Could GM crops benefit the poor?

The case of GM Vitamin-A rice

In this article Kevan Bundell of Christian Aid claims that Vitamin A enriched "gold rice" is more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution. It is an example of "magic bullet" thinking, and effectively undermines the complex range of initiatives at present in place.

Those presently deficient in Vitamin A are deficient because they cannot afford to buy or grow adequate food, and will unlikely be able to afford "gold rice" either.

The programme is in any case years from practical implementation, and serves principally as propaganda for genetic engineering, while allowing governments to postpone addressing issues around poverty and access to land.


One of the major promises of the biotechnology industry and of those involved in developing Genetically Modified (GM) crops has been that they will help solve the problems of malnutrition in the developing world. They will achieve this not only through increasing food production but also through enhancing the nutritional quality of crops and therefore the quality of people's diets.

A new GM rice which, unlike normal rice, contains vitamin-A1 is now being offered as a concrete example of such a nutritionally enhanced crop which will help tackle one of the major causes of blindness, illness and death, especially among children, in large parts of the developing world.

The new GM rice has been dubbed "Golden rice", both because of its yellow colour and because of its potential. Furthermore, unlike previous GM crops which have been owned by large biotechnology corporations, the new rice is to be made freely available to developing countries through the publicly funded International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

However, despite the apparent merits of the new rice, Christian Aid believes that:

  • Vitamin-A rice would only have a limited impact on the problem of vitamin-A deficiency
  • GM vitamin-A rice is unnecessary because simpler, proven and more appropriate solutions already exist
  • there is a real danger that the GM rice solution could take political will and resources away from tackling the problem now using these existing approaches

Vitamin-A deficiency and the new rice

  • Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness, especially among children, across the developing world.
  • It also weakens the immune system and exacerbates the effects of measles and of diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses.
  • It affects normal growth and it often leads to death.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 230 million children are at risk and that more than a million children die annually of vitamin-A deficiency related illnesses.

Pregnant women are also particularly affected, owing to their increased nutritional needs, and foetal development can be retarded.

The need to tackle this important health and nutrition problem has been recognised for a many years. The problem is particularly acute in the many areas of the world in which rice is the staple food. This is because rice, once its husk has been removed - which is necessary for storage - and once it has been polished, as is generally the practice, contains no vitamin-A.

The promise of the new rice, therefore, is that it will provide the vitamin-A that is otherwise lacking from the diet. The new rice has been created in Switzerland by Professor Ingo Potrykus and his team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and was recently reported in the journal Science (14 January 2000, p303).

Professor Potrykus intends to make the new rice freely available to developing countries and to poor farmers : "The success of this experiment has fulfilled a dream which I have had for 25 years. I always wanted to use science to help poor people in developing countries".

In a commentary on the paper in the same issue of Science Mary Lou Guerinot writes: "One can only hope that this application of plant genetic engineering to ameliorate human misery without regard to short-term profit will restore this technology to political acceptability." She no doubt speaks for many, scientists and others, who sincerely believe that the new rice, and GM crops generally, will prove to be a major weapon in the fight against malnutrition in the developing world.

However, Christian Aid's understanding of the causes of malnutrition suggest that GM vitamin-A rice will only have a limited impact on the problem. Furthermore, Christian Aid's experience of helping partners and communities to tackle nutrition and health at a local level suggests that the GM vitamin-A rice route is neither the most appropriate approach nor necessary. Far simpler solutions already exist and are already being applied.

We are also concerned that the GM rice solution could take political will and resources away from tackling the problem of vitamin-A deficiency, and of malnutrition generally, by means of these already proven alternatives.

Limitations and problems of GM vitamin-A rice

To understand why GM vitamin-A rice is likely to have only a limited impact we need to take a step back and look at the reasons for, or the causes of, malnutrition generally:


  • malnutrition in the developing world is predominantly the result not of an absolute shortage of food in or available to the country concerned but rather the result of poverty . That is :
  • the poor have insufficient income to buy what is available in the market

In India, for example, where huge numbers of people eat rice as their staple food, rice is freely available in local markets and even through a public ration system at reduced prices. India also exports large quantities of rice. Meanwhile some three hundred million people live below the official poverty line and most of these are, to varying degrees, malnourished. Vitamin-A deficiency is widespread. Lack of income means that they are unable to buy sufficient rice (and other foods) to meet their nutritional needs. Even if and when they can afford the cheaper prices of the ration system, insufficient rice is made available to meet their requirements

  • the poor lack land on which to grow food.

