Golden Rice, Hybrid Rice

Golden Rice

At first hearing, this sounds like such a good idea – a poster child for genetic engineering. But is it really such a good idea?

In many of the poorer parts of the world, vitamin A deficiency is a common problem. In many of those places (but far from all of them) the staple food is rice. So what better than to develop a variety of rice that contains vitamin A?

Umm. There are two major points here:

My father-in-law (RIP 2013, age about 80 but no-one knew exactly) grew seventeen different varieties of rice on his small farm in central India. Not all of them every year; he swapped seed with neighbours. He knew which varieties suited which khets (paddies; rice fields), and knowing that, depending on the vagaries of the weather, different varieties would do better and others worse in any given year. He also knew that varying the variety grown in any particular khet (of the ones that suited that khet) from year to year helped to keep the khet in good condition. This was all wisdom passed down the generations – and much wiser than ‘Western’ “Grow as much as you can today and leave tomorrow to worry about itself” thinking.

The latter is sadly a mode of thought in the ascendency in India as elsewhere.

Genetic Modification in general

I should say that I’m not opposed to genetic modification of plants and possibly animals – in closed environments, for research or the production of pharmaceuticals (but see also Medicines and Snake Oil) or other high value products that would justify the cost of those closed environments. But in the wider environment? The potential benefits, marginal at best for anyone other than the corporations, are simply not worth the risks. (The benefits for the corporations are clear enough, which is why they and their shills – paid or duped – push them.)

See also How Biotech Crops Can Crash—and Still Never Fail (Scientific American, online only).

Hybrid Rice

Even hybrid rice is a Bad Idea. It means you can’t keep seeds, or swap seeds with your neighbours; you’re totally dependent on a seed supplier. It also means you grow a smaller range of varieties – very likely just one – leaving you vulnerable to pests, diseases, or variations in weather patterns.

Thirty years after my father-in-law first mentioned this to me, in connection with hybrid rice from seed merchants (see below), not golden rice, the Times of India has finally caught up. See: Rice and fall of great desi crop. (Lakh is a Hindi word meaning 100,000.)

Thousands of farmers commit suicide every year in India, the only escape they can see from unpayable debts to seed and agricultural chemical suppliers, when the promised bountiful crops fail to materialize – they usually (but not always) do materialize for the first few years, encouraging increasing dependence, but sooner or later there comes a year, or a succession of years, when they fail.

1 Well, actually beta-carotene, just as golden rice does, but the body can convert it into vitamin A. There’s even more in liver – so much more that a small helping a few times a year is all you need. But in many places, particularly India, many people are vegetarian. Actually, amongst the poor, who are most at risk of dietary deficiencies, vegetarianism is much less common in India than is generally believed. This misconception has two main origins: attitudes amongst rich Indians, and the fact that the Indian poor don’t eat meat very often, so are usually seen eating vegetarian meals. But most of them do relish what little meat they can afford.

©Clive K Semmens 2011 (minor updates 2013, 2021)