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August 1, 2000


Toronto Globe and Mail


The following was in the Toronto Globe and Mail (one of Canada's two
self-proclaimed national newspapers) this a.m. There have been many
articulate discussions of the golden rice on this list. If anyone wishes to
respond to this column, the e-mail address for the Globe
Include daytime phone number
Doug Powell

August 2, 2000
The Globe and Mail
Naomi Klein
ŒT his rice could save a million kids a year."
That was the arresting headline on the cover of last weekıs Time
magazine. It referred to golden rice, a newly market-ready variety
of genetically engineered grain that contains extra beta-carotene, a
property that helps the body produce vitamin A. All over Asia,
millions of malnourished children suffer from vitamin A deficiency,
which can lead to blindness and death.
To get their supposed miracle cure off the ground, AstraZeneca, the
company that owns marketing rights for golden rice, has offered to
donate the grains to poor farmers in countries such as India, where,
perhaps not coincidentally, genetically engineered crops have met
fierce resistance.
Itıs possible that golden rice could improve the health of millions of
poor children. The problem is that there is no way to separate that
powerful emotional claim (and the limited science attached to it)
from the overheated political context in which the promise is being
Genetically engineered foods, originally greeted with rubber stamps
from governments and indifference from the public, have rapidly
become an international repository for anxiety about everything
from food safety to corporate-financed science to privatized culture.
Opponents argue that the current testing standards fail to take into
account the complex web of interrelations that exists among living
things. Altered soy beans may appear safe in a controlled test
environment, but how, once grown in nature, will they affect the
weeds around them, the insects that feed on them, and the crops that
cross-pollinate with them?
What has blind-sided the agribusiness companies is that the fight has
been a battle of the brands, as much as one of warring scientific
studies. Early on, activists decided to aim their criticism not at
agribusiness itself, but at the brand-name supermarkets and
packaged-foods companies that sold products containing
Their brand images tarnished, British supermarkets began pulling
products off their shelves, and companies such as Gerber and
Frito-Lay went GE-free. In the United States and Canada,
environmentalists have set their sights on Kellogg and Campbell
Soup, parodying their carefully nurtured logos and costly ad
Until now, the agribusiness companies have had great difficulty
responding. Even if they could claim that their altered foods had no
harmful effects, they couldnıt point to direct nutritional benefits,
either. Which is where golden rice comes in. Agribusiness
companies finally have a benefit to which they can point‹not to
mention a powerful brand of their own with which to fight the
brand wars.
Golden rice has all the feel-good ingredients of a strong brand. First,
itıs golden, as in golden retrievers and gold cards and golden sunsets.
Second, unlike other genetically engineered foods, it isnıt spliced
with ghastly fish genes, but rather melded with sunny daffodils.
But before we embrace genetic engineering as the saviour of the
worldıs poor, it seems wise to sort out what problem is being solved
here. Is it the crisis of malnutrition, or is it the crisis of credibility
plaguing biotech?
The boring truth is that we already have the tools to save many more
than a million kids a year‹all without irrevocably changing the
genetic makeup of food staples. What we lack is the political will to
mobilize those resources. That was the clear message that emerged
last month from the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa. One after
another, the largest industrial nations shot down concrete proposals
aimed at reducing poverty in the developing world.
As this paper reported, they nixed "a Canadian proposal to boost
development aid by up to 10 per cent, turned down Japanıs idea to
set up a G8 fund to fight infectious diseases, and backed away from
opening their markets to farm goods from developing countries
within four years." They also "said no to a new plan to accelerate
$100-billion (U.S.) in debt relief for the poorest countries."
There are also plenty of low-tech solutions to vitamin A deficiency
that have been similarly passed over. Programs already exist to
encourage the growth of diverse, vitamin-rich vegetables on small
plots, yet the irony of these programs (which receive little
international support) is that their task is not to invent a sexy new
sci-fi food source. Itıs to undo some of the damage created the last
time Western companies and governments sold an agricultural
panacea to the developing world.
During the so-called Green Revolution, small-scale peasant farmers,
growing a wide variety of crops to feed their families and local
communities, were pushed to shift to industrial, export-oriented
agriculture. That meant single, high-yield crops, produced on a large
Many peasants, now at the mercy of volatile commodity prices and
deep in debt to the seed companies, lost their farms and headed for
the cities. In the countryside, meanwhile, severe malnutrition exists
alongside flourishing "cash crops" such as bananas, coffee, and rice.
Why? Because in childrenıs diets, as in the farm fields, diverse foods
have been replaced with monotony. A bowl of white rice is lunch
and dinner.
The solution being proposed by the agribusiness giants? Not to
rethink mono-crop farming and fill that bowl with protein and
vitamins. Like omnipotent illusionists, they propose to paint that
bowl golden.