GMO Crops & Food Privilege

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Genes from another organism are inserted into the DNA of the target crop. It’s different from the traditional method used in breeding new cultivars in that these genes aren’t in that plant to start with, so there’s no way to select for them. They have to be introduced in a laboratory.

There are three main reasons why crops are genetically modified. The first two—increased disease and insect resistance, herbicide tolerance—predominate in the U.S.

If you’re interested in those issues, please read my post on my other blog, Mountain Plover. Here I want to address the third reason for modifying crops. Recombinant DNA technology makes it possible to fortify staple crops with nutrients they normally do not have. This ability could significantly impact malnutrition in the developing world.

For example, billions of people rely on rice as a staple crop. This grain has plenty of starch and some protein, but it lacks zinc, beta-carotene, and foliate (leading to birth defects), and a serving contains only 1% of the iron we need daily. The absence of those micronutrients leads to severe malnutrition and often death.

GMO rice can solve this serious problem. Take beta-carotene, for example. Beta-carotene is the precursor to Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes a multitude of health problems.

VAD compromises the immune systems of approximately 40 percent of children under five in the developing world … In developing countries 500,000 people, mainly children, become blind every year, 50 percent of which die within a year of becoming blind. Nearly nine million children die of malnutrion every year. VAD severely affects the immune system, hence it is involved in many of these children’s deaths in the guise of a number of diseases. Recently, malaria deaths in children under five years of age has been linked to deficiencies in the intake of protein, vitamin A and zinc (Caulfield et al., 2004).*

To address this critical issue, scientists modified rice DNA, adding a pair of genes, one from corn and the other “from a very commonly ingested soil bacterium.” The result was Golden Rice, the same golden color as other carotene-rich foods such as carrots and winter squash.

Sadly, activists, mostly in the west, are actively campaigning against the legalization of golden rice in the countries that would most benefit from it. We have the resources to eat a varied diet rich in nutrients, but billions of others do not. Should we be talking about “food privilege”? According to Sir Richard Roberts,

Golden Rice has been accepted as safe for consumption by the Governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and USA, and registrations have been applied for in Philippines and Bangladesh. Yet, significantly due to rejection of science by activists, Golden Rice is not yet available to farmers and their communities as an additional intervention for vitamin A deficiency. And neither high folate rice, nor high iron rice, nor high zinc rice, nor Golden Rice could be developed without the use of GMO-technology.

I find it difficult to understand why anyone would argue against a crop that could save literally millions of lives. I understand that people are leery of anything “artificial” that may endanger our health and the health of the planet. But we need to balance those concerns with the pesticide usage, and malnutrition and the need for an adequate food supply to feed our growing population.


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