An alternative to buying from the market is to grow your own food. This is still a major means of livelihood and source of food for poor people across the developing world. However, many poor farmers and their families have insufficient land to meet their family needs, and many poor families, even in rural areas, have none at all. Even those who do have land very often do not have the kind of irrigated land suitable for growing modern varieties of rice. Many poor farmers cannot grow all the food they need and therefore remain dependent on buying from the market.

In other words, malnutrition occurs because of these problems of poverty and of access to both food and land.

GM vitamin-A rice is not, of course, an attempt to address these issues. However, if they are not addressed, access to vitamin-A rice is also likely to be limited.

Sufferers from vitamin-A deficiency will only be helped to the extent that they can get access to the new rice on a regular and sufficient basis. Many may not be in a position to do so. Nonetheless, it will, of course, be the case that if and when the new rice becomes available, to the extent that poor people will be able to eat it, their nutrition will be improved. Some vitamin-A is undoubtedly better than none.

However, experience on the ground suggests that the GM vitamin-A rice route is neither the most appropriate approach nor necessary. Far simpler solutions already exist and are already being applied.

The GM vitamin-A rice route is not the most appropriate because:

  • Vitamin-A deficiency, though important, is only one aspect of the malnutrition and ill-health suffered by those who are too poor to obtain enough food and an adequate, balanced diet. Other important and widespread deficiencies include
    • iodine and iron, and many other vitamins and minerals - as well as a
    • straightforward lack of calories.

Focusing only on providing vitamin-A in the diet is insufficient.

  • Vitamin-A deficiency is the result not only of a lack of the vitamin in the diet but also of unhygienic conditions and dirty water. Intestinal worm infections, for example, which are common in children living in poverty, reduce the digestive system's uptake of the pro-vitamin-A from which the body makes the vitamin-A it needs.

Focusing only on providing vitamin-A in the diet is insufficient.

  • It is also "inappropriate" because it does not yet really exist: At present GM vitamin-A rice, as a solution, remains only a promise. That is, so far it exists only in the lab. It will take a number of years and a good deal of money to develop.

  • It must be bred into a variety of rice types for different agricultural and cultural settings.

  • Each product will have to be tested for its nutritional effectiveness, for its environmental safety, and for its agricultural characteristics in the field in various environments. There can be no guarantee at this stage that the new rice will perform as desired in any of these respects.

  • It will then need to be multiplied in order to be made available through seed suppliers.

  • And even then many poor farmers, for lack of irrigated land or ability to purchase expensive external inputs, will be unable to grow the new rice for themselves.

  • In the meantime, as we shall see below, other, quicker solutions are already available and under way.

Magic Bullet Approach Unlikely to be Effective

Our conclusion from all the above is that a single, technological 'magic bullet' approach - either to vitamin-A deficiency in particular or to malnutrition generally - is unlikely to be very effective.

Others with experience on the ground agree. Franz Simmersbach2 of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has put it like this: 'It's as if Vitamin-A research makes researchers go blind!

'Unless you give priority to operational fieldwork , research and programmes related to food and nutrition education, the children we identified as being in need will not profit from all this in time'.

He is speaking from FAO's experience of tackling vitamin-A deficiency already, through current and proven means, as we will see below.

Alternative solutions

GM vitamin-A rice is unnecessary because other, simpler approaches are already available :

  • Christian Aid partners in Bangladesh, for example, often working with landless families, have for a long time been promoting, small scale kitchen gardening around the home or wherever land is available nearby (on embankments, alongside the road) and the production of a range of vegetables and fruits. Both green leafy vegetables and many fruits are an important source of vitamin-A, and many other nutrients as well. They have also been promoting poultry keeping - eggs are particularly rich in vitamin-A

  • In India a number of Christian Aid partners are working with small farmers to increase their crop production in both quantity and variety by using a range of low input and sustainable agricultural techniques.

The Development Research and Communications Services Centre (DRCSC), for example is working with small farmers engaged in paddy (rice) cultivation in West Bengal. They have introduced simple changes such as organic manures rather than expensive artificial fertilizers, and mixed cropping and rotations rather than the conventional constant monocrop of rice alone. The result is an agriculture the farmers can afford and an improvement in their diets through the range of foods they now produce for themselves.

