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Golden rice battle only just beginning

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Golden rice is a lightning rod issue, with anti-GMO campaigners putting up fierce resistance to a crop that could save the lives of millions of children.

Rice is king — the food staple of the world. It is also a political lightning rod and the newest battleground in the GM crop war.

Golden rice, created in the late 1990s, offers a lifeline to millions of children that die each decade from vitamin A deficiency. In addition, golden rice may keep millions of children from going blind in the same time frame.

In 1999, scientists in Europe took rice DNA and inserted beta-carotene genes — vital to the human body in producing vitamin A. After several more years of trials, research and varieties, a single bowl of golden rice can now provide 60 percent of needed vitamin A intake for children.

Such promise should have paved a golden rice path toward the sustenance of millions of vitamin-deprived children. Instead, stopping golden rice has become a crusade for anti-GMO campaigners who have hurled a barrage of false — but headline grabbing — claims against golden rice.

Greenpeace claims golden rice holds minimal nutritional value, and would require consumption of several kilograms to get vitamin A benefits. Robin Mckie, writing in the Guardian, exposed the emptiness of Greenpeace’s position: “Two studies, both published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demolished this claim. The first, in 2009, was based on a group of healthy adult volunteers in the US and showed that golden rice's beta-carotene was easily taken up into the bloodstream. The second trial was carried out by American and Chinese researchers and published last year. It was carried out on Chinese children, aged between six and eight, and showed that a bowl of cooked golden rice, between 100g and 150g, could provide 60% of the recommended intake of vitamin A for young people. The study also revealed that golden rice is better than spinach at providing vitamin A.”

The Chinese trial brought a hysterical response from Greenpeace: “24 children used as guinea pigs in genetically engineered "Golden Rice" trial.”

Greenpeace and the anti-GMO campaigners would have Asia and African children rely on supplements to remedy vitamin A deficiency. Supplements are a weak solution when compared with the sustainability of golden rice — particularly when millions of lives hang in the balance. Farmers should have the choice to plant and countries should have the choice to distribute golden rice, but that still may be several years away.  From an NPR report: “Later this year, the network of golden rice researchers will apply for approval in the Philippines. After that, they'll do the same in Bangladesh … This will be the final test of that 30-year-old brainstorm — the idea that genetically altered rice actually could be a cheap, self-multiplying source of this vital nutrient.”

Greenpeace is watching events in the Philippines with a close eye and will be quick to tag Filipino children as “guinea pigs.” But as Bjorn Lomborg writes on Slate.com, “The 4.4 million Filipino kids with vitamin A deficiency might not mind so much.”

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