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There's Nothing Like a Feel-Good Bowl of Golden Rice. Or Not

"This rice could save a million kids a year."

That was the arresting headline on the cover of last week's Time magazine. It referred to golden rice, a newly market-ready variety of genetically engineered grain that contains extra beta-carotene, a property that helps the body produce vitamin A. All over Asia, millions of malnourished children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and death.

To get their supposed miracle cure off the ground, AstraZeneca, the company that owns marketing rights for golden rice, has offered to donate the grains to poor farmers in countries such as India, where, perhaps not coincidentally, genetically engineered crops have met fierce resistance.

It's possible that golden rice could improve the health of millions of poor children. The problem is that there is no way to separate that powerful emotional claim (and the limited science attached to it) from the overheated political context in which the promise is being made.

Genetically engineered foods, originally greeted with rubber stamps from governments and indifference from the public, have rapidly become an international repository for anxiety about everything from food safety to corporate-financed science to privatized culture.

Opponents argue that the current testing standards fail to take into account the complex web of interrelations that exists among living things. Altered soy beans may appear safe in a controlled test environment, but how, once grown in nature, will they affect the weeds around them, the insects that feed on them, and the crops that cross-pollinate with them?

What has blind-sided the agribusiness companies is that the fight has been a battle of the brands, as much as one of warring scientific studies. Early on, activists decided to aim their criticism not at agribusiness itself, but at the brand-name supermarkets and packaged-foods companies that sold products containing "Frankenfoods."

Their brand images tarnished, British supermarkets began pulling products off their shelves, and companies such as Gerber and Frito-Lay went GE-free. In the United States and Canada, environmentalists have set their sights on Kellogg and Campbell Soup, parodying their carefully nurtured logos and costly ad campaigns.

Until now, the agribusiness companies have had great difficulty responding. Even if they could claim that their altered foods had no harmful effects, they couldn't point to direct nutritional benefits, either. Which is where golden rice comes in. Agribusiness companies finally have a benefit to which they can point—not to mention a powerful brand of their own with which to fight the brand wars.

Golden rice has all the feel-good ingredients of a strong brand. First, it's golden, as in golden retrievers and gold cards and golden sunsets. Second, unlike other genetically engineered foods, it isn't spliced with ghastly fish genes, but rather melded with sunny daffodils.

But before we embrace genetic engineering as the saviour of the world's poor, it seems wise to sort out what problem is being solved here. Is it the crisis of malnutrition, or is it the crisis of credibility plaguing biotech?

The boring truth is that we already have the tools to save many more than a million kids a year—all without irrevocably changing the genetic makeup of food staples. What we lack is the political will to mobilize those resources. That was the clear message that emerged last month from the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa. One after another, the largest industrial nations shot down concrete proposals aimed at reducing poverty in the developing world.

As this paper reported, they nixed "a Canadian proposal to boost development aid by up to 10 per cent, turned down Japan's idea to set up a G8 fund to fight infectious diseases, and backed away from opening their markets to farm goods from developing countries within four years." They also "said no to a new plan to accelerate $100-billion (U.S.) in debt relief for the poorest countries."

There are also plenty of low-tech solutions to vitamin A deficiency that have been similarly passed over. Programs already exist to encourage the growth of diverse, vitamin-rich vegetables on small plots, yet the irony of these programs (which receive little international support) is that their task is not to invent a sexy new sci-fi food source. It's to undo some of the damage created the last time Western companies and governments sold an agricultural panacea to the developing world.

During the so-called Green Revolution, small-scale peasant farmers, growing a wide variety of crops to feed their families and local communities, were pushed to shift to industrial, export-oriented agriculture. That meant single, high-yield crops, produced on a large scale.

Many peasants, now at the mercy of volatile commodity prices and deep in debt to the seed companies, lost their farms and headed for the cities. In the countryside, meanwhile, severe malnutrition exists alongside flourishing "cash crops" such as bananas, coffee, and rice. Why? Because in children's diets, as in the farm fields, diverse foods have been replaced with monotony. A bowl of white rice is lunch and dinner.

The solution being proposed by the agribusiness giants? Not to rethink mono-crop farming and fill that bowl with protein and vitamins. Like omnipotent illusionists, they propose to paint that bowl golden.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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