royalties. See Financial Times, May 16, 20000; Associated
Press, May 16, 2000)
** Rice naturally makes beta-carotene and other carotenoids, which are
present throughout the plant -- except in the endosperm. The genetic
manipulation producing golden rice is simply designed to extend this
natural production of beta-carotene into an additional part of the plant.
In her commentary on this research in Science, Dartmouth biologist Mary
Lou Guerinot suggests that the fears of most opponents of genetically
modified foods will be allayed by the new rice (Guerinot 2000). After
all, it's a far cry from transferring fish genes into plants.
** Unlike with many of the current genetically modified organisms, golden
rice poses no risk of increased pest resistance to herbicides or
** And, of course, the primary virtue of golden rice is its announced
potential for solving problems of hunger and malnutrition in developing
nations. Such a purpose hardly seems gratuitous or grasping. Who could
So golden rice, as we now hear the story, looks rather like a "silver
bullet" -- a one-shot, almost magical solution to a major problem. It
turns out, however, that the situation is much more complex than the usual
The immediate challenge for researchers is to develop hardy strains of the
transgenic rice, and then to convince Asian growers to plant the new
strains. But this is barely to touch upon the conversational complexities
the researchers must negotiate if they wish to enter constructively into
the modern contexts of hunger and malnutrition. Here, briefly, are a few
of the themes that need taking up.
If You Grow the Rice, Can You Deliver It to Those Who Need It?
The sobering fact is that "nearly eighty percent of all malnourished
children in the developing world in the early 1990s lived in coutries that
boasted food surpluses" (Gardner and Halweil 2000, p. 17). The Green
Revolution in Asia brought about a shift toward intensive cultivation of
fewer crops like wheat and rice, which are often grown for export.
Traditional diverse polycultures have yielded to large monocultures.
At the same time -- and at least in part due to the Green Revolution and
other technology-driven change -- hundreds of millions of people have
migrated from rural to urban areas in Asia during the past few decades.
Mostly poverty-stricken, these transplants take up residence in the ever-
expanding slums around cities. Their problem is that they can't buy the
food they need. Golden rice will do them no good if they can't afford it
-- and if they can afford it, then it is not clear what the new rice
offers that would not be offered better by a more traditional and diverse
Every green part of a plant contains beta-carotene. When Indian scientist
and activist Vandana Shiva was asked what alternative she saw to golden
rice, she cited "the 200 kinds of greens we grow on our farms". (See also
Shiva 2000.) Traditional cultures never subsist on rice alone. In
addition to the many different types of greens grown in India, wheat,
millet, and various legumes are cultivated, not to mention the wild greens
gathered from the countryside. Such polycultures develop differently in
each region, but all allow, as long as there is enough food, for a
balanced, life-sustaining diet.
It needs recognizing that what we in the western world embrace as export-
driven economic growth has contributed to the problem of hunger in
developing nations (Lappe et al. 1998). Golden rice can be seen in part
as a one-dimensional attempt to "fix" a problem created by the Green
Revolution -- namely the problem of diminished crop and dietary diversity.
But the fix offers no direct help to those who have been displaced by the
revolution and who cannot buy the food they need.
There are alternative approaches that do more justice to the complex
geographical, historical, social, political, and economic issues. In 1993
the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, collaborating with
nongovernmental organizations such as Helen Keller International, began a
program to help poor people in Bangladesh grow a diverse array of plants
to combat vitamin A deficiency (reported in Koechlin 2000). In areas
where people have at least small plots of land, families -- usually
mothers become the driving force of such projects -- were introduced to
different carotene-rich varieties of fruits and vegetables and they
learned cultivation methods. Landless families were shown how they could
plant vines in pots on outside walls. They then planted beans and
squashes that can grow up the vines.
When women noticed the positive health effects of their new diet, news
spread by word of mouth, and now approximately 600,000 households (about
three million people) participate in this project. This is, relatively
speaking, a small number, but the project is promising because it can
become part of cultural tradition. It empowers people instead of making
them dependent on western aid.
