Rice and the Case of India
For the last decade there has been a raging
in India over whether or not the world's second most populous nation
should embrace the promise of genetic engineering in the hope that its
risks will not outweigh its advantages. At first the push was
by large multinational corporations like Monsanto but more recently has
been picked up by development groups, multinational non-profit research
institutes, and some researchers based in India as well. All
along the way, there has been great polarization and active citizen
resistance. Recently there has been much pressure to accept
Golden Rice, a newly developed variety of rice engineered to have
higher than normal levels of beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A)
and Iron that is offered free of charge for humanitarian purposes in
the developing world. Many citizens, including Vandana Shiva,
formerly one of India's top physicists and currently an environmental
and women's rights activist has actively opposed the adoption of this
or any other genetically modified organism. Examining the
historical context and current status of this controversy
illuminates some of the nuances of the larger debate over genetic
modification and the Millennium Development Goals.
of Golden Rice
prototype Golden Rice was developed in 1999, new lines with higher
beta-carotene content have been generated. Our goal is to be capable of
providing the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A in 100-200 g of
rice, which corresponds to the daily rice consumption of children in
rice-based societies. In other countries, Golden Rice could still be a
valuable complement to children's diets, thus contributing to the
reduction of clinical and sub-clinical vitamin A deficiency-related
According to the World Health Organization, dietary vitamin A
deficiency (VAD) causes some 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind
each year. Blindness and corneal afflictions are but indicators of more
severe underlying health problems: more than half the children who lose
their sight die within a year of becoming blind. VAD compromises the
immune systems of approximately 40 percent of children under the age of
five in the developing world, greatly increasing the risk of severe
illnesses from common childhood infections.
In the most remote rural areas Golden Rice could constitute a major
contribution towards sustainable vitamin A delivery mechanisms. To
achieve this goal a strong, concerted, and interdisciplinary effort is
needed. This effort must include scientists, breeders, farmers,
regulators, policy-makers and extensionists. The latter will play a
central role in educating farmers and consumers as to their options.
While the most desirable option is a varied and sufficient diet, this
goal is not always achievable, at least not in the short term. The
reasons are manifold, ranging from tradition to geographical and
economical limitations. Golden Rice is a right step in that direction
in that it does not create new dependencies or displace traditional
cuisine" (Golden Rice Project, 2007).
Status In India
Over the last decade there has been much
contention over the introduction of genetically modified crops in
India. The government has been cautiously allowing
like Monsanto to carry out some small scale field tests and
even some large scale commercial plantings. There has also
vehement resistance led by citizens' groups which was recently
vindicated in late 2006 when the Supreme Court of India ruled that
there ought to be a moratorium on all field tests of modified crops.
The Court's ruling was precipitated by the first attempt to
commercialize a modified food crop in India. The moratorium
temporary, lasting only until an expert committee has evaluated the
comments sent in by concerned citizens. (Gene Campaign, 2006).
While this ruling does not involve Golden Rice or pass any
of judgment on Golden Rice, it will undoubtedly have implications for
the future of Golden Rice in India.
Their Positions and Actions
section in no way seeks to outline all of the positions present in this
debate, but it should give a fairly good account of the major positions
and their actions either in support of or opposition to genetically
Multinational Corporations: Large
multinational corporations like Monsanto, and their local affiliate
companies like Mahyco have been pushing for the acceptance of
genetically modified crops for over a decade now. In general,
Indian government has to this point been supportive, but until now
those crops which have been approved have all been non-food crops.
Syngenta owns the patent rights to Golden Rice, and although
have agreed to waive royalty fees for humanitarian purposes, they are
lobbying hard for Golden Rice to be approved for field trials.
should be noted that successful humanitarian implementation in India
would prove Golden Rice's viability as a food crop and provide a lot of
positive media attention which could lead to large profits around the
Vandana Shiva/Navdanya: Formerly one of
leading physicists, Vandana Shiva is now an active environmental
activist. She founded Navdanya in (year) in order to fight
privatization of India's genetic diversity and preserve the right to
save and swap seeds. Vehemently anti-biotech, Shiva believes
Indian farmers already have all the resources they need to achieve food
security through biodiverse organic farming. She contends
the current food security crisis in India is in fact due to the Green
Revolution, rather than in spite of it. Navdanya's main
strategies include challenging the science behind risk assessment and
researching, proposing, and educating about alternative agricultural
methods. Their original campaign also ultilized the tactic of
non-violent civil disobedience, not only refusing to stop saving
basmati rice seeds, but encouraging others to do so as well despite the
fact that a patent had just been granted for basmati rice. It was this
move to claim genetic ownership of a rice variety that had been grown
for thousands of years which alarmed Shiva and sparked her involvement
in intellectual property rights debate.
Suman Sahai/Gene Campaign: Suman Sahai, an
geneticist, started the Gene Campaign in 1993 in an attempt to help
protect the genetic resources and traditional knowledge of indigenous
groups in the Global South as well as to conduct research about the
impacts of genetically modified crops. Gene Campaign is not
explicitly anti-genetic modification, but rather opposed to the
privatized corporate, model which dominates the world market today.
Gene Campaign has fought long and hard to make it so all
test results and study findings are required to be public knowledge and
transparent. Gene Campaign demands that unless the
current regulatory regime can be made more competent and transparent,
make an effort to involve citizens in decision making, and find ways
around the current model of intellectual property rights then there
should be a moratorium on further implementation of genetically
modified crops. They are translating and distributing
about studies of the socioeconomic and environmental effects of
genetically modified crops and also conducting research into the
question of what kind of crops and genes would actually be appropriate
targets for genetic modification.
C. S. Prakash/AgBioWorld: C. S. Prakash
agricultural biotech researcher at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Born and raised in India, he has devoted his professional
to researching and developing nutritionally improved staple crops from
the developing world in
order to help combat food insecurity. Frustrated by the
regulatory delays for many promising crops, Prakash believes that the
risks of genetically modified crops are exaggerated and that activists
like Sahai and Shiva are responsible for much greater damages than
genetic modification could ever cause because they delay access to
potentially life saving technologies.
Can Be Learned From India?
Perhaps the most important lesson to take
from this case study is that there are well educated and active
citizens wherever one goes in the world, and that their importance
should not be underestimated. Ultimately it is the people of India who
will be most affected by any decision about genetically modified crops
and thus they should be intimately involved in that decision making
process. There are already many different active citizen
some of which were profiled above, that are forcing their way into the
debate in many different ways and illustrating the need for freedom of
information and democratic engagement. The case in India also
underscores the issue of intellectual property rights and the
importance of equitable access to seed in subsistence farming.
Image 13: Golden Rice has a
high level of beta-
Image 14: Researchers working
on the Golden
Image 15: Dr. Vandana Shiva.
16: Dr. Suman Sahai.