A recent Scientific American blog post blamed environmentalists for costing poor, malnourished people an estimated 1,424,000 life years in India alone. Why? Because they presumably kept Golden Rice off the market for over a decade when it could have been helping the world’s poor during that time.
Golden Rice contains beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Rice doesn’t normally contain beta-carotene. Golden rice was created by genetic engineering: Scientists inserted genes from another species into its DNA.
According to that post by David Ropeik, Golden Rice was ready to go back in 2002, if it weren’t for those meddling tree-huggers. But, back then, you’d have to eat 20 pounds of the rice every day just to get a sufficient amount of vitamin A in your diet from it.
The technology has since improved. Now, someone could actually obtain their needed vitamins by eating a realistic amount of the colorful rice. But it’s dishonest to claim that lives were lost or harmed by not eating Golden Rice starting in 2002.
That said, after visiting peasant farmers on four continents, I’ve got a new perspective on hunger, malnutrition and Golden Rice’s potential.
When I travel, I always ask families what they eat. In the Philippines, without fail, every family responded, “Rice.”
Just rice? An entire diet of rice? Hmm, maybe they need that Golden Rice.
Eventually, I tried a new approach: “What do you eat with your rice?”
The answer? Lots of things. Eggplant, bananas, squash, beans, taro, okra, sweet potatoes – even vitamin A-rich sweet potato leaves.
In Kenya, I’ve visited areas where the staple was white corn, not rice. Yet, like rice, white corn is not known for its abundance of vitamin A. But nobody I’ve met eats just corn. They eat beans, kale, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and an abundance of African greens. You see kale growing all over, even in urban slums. And it contains about two and a half times as much vitamin A as Golden Rice.
Nobody I have met in developing countries gets vitamin A from eating staple grains. Neither do Americans. Like us, they eat varied diets full of fruits and vegetables, many of which are rich in vitamin A.
Vitamin A isn’t rare in food. And it’s not the only nutrient that malnourished people worldwide lack.