Golden Rice

UPDATE: This is part of a series on GMOs. Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.

Today I’d like to highlight one genetic engineering project centered on good intentions rather than a corporate bottom line. It is the story of Golden Rice, a variety engineered to be fortified with Vitamin A in an attempt to alleviate the problems of Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.

English: Golden Rice grain compared to white r...

English: Golden Rice grain compared to white rice grain in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient important for healthy vision, proper growth and development and a robust immune system. It can be acquired through a diet that is rich in plant pigments called carotenoids from foods like carrots, tomatoes, dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkins and other squash etc. Vitamin A deficiency is a world health problem in developing nations where millions of young children and pregnant mothers do not have adequate Vitamin A intake. Because of its key role in growth, development and a healthy immune system, lack of this nutrient has profound consequences on child mortality.

Vitamin A deficiency represents a case where the conditions and consequences are well understood. Multiple strategies are being used to combat this problem on a global scale including administering Vitamin A supplements, facilitating dietary diversity to include cultivation of Vitamin A-rich crops, and biofortification of crops to have enhanced Vitamin A content. In Africa, the strategy was to introduce orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to replace the traditionally grown white-fleshed variety. Another strategy is to engineer Vitamin A production into a staple crop suitable for the Asian continent. This is where Golden rice comes in.

Golden rice has been engineered to produce beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A in its seeds. This was accomplished by adding two genes in the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway (one from another plant and another from a bacterium) to ensure accumulation of beta carotene in the grain. This work has been carried out by scientists working in academia and non-profit organizations like IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute. Golden Rice is intended to be freely/cheaply distributed to farmers in developing countries struggling with Vitamin A deficiency. For the latest Golden Rice variety, about one cup of uncooked rice will supply ~50% of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A for an adult.

Manipulating dietary staples is not without controversy, nevermind good intentions. Opponents think that other methods (like dietary diversification) are more effective at combatting Vitamin A deficiency. Others view this example of genetic engineering as overkill for the problem and suspect that Golden Rice is merely a propaganda tool to gain wider acceptance of GMOs. Still others are just suspicious of anyone suggesting changes to traditional foods.*

Nevertheless, one cannot argue that the technique of genetic engineering in and of itself is inherently evil given the premise of the Golden Rice project. In the case of Vitamin A deficiency, there will be no one solution. Sure, Golden Rice has the potential to curb Vitamin A deficiency, but it was never intended as a singular solution to the exclusion of all others.  Golden Rice was developed because the tools were available and it could be done. Why not use all available tools in the toolbox?

This is where we come to the more difficult aspects of genetic modification of food plants. Genetic engineering offers a powerful new tool, so let’s decide how it will be implemented. There are many aspects regarding regulation, safety, environmental impact, consumer information and the business models for modern agriculture that must be addressed. Contrary to the way the GMO argument is usually framed, these issues can all be disentangled from the science of genetic engineering. Those topics will be featured in the next posts in this series.


* I wonder if it’s the fact that the quick timescale of changes to food using genetic engineering makes it seem so scary. Where do we draw the line on what is natural? Agriculturally important plants and animals have been subject to genetic modification for millennia through selective breeding, taking advantage of natural variations and induced mutations to yield new varieties better suited for human needs. They bear little resemblance to anything available in the wild. Consider that even the carrot was not always orange. Yet, today no one seems to have a problem with consuming modern carrots that are full of beta carotene.

For more information on Golden Rice:


2 thoughts on “Golden Rice

  1. Jonathan Byron

    Golden Rice is the right answer to the wrong question. If people are eating too much rice, they are deficient in multiple nutrients, beta carotene/vitamin A is just the tip of the iceberg, the canary in the coal mine. Golden rice mitigates one problem (as does a spoon of cod liver oil every 6 months), but does not result in optimal nutrition or health.

    The rate of change is indeed important. It is important in the evolution of healthy eating patterns (Mediterranean, French Paradox, Japanese, etc.) It is also a factor in agricultural stability – the adoption of golden rice would require that thousands of locally adopted strains of rice be abandoned or compromised.

    1. johnnaroose Post author

      Valid points. In science, it’s just as important to ask the right questions. I wish I could say that genetic engineering would solve the true problems of poverty and inequity, but for now it can only provide band-aids (until we can find that do-the-right-thing gene and make it constitutively active in humans, right?) Loss of genetic diversity is definitely a concern when it comes to modern agriculture in general. We depend too much on very few species and are constantly tailoring those by stacking useful traits into a few genetic backgrounds. At the same time, we need to somehow maintain a diverse genetic pool to tap into when we need it. I know there are seed bank and tissue bank Ark-type projects to try to preserve that diversity, but maybe that’s just a band-aid too. It would be better if genetic engineering were easy enough to just plug and play into whatever background so that it would be possible to add to current varieties instead of replacing them. The tradition of saving seed over generations of farmers for a given region is selecting for the best genetics in that environment, not to mention the social connotations of growing plants with lineages that can be traced back to seeds your great-grandfathers touched. It’s a huge request to ask of someone to set those seeds aside for something new with no connection to you.


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