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Scientific research and public necessity this summer led to government approval of a new, potentially life-saving procedure. There is no human vaccine or virus in this story. Instead, we refer to the government of the Philippines’ official approval of Golden Rice.
The global problem is malnutrition, more specifically, a deficiency of vitamin A. Globally, the World Health Organization reports between a quarter and a half million children each year lose their sight due to a lack of vitamin A. Within a year, approximately half of the people blinded will die from weakened immune systems. The vast majority of these cases occur in western and southern Africa and south-central Asia.
In the 1990s, two scientists discovered a solution. Onto the scene came two scientists: Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer. Potrykus and Beyer discovered a way to genetically modify rice seed to stimulate the production of beta-carotene in crops. When ingested by humans, beta-carotene becomes vitamin A, the missing ingredient in diets on the other side of the globe.
Since the discovery and perfection of the creation of Golden Rice, the road to its implementation has been fraught with protest. Famously, the environmental organization Greenpeace claims the planting of Golden Rice will “contaminate non-genetically engineered rice” and that vitamin A deficiency is better combated by already available practices such as “food supplements” and “home gardening.”
Five years ago, over 100 Nobel Laureates pushed back against genetically modified organism (GMO) hesitancy via an open letter. In the letter, they use the same aforementioned vitamin A statistics reported by the World Health Organization. They claim not a single adverse health consequence has been confirmed from the use of Golden Rice and that the use of GMOs has no proven negative effects on the environment: a statement in line with a report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, although the study warns against using its findings for broad generalization.
Of course, Greenpeace had their rebuttal. They stated the benefits of Golden Rice were the product of “overhyping.”
This is a battle that has raged for years, arguably decades. On one side of the aisle sits scientists eager to use their findings and studies to save lives. On the other sits skeptics who worry about often hypothetical consequences that could wreak havoc if an untested solution is implemented too soon. And while the bickering continues, people die.
In recent years, the Philippines took major steps to be the first country with a vitamin A deficiency presence to implement the use of Golden Rice. Full approval came this summer. Action is finally being taken.
When making any substantial claim on the efficacy of life-saving science, the burden of proof lies with those making the claim. Major studies delving into the research of the crops’ use prove time and time again that there are no serious risks from ingesting Golden Rice. The United States Food and Drug Administration itself has given it the green light.
In January 2020, Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel laureate who campaigns for the implementation of GMOs, said, “How many more children must die before this is considered a crime against humanity?”
Because there are two sides to this issue does not mean that each side must be given equal weight. The consensus of research seems to land on the side of Golden Rice’s safety. The opposition stands on what-ifs. By campaigning for the delay in implementing Golden Rice, organizations such as Greenpeace must grapple with the people who died from a fixable problem.
In America and Europe, we can afford to be hesitant and hash out every possible consequence of GMOs. We do not feel the consequences of vitamin A deficiency. The solution to the problem means very little to us, and our willingness to debate over the matter stems directly from our good fortune.
Until more nations take the bold step of approving Golden Rice in an effort to save lives, people will suffer while we debate.