Genetically Modified Organisms: The Golden Rice Debate | NYU Langone Health

Skip to Main Content
High School Bioethics Project Learning Scenarios Genetically Modified Organisms: The Golden Rice Debate

Genetically Modified Organisms: The Golden Rice Debate

Designed by NYU Langone’s High School Bioethics Project, this learning scenario asks students to appreciate that malnutrition is a global health problem and to learn how golden rice aims to address malnutrition in developing countries. We also discuss ethical questions raised by golden rice and other genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Curriculum Integration Ideas

This unit may be used in life sciences or social studies classes during topics including the following:

  • environmental biology
  • health economics and sociology
  • global health
  • nutrition

Golden Rice Project

Golden rice is a genetically modified, biofortified crop. Biofortification increases the nutritional value of crops. Golden rice is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, which is not normally present in rice. Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A when metabolized by the human body. We need vitamin A for healthier skin, immune systems, and vision.

The Golden Rice Project was introduced in 1999, when two professors, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, proposed a plan to The Rockefeller Foundation to genetically engineer rice to increase its nutritional value. The Rockefeller Foundation supported their goal to provide a sustainable biofortification approach to combat vitamin A deficiencies (VADs) in developing countries. VAD is prevalent in countries with populations that are dependent on rice or other micronutrient-poor carbohydrate foods. VAD can have numerous negative health effects such as dryness of the eye that can lead to blindness if untreated, reduced immune system response, and an increase in the severity and mortality risk of infections. It is one of the main causes of preventable blindness in young children from developing countries. The World Health Organization estimates that about 250 million preschool children are affected by VAD and that vitamin A supplementation could prevent 2.7 million childhood deaths.

The Golden Rice Debate

When the Golden Rice Project was first announced, it was advertised as an exciting solution to VAD in developing countries. However, opposition to the GMO formed, blocking the expansion of the project. Countless people and organizations including Friends of the Earth, MASIPAG (a farmer-led network of organizations based in the Philippines), and Greenpeace made arguments trying to halt the Golden Rice Project. At the same time, supporters of the project, including the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Humanitarian Board for Golden Rice, continued touting its benefits. It is clear that the golden rice debate is about not only golden rice, but also GMOs in general.

The Opposition to Golden Rice

Golden rice may seem like a realistic solution for VAD, but those in opposition say the project is deeply flawed. Friends of the Earth and MASIPAG agree that merely planting golden rice will not solve the VAD crisis. They point out that other planned solutions for malnutrition as well as programs currently in place are cheaper and do not require GMOs, thereby making golden rice unnecessary. For example, UNICEF employs a vitamin A supplementation program that improves a child’s survival rate by 12 to 24 percent and costs only a few cents. In addition, golden rice may specifically target the deficiency of vitamin A but does not address the countless additional social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to VADs. Friends of the Earth states that golden rice produces too little beta-carotene to eradicate VAD (1.6 mg/g of rice, or 10 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin A). The amount of golden rice needed for sufficient vitamin A intake would be too great in comparison with the rice available in developing countries.

Another source of opposition to the project stems from questions regarding the Golden Rice Project’s motives and its ties to several large biotech industries. Is it a ploy to enhance public support for GMOs, which could take funding away from cheaper, more realistic solutions? Or are they out to make a profit? The biotech industry’s push of their technology raises concerns about their motives and contributes to the negative connotations of genetically modified crops. Those involved with the Golden Rice Project vehemently deny that their ties to biotech companies undermine their integrity.

MASIPAG notes concerns about the employment of the Golden Rice Project such as the set-up cost, technology transfer, accessibility of the project, sustainability and credibility of the rice, and stable support from governments. Finally, there are social and cultural roadblocks, such as eating preferences deeply rooted in longstanding tradition. The yellow color of the rice may not be accepted because of different countries’ social and cultural history.

The Supporters of Golden Rice

Supporters of the Golden Rice Project consistently tout its public health benefits. Golden rice may significantly decrease disease morbidity due to VAD in developing countries. Proponents claim that even if it didn’t totally eliminate VAD in developing countries, it might make a positive impact on public health. Planting and consuming golden rice alongside other interventions (like UNICEF’s supplement program) will make more of a difference than any one intervention alone. We should use all tools at our disposal to prevent disease and lifelong disability.