Scientists evaluating the project found that the general health of the
participants improved and that even small plots can provide sufficient
vitamin A in the diet. Moreover, the more different kinds of fruits and
vegetables people ate, the better the uptake of carotene -- an
illustration of the inherent value of natural variety in the diet.
After assessing a number of such projects, John Lupien of the Food and
Agriculture Organization concludes: "A single-nutrient approach toward a
nutrition-related public health problem is usually, with the exception of
perhaps iodine or selenium deficiencies, neither feasible nor desirable"
(quoted in Koechlin 2000).
If You Deliver the Rice, Will They Eat It?
"We must not think", writes Jacques Ellul, "that people who
victims of famine will eat anything. Western people might, since they no
longer have any beliefs or traditions or sense of the sacred. But not
others. We have thus to destroy the whole social structure, for food is
one of the structures of society" (Ellul 1990, p. 53).
Billions of Asians subsist on rice, which they mostly consume as white
rice. To obtain white rice you must first remove the husks from rough or
paddy rice, leaving the brown rice kernel. Then you must remove the
embryo and bran layers by milling and polishing. These discarded,
nutrient-rich layers happen to contain carotene. What is left after
polishing is the shiny white endosperm -- mainly starch.
This raises the obvious question: why not solve the problem of
nutritionally inadequate rice by getting people to eat brown rice,
containing protein, carotene, and various micronutrients?
The issues, again, are complex. Brown rice does not keep well in the
humid South Asian climates, which is the reason scientists usually cite
for Asians eating white rice. But while most rice is milled and sold as
white rice, the rough rice kernel -- still enveloped by its husk -- can in
fact be stored for long periods. The agronomist Heinz Bruecher observed
that "the small farmer in Asia proceeds differently and avoids polishing
by husking only as much rice as he needs at a time. In this way he always
has a nutritious grain in storage" (Bruecher 1982, p. 58). Perhaps this
practice could be encouraged.
But we must also reckon with the cultural traditions related to white
rice. In Asia rice is not just something that is ingested like we eat
french fries. It is steeped in thousands of years of culture and
tradition. Different shapes, sizes, and cooking consistencies are
preferred, depending on the context: everyday rice, rice for special
occasions, rice for flour, rice to accompany other specific foods, and
rice for ceremonies.
The whiteness of rice also has spiritual connotations:
There is more to eating than merely ingesting nourishment to survive,
more to living than merely surviving. Confucius in 500 BC knew this
well as he preached the gospel of a virtuous, yet graceful life. He
was a stickler for excellence and ceremony at the table and insisted on
the pure whiteness of rice in sheer, elegant porcelain bowls as a
background for light emerald-green vegetables picked at their succulent
zenith, golden brown stir-fried morsel of duck, pork or fish, and deep
red jujube dates.
"Come eat rice with me" is the most gracious greeting in Chinese
hospitality. In old China, families kept two crocks of rice, a large
one of gleaming, white polished rice for the family, a smaller one of
coarse brown rice for seeking one more day of existence. (Gin 1975)
The sensory symbolism of "pure whiteness", or "emerald-green"
shows how a
religious culture judges food as a spiritual-physical reality. The diet
Confucius recommends is, in more prosaic terms, nutritionally balanced.
People who use white rice experience it as being lighter and easier to
digest, and find that it allows the taste of other foods to come to the
fore. It is prepared in many different ways. In the context of a varied
diet, white rice is an integral part of Asian cuisine.
Only the beggar receives the more nutritious brown rice -- but without
anything else -- allowing him to eke out one more day. So it is that
white rice can become a symbol for high social and economic status in
Asian cultures. When the poor emulate the rich by consuming white rice,
they are actually putting their already precarious health in greater
danger. In this way social inequality accentuates nutritional problems.
It would be reasonable to encourage the use of brown rice throughout Asia,
but any such program must reckon with deeply rooted cultural traditions.
Certainly the new golden rice will bump up against these traditions, and
it is not at all clear how the resulting conversation will play itself
out. If we wish to engage in the conversation at all, the question is
whether it makes more sense to push the one-dimensional "solution" offered
by golden rice, or instead to cultivate the potentials of a traditional,
diverse diet, possibly in conjunction with greater use of brown rice.
