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Environmental Studies

GM Crops And The MDGs

Millennium Goals
Major Questions

Golden Rice and India

Findings & Framework for Progress
References & Links

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Golden Rice and the Case of India

For the last decade there has been a raging debate 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 led 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.

Development of Golden Rice

"Since a 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 diseases.

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).

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Current 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 corporations like Monsanto to carry out some small scale field tests and even some large scale commercial plantings.  There has also been a 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 is 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 sort of judgment on Golden Rice, it will undoubtedly have implications for the future of Golden Rice in India.

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Stakeholders: Their Positions and Actions

This 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 modified crops.

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, the 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 they have agreed to waive royalty fees for humanitarian purposes, they are lobbying hard for Golden Rice to be approved for field trials.  It 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 world.

Vandana Shiva/Navdanya: Formerly one of India's leading physicists, Vandana Shiva is now an active environmental activist.  She founded Navdanya in (year) in order to fight the privatization of India's genetic diversity and preserve the right to save and swap seeds.  Vehemently anti-biotech, Shiva believes that Indian farmers already have all the resources they need to achieve food security through biodiverse organic farming.  She contends that 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 Indian 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 field 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 information 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 is an agricultural biotech researcher at Tuskegee University in Alabama.  Born and raised in India, he has devoted his professional career 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.

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What Can Be Learned From India?

Perhaps the most important lesson to take away 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 groups, 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.

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Golden rice

Image 13: Golden Rice has a high level of beta-

Rice Researchers

Image 14: Researchers working on the Golden
Rice Project.

Vandana Shiva

Image 15: Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Suman Sahai

Image 16: Dr. Suman Sahai.

Last updated:  5/8/2007


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