Golden rice is a variety of rice (Oryza sativa) produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice. The research was conducted with the goal of producing a fortified food to be grown and consumed in areas with a shortage of dietary vitamin A, a deficiency which is estimated to kill 670,000 children under the age of 5 each year.
Golden rice differs from its parental strain by the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes. The scientific details of the rice were first published in Science in 2000, the product of an eight-year project by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. At the time of publication, golden rice was considered a significant breakthrough in biotechnology, as the researchers had engineered an entire biosynthetic pathway.
Biologists Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus succeeded in developing a new type of rice named Golden Rice (pictured above on the left) some 15 years ago. The two scientists genetically modified the rice to produce and accumulate provitamin A – or beta carotene – which the human body then converts into vitamin A.
Beyer, Potrykus and other supporters of the rice argue their staple food can save lives – especially the lives of many children who might go blind from vitamin A deficiencies or die from infectious diseases such as measles.
Vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem that is widely unknown to people in developed countries. According to estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO), some 250 million young children suffer from the vitamin deficiency. Every year, about 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind due to malnutrition, with half of them dying within a year after going blind.
Children in poor African and Southeast Asian countries are among the most affected. Maternal mortality figures are also high in countries in these regions.
In 2005, a new variety called Golden Rice 2, which produces up to 23 times more beta-carotene than the original golden rice, was announced. Although golden rice was developed as a humanitarian tool, it has met with significant opposition from environmental and anti-globalization activists. Studies have found that golden rice poses no risk to human health, and multiple field tests have taken place with no adverse side-effects to participants.
Critics of genetically engineered crops have raised various concerns. An early issue was that golden rice originally did not have sufficient vitamin A. This problem was solved by the development of new strains of rice. The speed at which vitamin A degrades once the rice is harvested, and how much remains after cooking are contested. However, a 2009 study concluded that golden rice is effectively converted into vitamin A in humans and a 2012 study that fed 68 children ages 6 to 8 concluded that golden rice was as good as vitamin A supplements and better than the natural beta-carotene in spinach.
Greenpeace opposes the use of any patented genetically modified organisms in agriculture and opposes the cultivation of golden rice, claiming it will open the door to more widespread use of GMOs. However this is rejected by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), claiming that “None of the companies listed … are involved in carrying out the research and development activities of IRRI or its partners in Golden Rice, and none of them will receive any royalty or payment from the marketing or selling of Golden Rice varieties developed by IRRI.”
Vandana Shiva, an Indian anti-GMO activist, argued the problem was not the plant per se, but potential problems with poverty and loss of biodiversity. Shiva claimed these problems could be amplified by the corporate control of agriculture. By focusing on a narrow problem (vitamin A deficiency), Shiva argued, golden rice proponents were obscuring the limited availability of diverse and nutritionally adequate food. Other groups argued that a varied diet containing foods rich in beta carotene such as sweet potato, leaf vegetables and fruit would provide children with sufficient vitamin A. However Keith West of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health countered that foodstuffs containing vitamin A are either unavailable, or only available at certain seasons, or that they are too expensive for poor families in underdeveloped countries.
In 2008 WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca cited the lack of real-world studies and uncertainty about how many people will use golden rice, concluding “giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem”.
On August 8, 2013 an experimental plot of golden rice being grown in the Philippines was uprooted by protesters. Mark Lynas, a famous former anti-GMO activist, reported in Slate that the vandalism was carried out by a group of activists led by the extreme left-inclined Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) (unofficial translation: Farmers’ Movement of the Philippines), to the dismay of other protesters. No local farmers participated in the uprooting, only the small number of activists damaged the Golden Rice crops, because the farmers believe in their local customs which imply that killing a living rice plant is unlucky.
Potrykus has enabled golden rice to be distributed free to subsistence farmers. Free licenses for developing countries were granted quickly due to the positive publicity that golden rice received, particularly in Time magazine in July 2000.  Monsanto Company was one of the first companies to grant free licences.
The cutoff between humanitarian and commercial use was set at US$10,000. Therefore, as long as a farmer or subsequent user of golden rice genetics does not make more than $10,000 per year, no royalties need to be paid. In addition, farmers are permitted to keep and replant seed.