A golden future

8 Jan 2013

End of year publications often contain facts and figures to sum up progress (or otherwise) over the previous 12 months. One such figure really surprised me; there has been a 30% fall in fruit and vegetable consumption by lower income families in the UK since 2006, attributed to the recession and rising food prices. This is a shocking figure, especially given the Government’s huge ‘5-a-day’ publicity campaign encouraging the consumption of at least five portions of fruit and veg a day, and let’s hope that this fall can soon be reversed.

I suppose that reduction in a good diet highlights the huge challenge to improve the diet of the world’s population. There are very differing views on how this can be achieved. Greenpeace suggests that the way forward is to change farming by universally adopting small scale ‘ecological’ farming (I assume that this is their description of organic farming). On the other hand, agricultural technologists say that we can increase the dietary value of food through plant breeding and genetic modification.

The clash between these two contrasting views is exemplified by the issue of Golden Rice. This is rice that has been genetically modified to have enhanced vitamin A content, an essential nutrient needed for the visual system, growth, development and a healthy immune system. Everybody needs vitamin A to grow and thrive, particularly mothers and young children. Deficiency can cause blindness and impairs immune system function, increasing the risk of death.Golden Rice

Each year, it’s estimated that 670,000 children under the age of five die from vitamin A deficiency.  It is the number one cause of preventable blindness among children in developing countries – as many as 350,000 go blind every year. The main areas where vitamin A deficiency occurs are the parts of Asia where rice dominates the diet, particularly the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Enhancing the vitamin A content of locally produced rice seems a logical, practical and humane way forward. The anti-GM lobby maintains that this is far too simplistic and the problem can be solved by other means, such as more ecologically-based farming, food supplements and better advice. However, they’ve been saying this since Golden Rice was first bred in 1999 and things don’t seem to be getting any better. 

The fall in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption by low income families in the UK, despite widely promulgated advice to the contrary, only emphasises the problems associated with trying to improve diets. It also seems that many of those who are opposed to Golden Rice have been satisfied with stalling its introduction and have subsequently walked away from the issue.

I am not saying that Golden Rice is the complete answer to vitamin A deficiency in rice-dominated diets but it could make a significant contribution to enhancing such diets. My hope is that those who oppose GM and Golden Rice either accept that the technology may make a real contribution to reducing this huge humanitarian tragedy or that they roll up their sleeves and open their wallets to find a realistic alternative way forward.

Field trials on Golden Rice are now being carried out in Asia by the International Rice Research Institute and the trait is going through the regulatory system. I personally hope that it meets the regulatory requirements and is introduced as soon as possible to see if it can contribute to a reduction in such a preventable form of human misery.

By the way, the reason it is called Golden Rice is that the rice is yellow rather than white. This is because the enhanced vitamin A content is achieved by increasing the beta-carotene content, which is also where carrots get their colour from - hence, the association with carrots and good eyesight.