How “Golden” Rice Will Save Millions of Lives

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Feb. 17 2013 7:30 AM

The Deadly Opposition to Genetically Modified Food

Vitamin A deficiency has killed 8 million kids in the last 12 years. Help is finally on the way.

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As an illustration, current regulations for GM foods, if applied to non-GM products, would ban the sale of potatoes and tomatoes, which can contain poisonous glycoalkaloids; celery, which contains carcinogenic psoralens; rhubarb and spinach (oxalic acid); and cassava, which feeds about 500 million people but contains toxic cyanogenic alkaloids. Foodstuffs like soy, wheat, milk, eggs, mollusks, crustaceans, fish, sesame, nuts, peanuts, and kiwi would likewise be banned, because they can cause food allergies.

Here it is worth noting that there have been no documented human health effects from GM foods. But many campaigners have claimed other effects. A common story, still repeated by Shiva, is that GM corn with Bt toxin kills Monarch butterflies. Several peer-reviewed studies, however, have effectively established that “the impact of Bt corn pollen from current commercial hybrids on monarch butterfly populations is negligible.”

Greenpeace and many others claim that GM foods merely enable big companies like Monsanto to wield near-monopoly power. But that puts the cart before the horse: The predominance of big companies partly reflects anti-GM activism, which has made the approval process so long and costly that only rich companies catering to First World farmers can afford to see it through.

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Finally, it is often claimed that GM crops simply mean costlier seeds and less money for farmers. But farmers have a choice. More than 5 million cotton farmers in India have flocked to GM cotton, because it yields higher net incomes. Yes, the seeds are more expensive, but the rise in production offsets the additional cost.

Of course, no technology is without flaws, so regulatory oversight is useful. But it is worth maintaining some perspective. In 2010, the European Commission, after considering 25 years of GMO research, concluded that “there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Now, finally, golden rice will come to the Philippines; after that, it is expected in Bangladesh and Indonesia. But, for 8 million kids, the wait was too long.

True to form, Greenpeace is already protesting that “the next ‘golden rice’ guinea pigs might be Filipino children.” The 4.4 million Filipino kids with vitamin A deficiency might not mind so much.

This article was originally published by Project Syndicate. For more from Project Syndicate, visit their Web site and follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

Bjørn Lomborg is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, and most recently How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?