Supporters of the project also reject the opposition’s concern over the fact that the Golden Rice Project has partners in the biotech industry and for-profit companies. The Golden Rice Project has freedom to operate under humanitarian use, so the technology can be provided free of charge in developing countries. Contrary to another opposing view, the Golden Rice Project claims to be a sustainable one in contrast to the ongoing supplementation and fortification programs. Existing programs need millions of dollars per country per year to run. In contrast, the Golden Rice Project supplies free technology transfer to support developing countries.

Finally, supporters of the project consistently point out that anti–golden rice groups also have their own political agenda—they are not focusing on helping the consumer, but rather represent the radical fight against technology and political success. Greenpeace argues against GMOs for fear of advancing biotechnology, but when enhanced it can improve conditions in developing countries beyond micronutrient malnutrition. Biotechnology could improve the productivity and sustainability of developing countries’ agricultural systems, supply greater quantities and availability of micronutrients, and reduce large quantities of chemical inputs in both economically and environmentally sustainable ways.

The International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) mission is to objectively evaluate the new proposed resolutions that biotechnology may offer the rice industry; they work with national agricultural research systems to test the sustainability of strategies in different countries. In their analysis, the IRRI has deemed golden rice an “exciting new option provided by biotechnology.” A clinical trial testing the effectiveness of vitamin A conversion from golden rice in humans and children in China was conducted in 2009 and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The results supported the effective conversion of vitamin A in humans. The results showed the potential for golden rice to have a better bioconversion rate compared with any other biofortified crop, while supplying 50 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A in just one cup of rice. In addition, the Food Allergy Resource and Research Program of the University of Nebraska researched the rice in 2006 and concluded that no allergenic properties were found in proteins from the new genes, a fear from the GMO debate about potential new allergens in genetically modified crops.

The Current Debate About Golden Rice

As a result of opposition, the Golden Rice Project employed golden rice in fewer developing countries than originally proposed. Currently, it has 16 national rice research institutions under the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board including those in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India, South Africa, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Despite opposition, the Golden Rice Project continued to gradually gain support, including a blessing from the Pope on November 7, 2013, and the 2015 Patents for Humanity award. In June 2016, 5,591 scientists and citizens, including 110 Nobel laureates (out of the living 296 laureates), signed a letter in support of GMOs, rejecting Greenpeace’s opposition to GMOs. Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, led the letter campaign entitled Laureates’ Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture (GMOs).

The letter addresses Greenpeace’s opposition to biotechnological innovations in agriculture, and asks the organization and its supporters to reexamine their stance as the scientists believe them to misunderstand the risks, benefits, and impacts that GMOs could have, especially in developing countries. This letter specifically addressed golden rice, and the potential benefits it could have if fully employed in developing countries. The letter stated, “We call upon Greenpeace to cease and desist in its campaign against golden rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general.”

With the letter came opposition. Authors of a 2016 article in the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values, “Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines,” argue that opposition from anti-GMO activists is not to blame for the lack of progress on the Golden Rice Project. They argue that even after 24 years of research and billions of dollars, the project is still many years away from being released to developing countries. Many research questions remain about golden rice such as: Is beta-carotene converted into vitamin A in malnourished individuals? Does the crop sustain after long periods between harvest seasons? Could golden rice be incorporated into traditional cooking methods? These questions remain because of a lack of studies that show the future safety of golden rice in regard to human health and the environment. As it has for many years, the fight for and against GMOs continues with no immediate promise of resolution.

What Are the Ethical Issues Raised?

Despite ample research on golden rice, there remain many unanswered questions and ethical concerns. In addition to weighing risks and benefits, there is a question about who should decide whether golden rice is utilized.

Consequentialism: Do the Benefits Outweigh Risks?

A consequentialist ethical framework says that we should look at whether planting golden rice will bring about more good, or more harm. An analysis of the risks of planting golden rice and the benefits of doing so may yield clarity about whether it will have an overall positive or negative effect on the world.