The Deccan Development Society (DDS), in Andhra Pradesh, is working with small farmers who own unirrigated uplands on which they have previously struggled to produce any crop at all. Now, through plugging the gullies that constantly eroded their lands, through constructing small embankments and checkdams to catch rainwater and by using manure on the fields they have retained enough moisture to grow crops. They now plant a range of crops - cereals, pulses ,vegetables - mostly traditional varieties and ones they prefer to eat.

DDS have also helped to set up a Community Grain Fund and a Seed Bank of local varieties of crops. The result is improved overall nutrition as well local control and security over food supply

  • Christian Aid partners accompany their promotion of vegetable and fruit growing by nutrition education aimed at giving mothers an understanding of the importance of food variety in their families', and particularly their children's, diets. They also provide health and hygiene education, in relation to food preparation and more generally, and many Christian Aid partners have helped to provide new and clean sources of drinking water by means of hand pumps and tube wells

  • The FAO has also been promoting local and home-based vegetable and fruit production and nutrition education specifically aimed at tackling the problem of vitamin-A deficiency. A study3 of an FAO-supported project in Bangladesh found that:
    • only small plots of land were sufficient to meet a family's needs for vitamin-A
    • the more variety of fruits and vegetables eaten the better the uptake of vitamin-A
    • there was an overall improvement in the family's health

The FAO, and the WHO and UNICEF, also promote vitamin-A supplementation for children through twice-yearly high dose vitamin-A capsules. They have also been involved in food fortification programmes - for example, sugar with added vitamin A in parts of Latin America. Both have proved to be cheap and effective.

More problems

In the light of the above solutions it might then be asked by those who believe in the GM vitamin-A rice solution, how is it that vitamin-A deficiency remains a major nutritional problem?

The answer lies of course primarily in lack of political will , either to tackle poverty generally or even to implement the available solutions to the vitamin-A deficiency problem more widely.

This brings us to more problems with taking the GM vitamin-A rice route:

  • developing GM vitamin-A rice will , as we have said, take both resources and time (with no guarantee of the final outcome). Christian Aid believes that those resources would be better used to tackle the problem now, and more widely, through approaches such as those described above. Furthermore:

  • the apparent promise of GM vitamin-A rice risks letting governments at both national and international levels off the hook in relation to the real causes of malnutrition, and of poverty. Again, Christian Aid believes that the development of GM vitamin-A rice must not be allowed to take resources and political will away from tackling the problems both of vitamin-A deficiency and malnutrition generally, now, and more widely, through proven and appropriate approaches.

  • Lastly, but of significant practical importance, there may be cultural problems: Owing to the presence of beta-carotene (ie pro-vitamin-A), GM vitamin-A rice is yellow, not the usual white. In some parts of the world it is likely to take considerable effort to persuade people to accept the unfamiliar colour, especially when - as in South Asia for example - white, polished rice is traditionally considered the most prestigious.

Other developments

While GM vitamin-A rice has received most attention so far, other GM crops with promised and apparent potential benefits for small farmers and malnourished people in the developing world are also under development.

Professor Potrykus and his team are also working on an iron enhanced rice, for example, to tackle the widespread and serious problem of iron deficiency. In Mexico a genetic modification has been made to both rice and maize plants which enables the plants to take up phosphates - essential for plant growth - which are often lacking or unavailable to plants in tropical soils. Initial trials suggest that the plants will grow as well with half the usual amount of phosphate fertilizer and that the phosphates can be provided in a cheaper insoluble form.

Once again, the researchers involved intend to make these crops freely available to developing country farmers (and only charge developed country farmers).

How should these developments, and others which will follow, be assessed?

At one level each new GM crop, like any conventionally bred crop, needs to be tested and then assessed on its particular merits. This is what we have begun to do here in the case of vitamin-A rice (further assessment will need to take place if and when the product is further developed).

However, Christian Aid believes that the merits (or otherwise) on which a particular GM crop, GM technology as a whole, or indeed agricultural innovation of any kind, should be assessed must include not only agronomic performance, the effects on human health (positive and negative) and environmental impacts, but also social, economic and cultural criteria. It is not enough to judge narrowly.