If They Eat the Rice, Will It Do Them Any Good?
If golden rice replaces white rice in the Asian diet, can we be sure this
will solve the vitamin A deficiency problem? That is, leaving the social
issues aside, will the silver bullet at least strike its immediate, narrow
Not necessarily. It is a naive understanding of nutrition -- encouraged
by a habit of input-output thinking -- that says you can add a substance
to food and the body will automatically use it. Beta-carotene is fat-
soluble and its uptake by the intestines depends upon fat or oil in the
diet (Erdman et al. 1993). White rice itself does not provide the
necessary fats and oils, and poor, malnourished people usually do not have
ample supplies of fat-rich or oil-rich foods. If they were to eat golden
rice without fats or oils, much of the beta-carotene would pass undigested
through the intestinal tract.
Moreover, fats and also enzymes (which are proteins) enable carotene and
vitamin A to move from the intestines to the liver, where they are stored.
Proteins are bound to the vitamin in the liver, and enzymes are again
required for transport to the different body tissues where the vitamin is
utilized. A person who suffers protein-related malnutrition and lacks
dietary fats and oils will have a disturbed vitamin A metabolism.
In sum, carotene uptake, vitamin A synthesis, and the distribution and
utilization of vitamin A in the body all depend on what else a person
eats, together with his physiological state. You can't just give people
more carotene and expect results. There is no substitute for a healthily
Who Will Grow the Golden Rice?
Of the many thousands of rice varieties grown in Asia, most are local land
races. Despite the introduction of high-yielding varieties in the Green
Revolution, Indian farmers still use traditional varieties in over 58
percent of the rice acreage (Kshirsagar and Pandey 1997). These varieties
serve their desire for different types of rice, while also providing the
diversity needed within local ecological settings. The number of
varieties a farmer grows tends to increase with the variability of
conditions on the farm.
For example, when they don't irrigate, farmers in Cambodia plant varieties
with regard to early, medium, and late flowering and harvesting dates;
eating qualities (such as aroma, softness, expansion, and shape);
potential yield; and cultural practices (Jackson 1995). In India a farmer
might have high, medium, and low terraces for planting. The low terraces
are wetter and prone to flooding; they are planted with local, long-
growing varieties. In contrast, the upper terraces dry out more rapidly
after the rains, so farmers plant them with drought-resistant, rapidly
maturing varieties. Altogether a farmer may plant up to ten different
rice varieties -- a picture of diversity and dynamic relations within a
local setting (Kshirsagar and Pandey 1997).
This multiformity has evolved locally and regionally over long periods.
Since the Green Revolution, more and more farmers plant, in addition to
land races, high-yielding varieties. The price they pay for this progress
is dependence on irrigation, fertilizers, and herbicides. The use of
insecticides has become widespread, although they have been shown to be
ineffective (Pingali et al. 1997, chapter 11). (Sometimes the highest,
if also most mindless, recommendation for western, industrial-style
agricultural practices in the third world is that they're "modern".)
The locally evolved land varieties, in contrast, tend to be more drought-
Imagine transgenic golden rice in this context. Currently this rice
exists only in a laboratory variety. The next step is to make transgenic
varieties that can do well under field conditions. Then large-scale seed
production could begin and also interbreeding with other varieties. If
bred into high-yielding varieties, golden rice would be grown primarily on
large, export-oriented farms. In this case the rice would do little to
alleviate Asia's food problems -- and, who knows, it might even end up
being exported to America and Europe.
If, on the other hand, the golden rice DNA is introduced into varieties
that small farmers use, then these new, transgenic varieties will be
subject to local practices and conditions. What started out as an
isolated laboratory variety would gradually intermix and change, probably
looking very different in different places. Whether the genetic
alteration would prove stable in the midst of this flux is a real
question. Although no one can say what will happen, one can say:
things will change. It is unrealistic to think you can simply introduce a
new plant and that it will then produce carotene on demand. Genetically
engineered plants are not immune to context.
What Will Rice Make of Its Golden Genes?
