Lenny Ignelzi/AP
Doctor Peter Beyer, co-inventor of
golden rice.

Some Scientists Say Genetically Modified Golden Rice Experiment Is Unethical

March 04, 2009 08:58 AM
by Cara McDonough
Feeding genetically modified Golden Rice to participants in a research study has outraged a group of scientists, who say the food hasn’t been evaluated enough.

Scientists Send Letter of Protest

In a formal protest against the experiments, 22 scientists from around the world have signed a letter demanding that the research studies at Tufts University be stopped immediately. 

The scientists are furious that the rice was not put through animal trials before being fed to children aged 6-10, reports the British newspaper the Daily Mail.  

The letter, addressed to Robert Russell, professor emeritus at the school’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, begins by expressing their “shock and unequivocal denunciation of the experiments being conducted by your colleagues.”

According to their letter, as well as Web site Digital Journal, the experiments involve feeding a genetically modified (GM) form of rice called Golden Rice to both adults and children.

Golden Rice is a fortified food produced through genetic engineering as a vitamin A-dense food product. It is to be used in parts of the world where nutrition is lacking. 

A group of scientists responded to the Daily Mail on Feb. 20 for another story the newspaper printed on the ethics of Golden Rice, asserting the benefits of the GM food. Their letter is available on the official Golden Rice Project Web site.

Vitamin-A deficiency kills 1-2 million people a year, the scientists wrote, and the Golden Rice experiments are no more harmful "than feeding the children a small carrot." 

"At a time of increasing poverty globally ... all possible technologies capable of improving the quantity and quality of food should be embraced," they conclude. 

Golden Rice has unleashed a firestorm of debate over the years, despite its original purpose as a tool to save lives in developing countries. Some say its health risks have not been properly documented. Other critics, such as Greenpeace, have said that the rice won’t resolve Vitamin A deficiencies because it will not provide enough of the vitamin to ward off malnutrition.

The scientists who criticize Tufts’ use of the rice say that the variety being used—called GR2—has “woefully inadequate pre-clinical evaluation.” They claim that the genetically modified product has never been through regulatory procedures and that there is a growing body of evidence suggesting GM products can cause health problems.

According to their letter, "our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals … there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects."

The experiment, which includes children, is “unacceptable” they conclude. So far it does not appear that Tufts has responded to the letter.

More information about the trials is available on a Web site dedicated to clinical trials, maintained by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Project NCT 00680355, for example, is listed as an experiment designed to evaluate the “bioavailability” of beta carotene in rice and its conversion to vitamin A, using a blood sample collected 33 days after the participants are given doses of the rice.

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Background: The Golden Rice controversy

There are many articles, Web sites and studies documenting Golden Rice’s claimed life-saving properties. But there are also many activist groups, statements and protests like the one sent to Tufts that seek to expose the supposed dangers of the food.

A March 2005 BBC article outlined some of the benefits and complexities of a new strain of the rice, which produced as much as 20 times more beta carotene than previous strains. According to the article, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 500,000 children go blind each year because of vitamin A deficiency, and the rice could help reduce that number.

But the same article points out that critics believe aiming for a more balanced diet in general in certain countries is a much better solution. Clare Oxborrow, from the anti-GM group Friends of the Earth, said the problem is much more complex than “trying to fix vitamin A deficiency with a narrow GM solution.”

The official Golden Rice Project home page chronicles the history, science and benefits of the GM food. The site states the best way to address the issue of “micronutrient deficiencies” is by a varied diet, but that the best approach for those who cannot afford such a diet, is through providing “nutrient-dense staple crops” like Golden Rice.

But the Institute for Science in Society, a non-profit group in the U.K. dedicated to promoting social accountability in science, calls Golden Rice development “An Exercise in How Not to Do Science” on its Web site.

“The scientific/social rationalization for the project exposes a reductionist self-serving scientific paradigm that fails to see the world beyond its own narrow confines,” according to the group. They suggest that there are many alternative, “infinitely cheaper” sources of Vitamin A, including green vegetables and unpolished rice.

Tufts professor Kathleen Merrigan wrote in April 2003 in the Tufts Journal that GM food does not bother her much, because many grocery store products already contain GM ingredients. She said that she hopes Golden Rice science is perfected as the food could aid many. 

Most of all, she wrote, she believes in balance when it comes to modifying food:  "I find myself in the middle, equally dismayed by biotechnology cheerleaders who overstate its benefits and refuse to acknowledge its risks, and the doomsday activists who decry the technology and irresponsibly counsel African leaders to turn back GM food aid."

Related Topic: Genetically modified food

One of the most basic objections to Golden Rice seems to be that it is a genetically modified food, which is itself an area of major debate.

Not only do some question the health effects and ethics of creating GM foods, but also there is debate about the food’s usefulness as a cash crop. A study released in April 2008 found that the yield from genetically modified soya was 10 percent smaller than the yield from plants that were not genetically engineered.

The study was instituted after many farmers questioned why they got less output from the GM crops. Meanwhile, environmental groups like Greenpeace continue to protest the use of the foods.

But the use of the foods continues to be discussed, especially in light of global food shortages like the food crises that came to a head this past summer. Abdolreza Abbassian, secretary of intergovernmental group on grains for the UN’s FAO, said in June that the crisis should spur more research into genetically modified food: “One of the lessons is to look at research in food technology and whether this has room to improve.”

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