Golden rice has been heralded as the miracle cure for malnutrition and hunger of which 800m members of
the human community suffer.
Herbicide resistant and toxin producing genetically engineered plants can be objectionable because of their
ecological and social costs. But who could possibly object to rice engineered to produce vitamin A, a
deficiency found in nearly 3 million children, largely in the Third World?
As remarked by Mary Lou Guerinot, the author of the Commentary on Vitamin A rice in Science, one
can only hope that this application of plant genetic engineering to ameliorate human misery without regard
to short term profit will restore this technology to political acceptability.
Unfortunately, Vitamin A rice is a hoax, and will bring further dispute to plant genetic engineering where
public relations exercises seem to have replaced science in promotion of untested, unproven and
The problem is that vitamin A rice will not remove vitamin A deficiency (VAD). It will seriously
aggravate it. It is a technology that fails in its promise.
Currently, it is not even known how much vitamin JA the genetically engineered rice will produce. The
goal is 33.3% micrograms/100g of rice. Even if this goal is reached after a few years, it will be totally
ineffective in removing VAD.
Since the daily average requirement of vitamin A is 750 micrograms of vitamin A and 1 serving contains
30g of rice according to dry weight basis, vitamin A rice would only provide 9.9 micrograms which is
1.32% of the required allowance. Even taking the 100g figure of daily consumption of rice used in the
technology transfer paper would only provide 4.4% of the RDA.
In order to meet the full needs of 750 micrograms of vitamin A from rice, an adult would have to
consume 2 kg 272g of rice per day. This implies that one family member would consume the entire
family ration of 10 kg. from the PDS in 4 days to meet vitaminA needs through "Golden rice".
This is a recipe for creating hunger and malnutrition, not solving it.
Besides creating vitamin A deficiency, vitamin A rice will also create deficiency in other micronutrients
and nutrients. Raw milled rice has a low content of Fat (0.5g/100g). Since fat is necessary for vitamin A
uptake, this will aggravate vitamin A deficiency. It also has only 6.8g/100g of protein, which means less
carrier molecules. It has only 0.7g/100g of iron, which plays a vital role in the conversion of Betacarotene
(precursor of vitamin A found in plant sources) to vitamin A.
Superior Alternatives exist and are effective.
A far more efficient route to removing vitamin A deficiency is biodiversity conservation and propagation
of naturally vitamin A rich plants in agriculture and diets.
Table 1 gives sources rich in vitamin A used commonly in Indian foods.
Source Hindi name/ Content (microgram/100g)
(Amaranth leaves) Chauli saag=266-1,166 -
(Coriander leaves) - Dhania=1,166-1,333
(Cabbage) Bandh gobi=217
(Curry leaves)-Curry patta=1,333
(Drumstick leaves)-Saijan patta1=283
(Milk (cow, buffalo))-Doodh=50-60
(Liver (Goat, sheep))-Kalegi=6,600 - 10,000
Cod liver oil=10,000 - 100,000
In spite of the diversity of plants evolved and bred for their rich vitamin A content, a report of the Major
Science Academies of the World - Royal Society, U.K., National Academy of Sciences of the USA, The
Third World Academy of Science, Indian National Science Academy, Mexican Academy of Sciences,
Chinese Academy of Sciences, Brazilian Academy of Sciences - on Transgenic Plants and World
Agriculture has stated, Vitamin A deficiency causes half a million children to become partially or totally
blind each year.
Traditional breeding methods have been unsuccessful in producing crops containing a high vitamin A
concentration and most national authorities rely on expensive and complicated supplementation programs
to address the problem. Researchers have introduced three new genes into rice, two from daffodils and
one from a microorganism. The transgenic rice exhibits an increased production of betacarotene as a
precursor to vitamin A and the seed in yellow in colour. Such yellow, or golden rice, may be a useful tool
to help treat the problem of vitamin A deficiency in young children living in the tropics.