Golden Rice Risks

Many anti-GMO activists voice potential negative consequences of planting and consuming golden rice. Risks include potential allergies or antibiotic resistance. There is also the possibility that genetically modified foods may enter the food supply inadvertently when GMO crops are planted near non-GMO crops, without the consumers' knowledge. As genetically modified crops would have to be grown, there are concerns about the effect they would have on the surrounding environment. Could the crops negatively impact biodiversity? A possible threat to biodiversity arises when genetically modified crops breed with wild species.

Another issue concerns the spreading, escaping, or crossing of genes from genetically modified crops. This could create unwanted pesticide or herbicide resistance. As with human safety concerns, there is a possibility that other animals that eat genetically modified crops will be affected. Studies of the long-term impacts of planting and consuming golden rice have been minimal. Even though these very minimal risks are still discussed in popular discourse, many scientists now agree that genetically modified crops are just as safe to consume and to plant as traditional crops.

On a different note, there are possible socioeconomic implications that genetically modified foods can have on developing countries. Since for-profit companies back genetically modified foods, some fear that their possible market dominance could negatively affect small-scale farmers, particularly poor farmers who cannot compete with large biotech companies for land and a share of the rice market.

Golden Rice Benefits

Golden rice has the promise to help prevent millions of deaths and alleviate the suffering of children and adults with VAD and micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries. In addition, allowing its further development may open up more possibilities of enhancing genetically modified, biofortified crops to combat micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries—the main benefit of golden rice. Supporters of the project believe that improving public health in developing countries outweighs golden rice’s associated risks.

Unheard Voices in the Debate

In a debate dominated by anti-GMO activists and Nobel laureates, some views are left in the dark. Ironically, the unheard voices are those of developing countries’ inhabitants, the intended beneficiaries of the proposed resolutions in the fight against micronutrient malnutrition. Ethical decision-making demands that we consider an issue from a variety of perspectives. Drowning out the voices of those lacking resources impedes our ability to do so.

Luckily, with the support of both anti- and pro-GMO activists, voices from developing countries are starting to emerge. For example, as told to Jill Kuehnert for IRRI, Edwin Paraluman presented his story of his golden rice harvest in the Philippines as a rice farmer. He approved, saying that, like other farmers in countless countries dreaming that their crops may feed their families, communities, and countries with healthy food, golden rice meets his needs. At the end, he gave his enthusiastic support to the development and expansion of golden rice. Other Philippine farmers, however, gave contrasting reports. Some raised concerns about small farmers becoming indebted to larger corporations for seeds, exploitation of farmers, and human and environmental health. The voices of farmers are often broadcast by activist organizations, which may lead us to wonder: what are the developing country farmers’ true beliefs? Their viewpoints are lost in the debate, prompting ethical concerns over who should get to decide what crops to plant in a particular country or region.

Review Questions

Here are some sample questions to review during this lesson:

  • What is golden rice? What issues is the Golden Rice Project trying to address?
  • Summarize the main arguments of the two sides in the golden rice debate.
  • Do you think the benefits of planting and consuming golden rice outweigh the risks?
  • What are the main ethical issues that the opponents and supporters bring up?
  • What is another example of a genetically modified organism debate?

Selected External Resources

Consider exploring the following background resources:

References and Further Reading

Stone GD and Glover D. Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines. Agric Hum Values. 2017. DOI.

Murnaghan I. Ethical concerns and GM foods. Genetically Modified Foods. May 23, 2016.

Stone GD and Flachs A. The problem with the farmer’s voice. Agric Hum Values. 2014. DOI.

Tickell O. Philippines: Farmers call to stop ‘Golden Rice’ trials. Ecologist. September 8, 2014.

Tang G … Grusak MA. Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A. Am J Clini Nutr. 2009. DOI.

Goodman RE and Wise J. “Bioinformatic analysis of proteins in Golden Rice 2 to assess potential allergenic cross-reactivity.” University of Nebraska. Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. May 2, 2006.

Mayer JE. The Golden Rice controversy: Useless science or unfounded criticism? Bioscience. 2005. DOI.

McLean MR. “An Introduction to the Ethical Issues in Genetically Modified Foods.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Lecture. 2005.

Freese B. Golden Rice and VAD. CropChoice. Friends of the Earth. June 6, 2001.

Potrykus I. Golden Rice and beyond. Plant Physiol. 2001. DOI.