Friday, December 08, 2006

GM Crops: another green revolution?

One of the tragedies I saw in Africa was a child who became blind from lack of vitamin A.

The Helen Keller foundation estimates "between 250,000 and 500,000 children go blind from a lack of vitamin A in their diet, which also affects their growth, cognitive development and immune system. 70% of these children die within one year of losing their sight, and a total of 800,000 children every year from a lack of vitamin A.

Supplementation with vitamin A capsules is the single most cost-effective health intervention according to the World Bank and other global health experts. It only takes two doses a year to prevent blindness – at a cost of approximately $1.

Yet even that small cost might be prohibitive to some countries, and other countries lack the infrastructure and personnel to give it out properly (too much vitamin A is toxic). And, of course, some children will not go to clinics, or their parents will refuse the medicine.

One solution to this is a new genetically engineered rice, called golden rice because of it's colour. "..Golden Rice is a transgenic variety of rice, which has genes for the synthesis of b-carotene (a vitamin A precursor). These genes are taken from the garden favourite Narcissus pseudonarcissus (daffodil) and inserted into the genome of a temperate strain of rice." The rice has a golden color from the beta carotene (think carrots), and is being offered free to India where blindness from Vitamin A deficiency is common.

The problem? It's not politically correct to artificially insert genes into crops. There is a philosophical opposition to any "genetically modified" food, no matter how benign.

But what is worse is that activists are scaring certain African countries into not using and not importing GM food and seed, even though people are starving in these countries and the food and seed could remedy their dying of malnutrition.

For example, Greenpeace opposed planting the rice because a child couldn't get it's full requirement of vitamin A from rice alone. Presumably, a little is worse than none? But not according to their activists.

A more important question is that if only the genetically modified grain is planted in places like China, the native rice will no longer be grown, and biodiversity will be lost.

There are also worries if the implanted genes might adversely affect animals or humans if ingested constantly.

The ironically named "Friends of the Earth" has persuaded some African countries to refuse rice and other staples needed for starving populations out of fear of being poisoned. And President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, whose economic policies have caused a man made famine, actually was allowed to give a speech at the World Food Summit , and was praised for his opposition to "importing unsafe food" (i.e. food aid that might include genetically modified grain).

Today's Washington Post shows Americans are also uneasy about biotechnology, and most people are unaware that a large percentage of food ingested in the US has either GM food or comes from animals fed with GM feed. "Today, 89 percent of soybeans, 83 percent of cotton and 61 percent of corn is genetically engineered to resist weed-killing chemicals or to help the plants make their own insecticides..."

So, in the practical world, the choices are GM food vs pesticide/herbicides. Poor countries don't have the choice for expensive "organic" food. The result of their "organic" food production is too often famine and malnutrition.

Yet biodiversity is an important issue, but should not be ignored. Indeed, newer rice variants have been devised by old fashioned methods that have many of the advantages of the GM type crops.

As for us, our family grows organic rice and sell it at a premium. One advantage of the "green revolution" combined with globalization is that it has stabilized the food situation in Asia, allowing a growing middle class willing to pay the price.

Yet the yield of our fields is lower than our neighbors, and if everyone went "organic", the poor people would not have enough to eat. And as a doctor who has seen too many children die of malnutrition, I am not one to ignore crops that could be another "green revolution".

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