Government red tape and vocal opposition to a genetically modified strain of rice has led to millions of unnecessary deaths and blindness in impoverished children, according to science writer Ed Regis, who details the plight of Golden Rice in a new book.
Golden Rice was genetically engineered to include beta-carotene, a chemical that our bodies can use to produce vitamin A. Deficiency in this vitamin is a leading cause of preventable childhood blindness worldwide, with up to 500,000 children becoming blind every year.
Lacking vitamin A can increase the risk of death from childhood illnesses and infections, too. The problem is prevalent in more than half of all the world's countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
While supplements can go a long way in dealing with this harrowing problem, the WHO notes that food fortification is one method for addressing the issue in the long term. And Golden Rice was developed with exactly this in mind.
But although the yellow-coloured rice has been around since the start of the century, it has yet to find its way to the people who need it the most in Asia – and in his new book, Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, Regis claims that over-cautious authorities are primarily to blame.
Greenpeace has been particularly vocal about opposing the introduction of Golden Rice, and genetically modified (GM) crops in general. The organisation has claimed that commercial interests are behind the promotion of the rice, that it hasn't been proven to boost vitamin A levels (although trials seem to indicate otherwise), and that it distracts from other attempts to end child poverty.
While there's plenty of research controversy still surrounding Golden Rice, the main problem that's hampered the crop, according to Regis, is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This international treaty, established in 2003, makes it very hard for GM crops to be introduced worldwide, assuming that these foods are dangerous until proven safe, rather than the other way around.
"Such regulations exist because of irrational fears of GMOs, ignorance of the science involved, and overzealous adherence to the precautionary principle," says Regis.
While we can all agree that health should always be a priority, Regis argues that the potentially life-saving effects of Golden Rice – we're talking about some 670,000 lives a year – is worth relaxing the 'better safe than sorry' approach just a little.
"In Bangladesh, China, India and elsewhere in Asia, many children subsist on a few bowls of rice a day and almost nothing else," writes Regis in his book. "For them, a daily supply of Golden Rice could now bring the gift of life and sight."
It's a debate that's been raging for years: in 2016, more than 100 Nobel Laureates signed a petition condemning the blocking of GM products such as Golden Rice, pointing out that there has never been a single recorded negative health outcome for humans or animals as a result of genetically modified organisms.
In 2018, a review of more than 6,000 studies came to the conclusion that GMOs lead to increased crop yields and significant health benefits. It's a compelling piece of evidence that indicates foods like Golden Rice deserve a chance to be cultivated - to potentially improve diets in impoverished parts of the world.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Golden Rice is currently only approved in four countries – Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada – but it's hoped that it will get the green light in Bangladesh and the Philippines before the end of the year, where it is far more urgently needed.
As the rice actually ends up in people's bowls, it's possible it will have the positive effects the developers hoped for. In that case, some of the stigma around GM foods – and the regulatory restrictions that slow down their wider use – may fall away.
But according to Ed Regis, there's no doubt that what we've seen so far has been a tragedy.
"The effects of withholding, delaying or retarding Golden Rice development through overcautious regulation has imposed unconscionable costs in terms of years of sight and lives lost," concludes Regis.