On The “Millions of Lives” Waiting to be Saved With Golden Rice…

This is adapted from an online discussion. I’ll tidy it up and add links in time…

 has a new piece in Slate arguing about the benefits of “Golden Rice.” A good place to ground my argument would be some specific, falsifiable claims:

  •  That this solution is an enormously expensive replacement for an existing, cheaper, and more nutritious technology called “vegetables.”
  • Even if the technology gets to the market, it will likely not catch on in any significant numbers for a variety of reasons I’ve explained elsewhere and below. If the idea is to sneak them in like fluoride in water or iodine in salt, it’s not going work. For starters, those don’t turn water or salt a different color. People like white salt, clear water, and white rice.

  • If it doesn’t catch on, the claim of it being able to save “millions of lives” is wrong. If you have good reason to think it probably won’t catch on, it’s a lie. If one is lying to divert scarce aid and development resources, then this would colloquially be considered “evil”. Because I’ve met the very nice people involved, I’ll stop at calling it “a bad idea”, “misleading”, and “wasteful.”
  • In twenty years, this technology will be a very expensive version of a common theme in development: people in developed countries engineering inappropriate solutions to poor people’s problems. See: wind-up radios, the “$100 laptop”/OLPC, dozens of redesigned cooking stoves, or anything William Easterly has written.
  • That the people involved in this project know that the claim of saving millions of lives is likely wrong because they understand rice markets and difficulty getting people to eat existing cheap, healthy foods like brown rice and greens. They know that most Asian consumers today (wrongly) associate the whiteness of rice with quality. They’ve proceeded to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on this project anyway because of the enormously positive public relations it gives GM and agricultural research. This masks very real issues with GM that I’ve written about elsewhere. I’ve not brought up any of the sillier claims about GM, so I don’t feel like I need to respond to them.
  • that this solution entrenches the systemic problems and the institutions and thinking that create modern malnutrition.

I started my research enchanted by the techno-utopian promises of the Gates Foundation and CGIAR. I believed their PR points that “$x dollars of agricultural research saves x lives” or pulls x number of people out of poverty. I really thought the primary issue was distributional – getting affordable high-tech solutions into the hands of the poor, hence the educational angle.

In short, diving into the deep end of these issues has left *extremely* cynical of these claims and, as you would say, “the underlying assumptions.” I’m extremely critical of Green Revolution thinking, in general, though I don’t think Facebook is the right place to expand on those thoughts in full. I’ll simply suggest you read Amartya Sen, if you’re interested, and think through the implications of his finding that food security (and malnutrition) problems in the modern age are not production issues, but complex distribution issues. 

It ties directly into this question: is this form of malnutrition a problem of a vitamin A shortage or is a problem of delivering existing vitamin A production to those who need it? Amartya Sen wrote that in every 20th century famine, there was still food on the shelves. Having spent a lot of time in Asia, I can attest that I’ve seen sweet potatoes, dark greens, carrots, and other high vitamin A content food in every Filipino, Chinese, Thai, and Laotian wet market I’ve visited. I’m fairly confident that there’s not a vitamin A shortage.

So let’s look at the facts and the problem: there is a large population of people who go to markets to buy their food, who for some reason walk past the existing vitamin-A food sources, and go on to purchase (in the case of the Philippines) the whitest, cheapest rice they can afford to go with the highly processed, cheap meat they’re buying (you’ll often hear that the slum-dwellers of the Philippines feed their children ‘hot dogs’). I’m going off memory here, but for about 25% of the population, they’re getting more than 70% of their calories from rice.

Let’s take a step back and look at the historical context: they’re malnourished because they’ve let a starchy grain come to dominate their diet. This happened at roughly the same time as the Green Revolution. Before the Green Revolution, camote – a type of [vitamin-A rich] sweet potato] was one of staple foods of poor Filipinos. It lost its dominance when, for a variety of reasons, a huge swath of farmland in the Philippines started mono-cropping a new variety of nearly tasteless, high volume rice that responded well to chemicals that also kill the reefs and the rivers. Because they’re now mono-cropping a handful of seed varieties in one location rather than the dozen of the thousands of existing local varieties mixed in with rotating a range of crops, they have a massive pest and weed problem.

Mix this in with the government actively promoting rice through various subsidies. Extension workers run around the country teaching people how to mono-crop even more rice. I’ve met the *one* guy in the Philippine government who teaches a more holistic version of agricultural systems. The National Food Authority of the Philippines imports even more rice from Vietnam and sells it dirt cheap in markets. So the poor become even more reliant on rice as a primary source of calories. To sum this point up: the poor are relying on rice because of policies to make rice cheap, not necessarily preference (though it becomes preference the longer it stays like that – most Filipinos think their people have always eaten three meals a day with rice).

So you’ve got two ways of framing the answer to the problem: find some way of making rice less rice-y and healthier. Fix one of the many malnutrition issues that arises when somebody is getting 70-80% of their calories from a single starchy grain. Perhaps after we learn to add vitamin A, we can learn to add more protein too. We can turn rice in veritable nutriloaf with enough research, I guess.

Or, as I suggest, we can go back and ask why they walked passed the carrots, lettuce, and sweet potatoes in the first place. Is it that they don’t know that those are healthier? Is it that they don’t know the benefits of a diverse diet? Could it be that their child is sick and they have no idea why? Or is that they can’t afford anything else and the government is only subsidizing rice? Is it that the other, healthier crops have become more expensive because there’s no room to grow it on a mono-cropped rice fields?

I can assure you that Cargille, IRRI, and most of the institutions involved in this have no interest in the second set of questions, as those questions go against the world views embedded in their mission statements. They need GM to fix the problems they kicked off – too many pests, too many weeds, large inputs of water and NPK, not enough diversity. 

Wrapping up this very long post, where I have a big problem is the misleading language of trying to sell the idea that these hundreds of millions of dollars are going to save “millions of lives.” As I think I’ve made clear elsewhere, there’s very little reason to think it will catch on and be consumed. It’s a million dollar bullet to replace something that already exists: vegetables. In that, it’s answer in search of a problem. The world doesn’t have a vitamin A deficiency, the world has a malnutrition problem. 

The core of the Golden Rice idea is a techno-utopian – that we can use bleeding edge science to feed poor people a single cheap grain *and* keep them healthy (as we’ve only succeeded in the first, so far). It’s a snake oil for the very real, very complex problem of malnutrition and food insecurity. It lets people and institutions get away with having to get their hands dirty looking at the socio-economic reasons why slum-dwellers aren’t eating healthier foods.

Which leads to two questions for Golden Rice advocates:

– In what way is golden rice better than vegetables in slowing malnutrition? Or why do we need to engineer a fix to get around the need to eat vegetables? 

– what reason do we have to expect that the same people who already have vitamin A rich vegetables in their marketplace, yet don’t purchase them, would skip white rice for a new breed of orange rice?



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