The fundamental problem with genetic engineering from the very beginning
has been the absence of anything like an ecological approach. Genes are
not the unilateral "controllers" of the cell's "mechanisms". Rather,
genes enter into a vast and as yet scarcely monitored conversation with
each other and with all the other parts of the cell. Who it is that
speaks through the whole of this conversation -- what unity expresses
itself through the entire organism -- is a question the genetic engineers
have not yet even raised, let alone begun to answer.
But without an awareness of the organism as a whole, we can hardly guess
the consequences of the most "innocent" genetic modification. The analogy
with ecological studies is a close one. Change one element of the complex
balance -- in an ecological setting or within an organism -- and you change
everything. It is a notorious truth that our initial expectations of an
altered ecological setting often prove horribly off-target. And the
possibility of improving our discernment depends directly upon our
intimate familiarity with the setting as a whole in all its minutia and
Certain herbicides kill plants by bleaching them -- that is, by disrupting
carotene metabolism and blocking photosynthesis. When scientists
genetically altered tobacco plants to give them herbicide resistance, some
of the plants indeed proved resistant to an array of herbicides (Misawa et
al. 1994). Unexpectedly, however, leaves of the transgenic plants
produced greater amounts of one group of carotenes and smaller amounts of
another group, while the overall carotene production remained about
normal. In some unknown way the genetic manipulation affected the balance
of carotene metabolism, but the plant as a whole asserted its integrity by
keeping the overall production of carotene constant.
Such unexpected effects are typical, expressing the active, adaptive
nature of organisms. An organism is not a passive container we can fill
up with biotech contrivances. Even when scientists try to change the
narrowest trait of an organism, the organism itself responds and adapts as
When tomatoes were engineered for increased carotene production, some
plants did make more carotene, but often in places where they wouldn't
normally produce much of the substance -- for instance, in the seeds, the
seed leaves, and the area where the tomato breaks off the stem (Fray et
al. 1995). In addition, the plants produced more and different kinds of
carotene than expected. More surprisingly still, the plants were dwarfed.
The more carotene a plant produced, the smaller it was. Because a
substance that normally stimulates growth in plants (giberillin A) was
reduced thirty-fold, the scientists assume that the carotene increase
interfered with giberillin production.
This is not an isolated example of how genetic manipulations can affect
the vitality of a plant. In the first successful alterations of rice to
produce precursors of vitamin A, half the transgenic plants were infertile
(Burkhardt et al. 1997). Of course, infertile or markedly dwarfed plants
are left by the wayside, while the researchers select the most desirable
specimens for their breeding stock. But unexpected effects are not always
as apparent as dwarfed tomato plants.
The transgenic golden rice plants were reported to be "phenotypically
normal" (Ye et al. 2000). This statement needs to be read: "no visible
modifications were noted". The researchers evidently didn't undertake a
biochemical analysis of the kernels to see how their overall content might
have changed. What doesn't a golden rice kernel produce as a result of
the plant's breaking down excessive amounts of carotene? What new
substances does it produce? And what are the changed balances among
substances normally present? The more one learns about the flexible and
dynamic nature of organisms -- demonstrated so clearly by genetic
engineering experiments themselves -- the more one comes to expect the
unexpected and to realize that we cannot know what subtle effects a
manipulation may have.
How many genetic engineers have pondered the remarkable fact that rice,
despite the myriad varieties that have arisen over thousands of years,
never produces carotene in the endosperm of the kernel? The rest of the
above-ground plant makes carotene, and the endosperm should (according to
prevailing conceptions) have the genes that would allow it to produce
carotene. But it never does so. Certainly that should give us pause to
consider what we're doing. Might the excess carotene in the seed affect
in some way the nourishment and growth of a germinating rice plant? What
does it mean to force upon the plant a characteristic it consistently
avoids? Can we claim to be acting responsibly when we overpower the
plant, coercing a performance from it before we understand the reasons for
its natural reticence?
