Political Ecology of GMOs

A Middlebury blog

The Rhetoric and Discourse of the Golden Rice Debate

Jess Parker

Positionality Statement

As an Environmental Studies major with a focus in Geography, I have studied the relationship between human beings and the environment from a variety of perspectives.  I hail from the Washington, D.C. metro area, where I spent seven months interning with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign.  I have also worked as a volunteer for Clagett Farm, an organic farm run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  At Middlebury, I am a member of the student organization EatReal, which works to promote the purchase of more local foods in the dining halls and fosters meaningful conversations among the student body about food issues.  Additionally, I serve on the Environmental Council’s Food Sub-Committee and plan to spend the summer as a FoodWorks intern working in Vermont’s food system.

 

Methods

The debate surrounding golden rice, a genetically modified variety of rice meant to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in developing countries, has become extremely polarized and laden with sensationalist claims and accusations from all sides (Enserink, 2008).  In order to understand the rhetoric and discourse surrounding golden rice, I read and analyzed websites, documents, and reports published by the key actors in the debate.  I focused on examining how each of the actors used different words and rhetoric to frame the discussion and describe the same technology and, at the same time, keeping in mind the unique positionality of each actor.  For each document that I read, I used the website Tagxedo to create word clouds (located in the “Images” section) that visually portray the main words of the debate.  From these images, I was able to identify overlap between different actors in their word choice as well as major differences in rhetoric.  I concentrated my analysis on how each actor uses rhetoric to construct meaning associated with broad concepts, such as science, development, and genetic engineering.  In what follows, I hope to present a holistic overview of the golden rice debate while demonstrating how words are used to exercise power.

Introduction

Golden rice was originally developed using genetic engineering by Ingo Potrykus, a former professor of plant sciences, and Peter Beyer, a professor of cell biology, as a way to address VAD in developing countries (Golden Rice Project, 2013; Syngenta, 2013).  Potrykus and Beyer both serve on the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.  All of the actors in the debate acknowledge the seriousness of VAD, which causes blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections (Golden Rice Project, 2013; King et al., 2010, 3; IRRI, 2013; Potrykus, 2012; Shiva, n.d.).  Proponents of golden rice claim that the technology will solve VAD in developing countries where rice is a staple food in local diets (Golden Rice Project, 2013; Toenniessen, 2000; IRRI, 2013; Syngenta, 2013; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013).  Opponents of golden rice insist that other existing solutions are better suited to combatting malnutrition, such as vitamin A supplementation and home gardening (Greenpeace International, 2012;  King et al., 2010; Then, 2012; Then, 2009).

Since the beginning of its research and development more than 20 years ago, golden rice has proven to be a controversial technology.  In 2000, Time magazine published a cover story on golden rice with the headline “This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year,” bringing added attention to the technology (Enserink, 2008).  Proponents of the technology, which include the Golden Rice Project, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Syngenta, argue that golden rice is the solution to a serious global health problem (Golden Rice Project, 2013; IRRI, 2013; Toenniessen, 2000; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013; Syngenta, 2013).  Opponents of the technology, which include Greenpeace, FoodWatch, Dr. Vandana Shiva, and Michael Pollan, contend that golden rice is a public relations campaign spearheaded by the biotechnology industry with the intention of gaining public support for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (Greenpeace International, 2012; King et al., 2010; Then, 2012; Then, 2009; Then, 2012; Shiva, n.d.; Pollan, 2001).

The Science Behind Golden Rice, Health and Safety Concerns, and GE Regulations

According to the IRRI (2013), the lead developer of the technology, golden rice was created “using genetic modification techniques, with genes from maize and a common soil microorganism that together produce beta carotene in the rice grain.”  Potrykus and Beyer were able to produce a prototype of golden rice in 1999, dubbed the first generation of golden rice (GR1), that contained a minimal amount of carotenoids (Then, 2012, 8; Golden Rice Project, 2013).  Critics of the technology argued that an individual would have to consume an unreasonable amount of golden rice in order to meet the recommended daily intake of vitamin A (Pollan, 2001 and Shiva, n.d.).  Although this evaluation of the technology was valid, a second generation of golden rice (GR2) was produced in 2004 by scientists at Syngenta, a seed biotechnology company invested in the technology, with significantly higher concentrations of carotenoids and the ability to meet the daily dietary requirements for vitamin A (Then, 2012, 8 Enserink, 2008; Syngenta, 2013).  Although GR2 has the potential to address VAD, the technology still remains a project with no commercial applications at this time and an increasingly expensive price tag – tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on the research and development of golden rice (Greenpeace International, 2012).