Our broader assessment leads us to the conclusion that GM vitamin-A rice is not the best way forward.

Wider issues

Furthermore, it is not sufficient to look only at each particular case. Wider issues remain about GM crops and GM technology in general :

Problems remain, for example, with regard to the ownership and control of the technology. Although both vitamin-A rice and the Mexican phosphate modification are to be made freely available, a handful of powerful biotechnology corporations remain the major players in this field, and the owners of many basic patents. They have already bought up patents and smaller players (and even each other) and have begun to gain control over wide areas of agricultural production and the global food chain.

Some have already shown that they will put their own interests above that of farmers, and their intellectual property rights ahead of the traditional rights of farmers, in their development of 'terminator' type technology.

The GM products they have developed have not been aimed primarily at poor farmers and tackling malnutrition.

They and their supporters have tried to resist segregation and labeling of GM foods, thus denying consumers choice. There have also been allegations of illegal planting of GM crops in some developing countries.

As commercial organisations they will seek to continue, and even increase, the reliance of farmers on (expensive) external inputs, further marginalising resource-poor farmers. This is both socially unsustainable and a threat to local food security.

Propaganda Value

Meanwhile it would be naïve not recognise the propaganda value of developments such as vitamin-A rice to the GM industry in the current climate of widespread doubt, suspicion and opposition to GM crops and the biotech corporations in both the industrialised and the developing world

There is the risk of genetic pollution - of releasing novel combinations of genes in GM crops into the environment without knowledge of how they might affect the natural ecology, and then being unable to recall them once they are released.

This is a potential threat to both wild and agricultural biodiversity and to the ecological health of the natural environment, on which the poor in particular often very directly depend for their lives and livelihoods. This is particularly important in developing countries characterised by a complex and rich ecological environment, and often the home of wild relatives of agricultural crop plants as well as a huge number of traditionally bred crop varieties

There is a threat to agricultural biodiversity, and therefore to local food security also, from the simple displacement of local crop varieties by powerfully marketed GM products, as we have already seen happen with the 'green revolution', where modern high yielding varieties have often replaced the locally adapted varieties farmers used to create and grow themselves (varieties which were often more nutritious than the new varieties bred primarily for increased yield).

The intensive, primarily market-oriented approach of the green revolution is also set to be continued under GM technology, eliminating other foodstuffs from the farming system and reducing the food security of poor communities

The green revolution has also shown that dependency on expensive external inputs often leads, usually through indebtedness, to the loss of land by poor farmers who cannot afford to continue. GM technology dominated by corporations would have the same result.

The way forward

The widest issue of all, perhaps, is the question of the best way forward for agriculture as a whole. This is an important issue for all of us, but it is particularly pertinent to poor farmers and communities in the developing world.

What poor farmers in particular need is a sustainable way forward for their agriculture. As we have suggested above, it is unlikely that GM technology and crops will deliver this. Christian Aid believes that small farmers and local communities should have control over their agricultural and food resources and that they should be supported in developing and implementing low input and sustainable agriculture appropriate to their circumstances.

As mentioned above, many Christian Aid partners are involved in providing such support and encouraging such control - through encouraging the use of multiple rather than monocropping to produce a variety of food crops, for example; through avoiding pesticides and allowing edible 'weeds' to grow; through the use of compost, manures and nitrogen-fixing plants rather than artificial fertilizers; through techniques to retain rainfall and moisture in dry-land areas; through establishing village seed banks in order to preserve local varieties of crop plants suitable to the locality and to cultural needs.

Those who are sure that GM technology in general and GM vitamin-A rice in particular are going to help to solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition need to be aware that the technology and the product are only part of the equation. Other expertise and experience suggests that the causes of these problems are not likely to be effectively addressed by the kind of technological solution offered by GM crops.

What is more, in the case of vitamin-A deficiency in particular, there are already other appropriate and effective solutions available. These are where both effort and resources should now be put.

Kevan Bundell
Global Advocacy Department
27 March 2000


(1) More precisely, the rice is altered to contain beta-carotene, or pro-vitamin-A, from which the body can then produce vitamin-A.

(2) Quoted in The "GoldenRice" - a big illusion?, Florianne Koechlin, Blueridge Institute, see:

(3) Reported in ibid.



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