The "Golden Rice" Cure
Every year, about a million people die from vitamin A deficiency. Lack of vitamin A also causes anywhere from half a million to almost three million cases of irreversible blindness in children every year.
However, locked away in a warehouse somewhere is a type of rice that could render those statistics obsolete. The rice is known as golden rice. While ordinary rice hardly contains any vitamin A at all, golden rice contains more vitamin A than spinach.
The reason golden rice is under lock and key is because it's a genetically modified (GM) food, and many people fear GM foods as much as they fear terrorists or cancer.
Plant biologist Robert Goldberg of UCLA, speaking in Scientific American, complained bitterly about the GM food controversy.
"Frankenstein monsters. Things crawling out of the lab. This is the most depressing thing I've every dealt with. Today, we're facing the same objections we faced 40 years ago.
"In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth, and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we're back to being ignorant."
Is Goldberg right? Is the majority of the U.S. public, in fact the majority of the world, vilifying GM foods for no reason?
If the US Food and Drug Administration's estimates are correct, the world will have to produce about 70% more food just to keep up, as population growth and maybe climate change will make growing foods more challenging.
GM foods could produce higher yields, grow in ordinarily intemperate climates, and require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides to grow.
Regardless, much of the world shuns GM foods.
Here are the pros and cons:
Some 60 years ago, scientists began altering the genomes of certain crops by using either chemicals or radiation to scramble their genetic code. These mutant strains of wheat, rice, peanuts, and peas became agricultural staples and no one objected. More importantly, no one was reported to have gotten sick from them.
Back then, radiation and chemicals altered large sections of genetic material. Whereas, today's modern GM usually only involves the introduction or alteration of a single gene from another plant species, a bacterium, a virus, or even an animal.
According to scientists, the latter approach is much less likely to create any surprises, i.e., "Frankenfoods." And, if a problem did occur, they'd know exactly which gene caused it so they could get rid of it.
Likewise, viruses have been introducing their DNA into plants, as well as us, as long as we've been around, so it's nothing new. Similarly, plant species have been crossbreeding naturally since the first two plants tentatively stuck their stamens out into the world.
While many fears of GM foods in general are largely undefined by detractors, one fear does predominate – that the altered DNA of a plant could contaminate our own DNA. While that may be a great premise for a science fiction movie, it doesn't work that way in real life. Genetic material doesn't survive the digestive tract and make it into our cells.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Science are all firmly in GM's corner. The US Food and Drug Administration, a bunch of scientific sticklers if there ever was one, has examined the research and found GM foods to be safe.
Likewise, the European Commission has funded 130 research studies on GM foods, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, and none found any unique risks.
Lastly, as Dr. Goldberg explained, people have consumed billions of GM meals over the last few decades without any reported problems.
There have been a few studies that concluded that GM foods are dangerous. However, two of the most commonly cited ones have been pretty much ripped up by the scientific community.
The first one, conducted by plant biochemist Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute of Scotland in 1998, found that rats fed a certain type of GM potato experienced stunted growth and immunological problems.
It was fairly compelling, until scientists pointed out that the potato used in the study wasn't meant for human consumption; in fact, it was supposed to be toxic by design.
The second one, more recent and much scarier, was published in 2012 by Gilles-Eric Seralini at the University of Caen Lower Normandy in France. Seralini fed a commonly grown GM corn to rats and they contracted cancer at an alarmingly high rate.
The study results blazed through the Internet, reaffirming fears of GM foods. The trouble was that Seralini used a type of rat in his research that develops tumors really easily. In fact, 80% of the rats develop tumors just by existing.
Furthermore, critics pointed out that Seralini didn't use enough rats, didn't bother to include proper controls, and didn't report some of the details of the experiments. The European Food Safety Authority, among others, soundly dismissed his findings.
David H. Freeman, author of the Scientific American article where some of the info here was derived, thinks there's perhaps middle ground to be found in the debate. He suggests "continuing distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops."
He also gives a nod to the GM naysayers by pointing out that while most scientists assume GM plants are safety-tested in much the same way new drugs are, they aren't.
Most consumers see universal labeling of GM as a positive step forward, but you can see why food manufacturers are reluctant to do so. With so much bad publicity, much of it unfounded, how are they going to get a fair shake from consumers?
Sure, labeling gives consumers a choice, but if their choice is based on what amounts to not much more than superstition, manufacturers are surely going to get the short end of the GM stick.
Of course, some food companies might be profiting from our fears of GM foods. Consider Chipotle, who recently decided to go "No GMO." If two thirds of the population thinks GMO is bad, then no GMO is a smart, moneymaking decision.
Unfortunately, it's a decision that hurts science and the need for increased food production in the future.