Genetically Modified Organisms: The “Golden Rice” Debate

1) Objectives

  1. Appreciate that malnutrition is a global health problem
  2. Learn how “Golden Rice” seeks to solve malnutrition in developing countries
  3. Discuss ethical questions raised by “Golden Rice” and other GMOs

2) Curriculum Integration Ideas
This brief may be used in life science or social studies classes during topics including

  1. Environmental Biology
  2. Health Economics and Sociology
  3. Global Health
  4. Nutrition

3) Golden Rice Project
Golden rice is a genetically modified, biofortified crop. Biofortification increases the nutritional value in crops. Golden rice is genetically modified in order to produce beta carotene, which is not normally produced in rice. Beta carotene is convereted 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 first introduced in 1999, when two professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, proposed their project to Rockefeller Foundation to genetically engineer rice to increase its nutrients. Rockefeller Foundation supported their goal to provide a sustainable biofortification approach to combat vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is prevalent in developing countries whose diets are dependent on rice or other micronutrient-poor carbohydrate foods, which do not contain vitamin A. The World Health Organization estimates that about 250 million preschool children are affected by VAD and about 2.7 million children die because of the deficiency. 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. VAD is one of the main causes of preventable blindness of young children from developing countries.

The Golden Rice Project began as a proposed solution for VAD; however, despite the establishment of a Humanitarian Board and abiding by national and international regulations governing GMOs, opposition to the project has blocked the roll-out of the Golden Rice Project in developing countries. 

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

The Opposition

Golden Rice may seem like a realistic solution for VAD (VAD), but those opposed say the project is deeply flawed. For starters, Friends of the Earth and MASIPAG agree that merely planting Golden Rice will not solve the VAD crisis. They point out that there are multiple recourses for malnutrition planned and currently in place, that are cheaper and do not require GMOs, that should make golden rice unnecessary. For example, UNICEF employs a vitamin A supplementation programs that improves a child’s survival rate by 12-24% with the price of only a few cents. In addition, golden rice may specifically target the deficiency of vitamin A but it could not address the countless additional social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to vitamin A deficiencies. Friends of the Earth stated that golden rice produces too little beta-carotene to eradicate VAD, solely 1.6 micrograms per gram of rice and 10% of the daily requirement of vitamin A. The amount of golden rice needed for sufficient vitamin A intake would be too great in comparison to the rice available in developing countries.

Another source of opposition to the project stems from questions regarding the motives of the Golden Rice Project 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 GM crops. (Those involved with the Golden Rice Project vehemently reject that their ties to biotech companies undermines their integrity.)

Then there are concerns about the employment of the Golden Rice Project such as the cost to set up, technology transfer, the accessibility of the project, the sustainability and credibility of the rice, and stable support from governments (MASIPAG).

Finally, there are social and cultural roadblocks. There are 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. (MASIPAG). Resistance to GM crops exists worldwide.

The Supporters

The supporters of The Golden Rice Project consistently flout its public health benefits. Golden rice may significantly decrease disease morbidity due to VAD in developing countries. This would be a great thing. They do not share the opposition’s skepticism as to whether golden rice would be an effective solution. Even if it didn’t totally eliminate VAD in developing countries, it might make an impact. 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, therefore the technology can be provided free of charge in developing countries.

Against another opposing view, the Golden Rice Project claims to be a sustainable project in contrast to the ongoing supplementation and fortification programs (Potrykus, 2001). The existing programs need millions of dollars per country and per year to run while in contrast the Golden Rice Project supplies free technology transfer to support the 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 they represent the radical fight against technology and political success. Greenpeace argues against GMOs for the fear of the advancement of biotechnology; however, when enhanced it could improve conditions in developing countries other than solely 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 (Potrykus, 2001).

International Rice Research Institute’s mission is to objectively evaluate the new proposed resolutions that biotechnology may offer the rice industry, and they work with the National Agricultural Research system to test the sustainability of the strategies in different countries. In their analysis, the IRRI has deemed golden rice an “exciting new option provided by biotechnology” (IRRI, 2000-2001). A clinical trial was conducted in 2009, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, testing the effectiveness of vitamin A conversion from golden rice in humans, children in china. The results supported the effective conversion of vitamin A in humans. The results showed the potential for golden rice to have a more advantageous bioconversion rate compared to any other biofortified crop, and while supplying 50% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamin A from a cup of rice, consumed daily. In addition, the Food Allergy Resource and Research Program of the University of Nebraska researched the rice in 2006 and the conclusion showed that no allergenic properties were found in the proteins from the new genes, an imminent fear from the GMO debate about potential new allergens in GM crops.

The Current Debate

As a result of opposition, the Golden Rice Project employed golden rice in fewer developing countries than originally proposed. Currently Golden Rice Project 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 such as the blessing from the Pope and the 2015 Patents for Humanity award (Golden Rice Project). Nevertheless, time passed without much headlining news from the Golden Rice Project, until June 2016, when 110 Laureates (out of the living 296 Nobel Laureates) among 5591 scientists and citizens signed a letter against Greenpeace’s opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and in support of 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 addressed Greenpeace’s opposition to biotechnological innovations in agriculture, and asks for reexamination 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 recent 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 spent, 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 regards to health and the environment. As many years before, the fight for and against GMOs is still in progress with no immediate sense of resolution.