Organisms are not mechanisms that can be altered in a clear-cut,
determinate manner. The fact is that we simply don't know what we're
doing when we manipulate them as if they were such mechanisms. The golden
kernels of rice almost certainly herald much more than a novel supply of
A Disproportionate Interest in Silver Bullets
We often hear that biotechnology is merely doing what high-yield breeding,
industrial agriculture, and nutritional science have done all along -- but
now much more efficiently. In one sense that's exactly right and also
exactly the problem: we don't need more of the same. What we need is to
overcome an epidemic of abstract, technological thought that conceives
solutions in the absence of organic contexts. We need a refined ability
to enhance life's variety rather than destroy it. And we need to realize
that the problems of life and society are not malfunctions to be fixed;
they are conversations to be entered into more or less deeply. The more
deeply we participate in the conversation, the more thickly textured and
revelatory it becomes, reacting upon all the meanings we brought to the
The engineering mindset that tries to insert individual traits into rice
by manipulating particular genes is closely allied to the long-standing
agricultural mindset that tries to improve crop yields in a purely
quantitative sense by injecting the right amounts of NPK (nitrogen,
phosphate, and potash) into the soil. On this view the soil offers little
more than a structural support for the roots. At the same time, it is a
kind of hydroponic medium into which we place the various "inputs" that we
can identify as requirements for plant growth.
What this approach overlooks is ... well, just about everything. Fixated
upon inputs, outputs, and uptake mechanisms, it loses sight of the
unsurveyed, nearly infinite complexity of life in a healthy, compost-
enriched soil. The truth of the matter is that whatever we can do to
enhance the diverse, living processes of the soil will likely improve the
quality of the crop, and yet an input-output mentality proceeds to destroy
the life of the soil through simple-minded chemical applications. Our
silver bullets, much too narrowly targeted, rip through the fabric of the
Sponsors of the green and genetic revolutions are not inclined to ask what
is lost when input-intensive, high-yield monocultures replace the kind of
local diversity that results in thousands of local rice varieties
throughout Asia. We have never heard a biotechnologist venture the
thought that local varieties may actually -- through their long history of
co-evolution with the people who bred them -- be uniquely adapted to the
nutritional needs and dietary complexities of the local population.
The adaptation is not hard to imagine when you consider beta-carotene.
Plants make many different types of carotene; beta-carotene is only one
member of a large family of substances. Each species of green, squash, or
brown rice produces its own unique array of carotenes, with different
types and amounts arising in different tissues depending on changing
conditions. Numerous species-specific carotenes have scarcely been
Similarly, human beings need different kinds of carotenes, and, as long as
a reasonably diversity of crops is available, each individual will draw
out of his food what he needs. But what if, in the name of this or that
specific "input" abstracted from the complex, nutritional matrix of life,
we proceed to destroy the matrix? The disproportionate hope placed in
golden rice, together with its salesmen's casual disregard of biological
and social context, suggests the likelihood of precisely such destructive
There are no silver bullets in any profound conversation. There is only a
progressive deepening of meaning. Or, if we prefer the satisfaction of
unambiguous bits of information, then -- whether we conceive those bits as
genes or NPK or the dietary inputs of Asian children -- we abandon the
wholeness and coherence of the conversation altogether. We can, in this
case, certainly proceed with our narrow programs of manipulation and
control, which are what we have left when we give up on conversation. But
the results will be no more satisfying than a diet of rice alone.
(Craig Holdrege, the primary author of this paper, is director and Steve
Talbott is senior researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York.
The Nature Institute is dedicated to pursuing a science of nature rather
than of mechanisms assumed to lie behind nature. This is a qualitative
science, contextual and holistic in spirit, and ethically informed in
immediate practice rather than in afterthought. The Nature Institute also
promotes humane uses of technology rather than mechanical uses of humans.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.natureinstitute.org)
Related articles in NetFuture ((NF) www.netfuture.org):
** "The Tyranny of the Gene" by Craig Holdrege in NF #80.
** "Is Genetic Engineering `Natural'?" in NF #75.
** "The Trouble with Genetic Engineering" in NF #31, a review of
Holdrege's Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor
** "Finding Wholeness in a Pile of Manure" in NF #79.
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