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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Genetically Engineered Vitamin A Rice:
A Blind Approach to Blindness Prevention

by Dr.Vandana Shiva,Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology

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

A 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 two million children are at risk due to Vitamin A deficiency.

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?

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 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 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. Eclipsing Alternatives

Beta-carotene, the Vitamin A precursor, is provided by dark green leafy vegetables, spinach, carrot, pumpkin, mango and drumstick.

The first deficiency of genetic engineering rice to produce Vitamin A is the eclipsing of alternative sources of Vitamin A. Per Pinstrup 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 liver, egg yolk, chicken, meat, milk, and butter. Beta-carotene, the Vitamin A precursor, is provided by dark green leafy vegetables, spinach, carrot, pumpkin, mango and drumstick [a South Asian vegetable].

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 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. 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 package.

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 to a water-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.

Since rice is a staple eaten in large quantities in Asian societies, Vitamin A rice could lead to excessive intake of Vitamin A...

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 deficiency. Excess Vitamin A can lead to hypervitaminosis A or Vitamin A toxicity.

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

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

Natural sources of Vitamin A are consumed seasonally and in small quantities as greens, relishes, and 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 liver. The additional risks of Vitamin A toxicity under these conditions need to be assessed with care before a large-scale push is given to genetically engineered rice.

Further, the globalization 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 subsidized agricultural commodities. In India, per capita consumption of cereals has declined by 12% 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 globalized agriculture which is creating malnutrition. It cannot solve the problems of nutritional deficiency but it can introduce new risks to food safety.

Genetically engineered rice is part of a package of globalised agriculture which is creating malnutrition.

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:

The risk assessment also needs to take into account the vectors used, the ecological differences between transgenic Vitamin A rice and conventional rice varieties, and Information on the geographical, climatic and ecological characteristics of the likely potential receiving environment.

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 criticized by some environmentalists and consumer activists for promoting 'Frankenfoods.' It has yet to be established that genetically engineered rice is not a Frankenfood. Promoting it as a tool against blindness while ignoring safer, cheaper, available alternatives is a blind approach to blindness control.

See also her comments on "Poverty and Globalisation" at http://news6.thdo.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/events/reith_2000/text5.stm

"That is why I ask, who feeds the world? This deliberate blindness to diversity, the blindness to nature's production, production by women, production by Third World farmers allows destruction and appropriation to be projected as creation."

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