5) What Are the Ethical Issues Raised?

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

1. 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 The Golden Rice Project will have an overall positive or negative effect on the world.


Many anti-GMO activists actively voice potential negative consequences of planting and consuming golden rice. Risks include potential allergies or potential antibiotic resistance. There is also the possibility that genetically modified foods enter the food supply inadvertently from planting GMO crops near non-GMO crops, without knowledge from the consumer. As genetically modified crops would have to be grown, there are concerns about the effect they would have on the surrounding environment. Therefore ethical concerns arise from the unknown effect on the environment. Could the crops negatively impact the environment and possibly its biodiversity? A possible threat to biodiversity arises when genetically modified crops breed with wild species (Murnaghan 2016). Another issue concerns the spreading, ‘escaping,’ or crossing of genes from genetically modified crops. This could create unwanted resistance of a pesticide or herbicide, or could increase the strength of weeds. As with human safety concerns, there is the possibility that other animals that eat genetically modified crops will be affected. This could created inadvertent risks to these species, harming them and possibly biodiversity too (McLean, 2005). Studies of the long-term impacts of planting and/or consuming golden rice have been minimal, because it would take decades to really learn anything.

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, there is the fear of negative effects on small-scale farmers because market dominance may arise. This could negatively impact poor farmers who cannot compete with large biotech companies for land and a share of the rice market.


Golden Rice has the promise to help prevent millions of deaths and to alleviate sufferings of children and adults afflicted with VAD and micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries. In addition, allowing further golden rice development may open up more possibilities of enhancing genetically modified, biofortified crops to combat micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries. This is the main benefit of golden rice. Supporters of the project believe that the improvement of public health in developing countries trumps the risks associated with golden rice.

2. The 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 the inhabitants of the developing countries, the intended receivers 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 the poor impedes our ability to do so.

Luckily, with the support of both anti-GMO activists and pro-GMO activists, voices from the 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 gave his approval, saying that like other farmers in countless countries dreaming that their crops 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 gave contrasting reports, however. Some raised concerns about small farmers becoming indebted to larger corporations for seeds, exploitation of farmers, health concerns for humans and the environment. The voices of farmers are often broadcast by activist organization, 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

  1. What is “Golden Rice?” What issues is the Golden Rice Project trying to address?
  2. Summarize the main arguments of the two sides in the Golden Rice Debate.
  3. Do you think the benefits of planting and consuming golden rice outweigh the risks?
  4. What are the main ethical issues that the opposition and the supporters bring up?
  5. What is another example of a genetically modified organism debate?

Links Offsite

  1. The Golden Rice Project Website
  2. Case Study: Golden Rice Iowa State University
  4. Non GMO Project
  5. Nuffield Council on Bioethics: "Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues"
  6. “Missing the story on Golden Rice"
  7. "Asian Farmers and Scientists Say No to GMO Golden Rice"
  8. "Philippines: farmers call to stop 'Golden Rice' trials"
  9.  "My First "Golden" Harvest: A Rice Farmer in the Philippines Tells His Story"

References and Further Reading

  1. Freese, Bill, Friends of the Earth. “Golden Rice and VAD.” CropChoice. Friends of the Earth, 6 June 2001.
  2. Goodman RE, 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. 2 May 2006.
  3. IRRI. “The Eyes of the World Are Watching” 2000-2001. <>
  4. Mayer, Jorge. “The Golden Rice Controversy: Useless Science or Unfounded Criticism” Bioscience, 55(9): 726-727. 2005.
  5. McLean, Margaret R.  “An Introduction to the Ethical Issues in Genetically Modified Foods” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Lecture. <>
  6. Murnaghan, Ian. “Ethical Concerns and GM Foods.” Genetically Modified Foods. 23 May 2016.
  7. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. “Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues” May 1999.
  8. Paraluman, Edwin. “My First “Golden” Harvest: A Rice Farmer in the Philippines Tells his story” Impatient Optimists. 13 April 2011.
  9. Potrykus, Ingo. “Golden Rice and Beyond” Plant Physiol, 125(3): 1157-1161. March 2001.
  10. Stone, Glenn Davis, and Flachs, Andrew. “The problem with the farmer’s voice” Agriculture and Human Values. 28 July 2014.
  11. Stone, Glenn Davis, and Glover, Dominic. “Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines” Agriculture and Human Values 16 April 2016.
  12. Tang G, Qin J, Dolnikowski GG, Russell RM, Grusak MA. “Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A” Americal Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 2009. 89(6): 1776-83.
  13. Tickell, Oliver. “Philippines: farmers call to stop ‘Golden Rice’ trials” Ecologist. 8 September 2014.
Public Health Ethics
Genetics and Neuroethics