It appears as if the world’s top scientists suffer a more severe form of blindness than children in poor
countries. The statement that "traditional breeding has been unsuccessful in producing crops high in
vitamin A" is not true given the diversity of plants and crops that Third World farmers, especially women
have bred and used which are rich sources of vitamin A such as coriander, amaranth, carrot, pumpkin,
It is also untrue that vitamin A rice will lead to increased production of betacarotene. Even if the target
of 33.3 microgram of vitamin A in 100g of rice is achieved, it will be only 2.8% of betacarotene we can
obtain from amaranth leaves 2.4% of betacarotene obtained from coriander leaves, curry leaves and
Even the World Bank has admitted that rediscovering and use of local plants and conservation of vitamin
A rich green leafy vegetables and fruits have dramatically reduced VAD threatened children over the past
20 years in very cheap and efficient ways. Women in Bengal use more than 200 varieties of field greens.
Over a 3 million people have benefited greatly from a food based project for removing VAD by increasing
vitamin A availability through home gardens. The higher the diversity crops the better the uptake of
The reason there is vitamin A deficiency in India in spite of the rich biodiversity a base and indigenous
knowledge base in India is because the Green Revolution technologies wiped out biodiversity by
converting mixed cropping systems to monocultures of wheat and rice and by spreading the use of
herbicides which destroy field greens.
In spite of effective and proven alternatives, a technology transfer agreement has been signed between the
Swiss Government and the Government of India for the transfer of genetically engineered vitamin A rice
The ICAR, ICMR, ICDS, USAIUD, UNICEF, WHO have been identified as potential partners. The
breeding and transformation is to be carried out at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore,
Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack and Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana and University of
Delhi, South Campus.
The Indian varieties in which the vitamin A traits are expected to be engineered have been identified as IR
64, Pusa Basmati, PR 114 and ASD 16.
Dr. M.S. Swaminathan has been identified as "God father" to ensuring public acceptance of genetically
engineered rice. DBT & ICAR are also potential partners for guaranteeing public acceptance and steady
progress of the project.
Genetically engineered vitamin A rice will aggravate this destruction since it is part of an industrial
agriculture, intensive input package. It will also lead to major water scarcity since it is a water intensive
crop and displaces water prudent sources of vitamin A.
Transferring an Illusion to India.
The first step in the technology transfer of vitamin A rice requires a need assessment and an assessment
of technology availability. One assessment shows that vitamin A rice fails to pass the need test.
The technology availability issue is related to whether the various elements and methods used for the
construction of transgenic crop plants are covered by intellectual property rights. Licenses for these rights
need to be obtained before a product can be commercialised. The Cornell based ISAAA (International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application) has been identified as the partner for ensuring
technology availability by ensuring technology availability by having material transfer agreements signed
between the representative authority of the ICAR and the "owners" of the technology, Prof. I. Potrykus
and Prof. P. Beyer.
In addition, Novartis and Kerin Breweries have patents on the genes used as constructs for the vitamin A
At a public hearing on Biotechnology at U.S. Congress on 29th June 2000, Astra-Zeneca stated they
would be giving away royalty free licenses for the development of "Golden rice".
At a workshop organised by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Dr. Barry of Monsanto’s Rice
Genome initiative announced that it will provide royalty-free licenses for all its technologies that can help
the further development of "golden rice".
Hence these gene giants Novartis, Astra-Zeneca and Monsanto are claiming exclusive ownership to the
basic patents related to rice research. Further, neither Monsanto nor Astra - Zeneca said they will give up
their patents on rice - they are merely giving royalty free licenses to public sector scientists for
development of "golden rice". This is an arrangement for a public subsidy to corporate giants for R&D
since they do not have the expertise or experience with rice breeding which public institutions have.
Not giving up the patents, but merely giving royalty free licenses implies that the corporations like
Monsanto would ultimately like to collect royalties from farmers for rice varieties developed by public
sector research systems. Monsanto has stated that it expects long term gains from these IPR
arrangements, which implies markets in rice as "intellectual property" which cannot be saved or
exchanged for seed. The real test for Monsanto would be its declaration of giving up any patent claims to
rice now and in the future and joining the call to remove plants and biodiversity out of TRIPS. Failing
such an undertaking by Monsanto the announcement that Monsanto giving royalty free licenses for
development of vitamin A rice like the rice itself can only be taken as a hoax to establish monopoly over
rice production, and reduce rice farmers of India into bio-serfs.
While the complicated technology transfer package of "Golden Rice" will not solve vitamin A problems in
India, it is a very effective strategy for corporate take over of rice production, using the public sector as a