Opponents of golden rice have voiced concerns about threats to biodiversity, potential health and safety risks, and the need for more scientific data and trials to support the viability of the project (Greenpeace International, 2012; King et al., 2010; Then, 2012; Then, 2009).  FoodWatch, a consumer rights organization based in Europe that monitors issues of food quality, reasons that the developers of the technology have not considered important scientific questions, including how much the carotene in rice degrades during storage, how much provitamin A remains after cooking, and how well genetically modified rice can be utilized by the body (Then, 2009).  Additionally, Greenpeace argues that golden rice poses environmental risks: “[n]ext to nothing is known about how this GE rice interacts with the environment” (Greenpeace International, 2012).  These questions are not addressed on the Golden Rice Project website.

Potrykus argues that GE regulation is the major obstacle preventing the implementation of the technology, stating that GE-regulation is based on “the concept of an extreme interpretation of the precautionary principle” (2012, 68).  His view that regulatory policies are a hindrance to scientific progress reflects a belief in the benefits of neoliberalization and fewer restrictions on international trade, a position shared by the transnational NGOs and corporations funding the project.  Potrykus also posits that in “the entire history of GMO technology development and application there is not a single documented case of harm” (2012, 73).  Yet Potrykus provides no scientific evidence to support such a broad-based statement.  His claims, however, demonstrate how the golden rice debate is closely linked to overarching debates about the safety of GMOs.

The Morality of Golden Rice and the Rhetoric of Pro-Poor Biotechnology

Proponents of golden rice maintain that the technology serves a humanitarian purpose and is not intended for commercial use.  Syngenta (2013) explicitly addresses this point on its website: “Although Syngenta has a significant interest in seeing the humanitarian benefits from this technology become reality, we have no commercial interest in Golden Rice whatsoever.  Golden Rice is an exclusively humanitarian project.”  Additionally, Potrykus qualifies golden rice as a “public good GE-product” that will serve “rice-depending poor populations, which cannot afford a diversified diet” (2012, 68).  By using the phrase “public good,” Potrykus implies that golden rice will be provided to those in need at no cost, but he later acknowledges that Syngenta agreed to support the project in exchange for “rights for commercial exploitation” (Potrykus, 2012, 70).  Thus, the discourse of golden rice as a “public good” is problematic because some actors in the technology have financial motivations.

Moreover, the idea that biotechnology can solve problems of malnutrition, hunger, and poverty in developing countries embodies the rhetoric of pro-poor biotechnology.  The pro-poor narrative describes “agricultural biotechnology…as a potentially neat, technical, science-based, apparently apolitical solution” to humanity’s problems associated with rising population growth (Scoones, 2002, 115).  The golden rice project, as a pro-poor biotechnology, takes a “reductionist approach to agricultural development” and assumes that technology is the most effective solution to VAD in all localities while discounting the social, political, economic, and environmental circumstances that differ from place to place (Glover, 2010, 975).  Proponents of the project utilize the pro-poor narrative to frame golden rice as the catchall solution to VAD without considering the physical realities of the farmers who will be planting the technology.

Frustrated by the delay in implementing golden rice, proponents of the technology blame their opponents for deaths caused by VAD (Golden Rice Project, 2013; Then, 2012).  The Golden Rice Project equates the loss of life due to VAD with the loss of life that occurred during the Holocaust: “The shocking fact is that…more than 10 million children under the age of five are still dying every year…This number has been equated with a ‘Nutritional Holocaust.’”  By employing such emotionally-charged rhetoric as the “Holocaust,” the Golden Rice Project suggests that opponents of golden rice are responsible for the deaths of millions of children suffering from VAD.  Moreover, Potrykus targets opponents of golden rice, stating that the “West ignores a moral imperative to make these technologies available to the poor” (2012, 74).  This discourse of morality is based on the assumption that Westerners have a moral obligation to save dying children in developing countries and that biotechnology is the most effective way to achieve that aim.  Again, the pro-poor narrative argues that support of biotechnology is “the only feasible ethical standpoint for the international community” (Scoones, 2002, 114).

Conversely, opponents of the golden rice argue that the biotechnology industry is using the genetically engineered rice as a communications strategy that promotes public support for GMOs in general.  Michael Pollan and Dr. Vandana Shiva posit that the ‘save the poor children’ rhetoric is merely a ploy to convince well-wishing Westerners that GMOs are beneficial for society (Pollan, 2001; Shiva, n.d.).  Pollan, a prominent journalist, activist, author, and professor at UC Berkeley who focuses on food issues, proposes that the greatest success of golden rice “may be to win an argument rather than solve a public-health problem.  Which means we may be witnessing the advent of the world’s first purely rhetorical technology” (2001).  Shiva, an Indian environmental and feminist activist and intellectual, also argues that golden rice is a “hoax” designed by the biotechnology industry as a “very effective strategy for corporate take over of rice production, using the public sector as a Trojan horse” (n.d.).  Therefore, for Pollan and Shiva, golden rice is a symbol of the monopoly and control of industrial agriculture.  Tellingly, Shiva attacks Monsanto for maintaining ownership of patents related to rice research, but Monsanto has been minimally involved in the project (King et al, 2010).  Monsanto is absent from Greenpeace’s list of major funders of golden rice, which suggests that Shiva wishes to evoke the notion of the monolithic control of Big Agriculture by associating golden rice with Monsanto, a company that stands as a figure of corporate greed and irresponsibility for many people (King et al., 2010, 23).  Ultimately, all of the opponents of golden rice insist that existing alternate solutions to VAD provide a more comprehensive and long-term approach to solving the problem.

Conclusion

 The rhetoric and discourse surrounding golden rice highlight the polarized nature of the debate and the ways in which key actors exercise their power through the words they use.  The name “golden rice,” which carries connotations of superior quality and infallibility, was recommended to Potrykus by a Thai businessman (Enserink, 2008).  Over the course of my research, I found that golden rice was described as “so-called ‘golden’ rice,” (King et al., 2010) “seeds of hope,” (Toenniessen, 2000)  “GE rice,” (Greenpeace International, 2012) “a gift,” (Syngenta, 2013; IRRI, 2013) “a hoax,” (Shiva, n.d.) “a public good GE-product,” (Potrykus, 2012) “transgenic rice,” (Then, 2012) and “the great yellow hype” (Pollan, 2001).  All of these descriptors refer to the same technology yet carry meanings that are deeply political.  As we examine the golden rice debate, we must remember that larger political debates are embedded in this discussion, including complex questions that deal with global problems of malnutrition, hunger, and poverty.  When considering the golden rice debate, we should also think about how we approach development, what qualifies as “sound science,” and who decides how the debate is framed and talked about.

In my overview of the major arguments and positions of the key actors in the debate, one voice is largely absent from the discourse: the farmers, indigenous populations, and hungry people around the world who will be directly affected by this technology.  Their exclusion from the discussion underscores how organizations, corporations, and influential individuals in positions of power maintain control over the discourse of the debate (McAfee, 2008; Patel et al., 2009; Scoones, 2002; Haraway, 1988).  If we are to fully understand the various meanings of golden rice and its potential to address malnutrition in the developing world, we must situate the technology within the context of the political, social, economic, and ecological factors that characterize local communities while valuing a variety of perspectives.

Images

 

Dr. Vandana Shiva, “The ‘Golden Rice’ Hoax – When Public Relations replaces Science”

Greenpeace International, “Golden rice’s lack of lustre: Addressing vitamin A deficiency without genetic engineering”

Michael Pollan, “The Way We Live Now: The Great Yellow Hype”

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FoodWatch, “The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development”

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Golden Rice Project, home page of website

Rockefeller Foundation, “Vitamin A Deficiency and Golden Rice: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation”

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IRRI, “About Golden Rice”

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Ingo Potrykus “‘Golden Rice’, a GMO-product for public good, and the consequences of GE-regulation”

Syngenta, “What Syngenta thinks about…”

Bibliography

America Society for Nutrition (ASN). 2009. “Researchers Determine That Golden Rice Is an Effective Source of Vitamin A” American Journal of Clinical Research. http://asn-cdn-remembers.s3.amazonaws.com/1247eb83af3c2c77fb8cf75d5e158f1f.pdf.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 2013.  “Agricultural Development: Golden Rice” http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/Global-Development/Agricultural-Development/Golden-Rice.

Enserink, M. 2008. “Tough Lessons From Golden Rice” Science 320: 468-471.

Glover, D. 2010. “Exploring the Resilience of Bt Cotton’s ‘Pro-Poor Success Story’” Development and Change 41(6): 955-981.

Golden Rice Project. 2013. “Golden Rice is part of the solution” http://www.goldenrice.org/index.php.

Greenpeace International. 2012. “Golden illusion: The broken promises of “golden” rice” http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/briefings/agriculture/2012/GoldenRice/GoldenIllusion.pdf.

Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). 2013. “About Golden Rice” http://www.irri.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&layout=item&id=10202&Itemid=100571&lang=en.

King, A., M. Rautner, G. Tyler. 2010. “Golden rice’s lack of lustre: Addressing vitamin A deficiency without genetic engineering” Greenpeace International.

McAfee, K. 2008. “Beyond techno-science: Transgenic maize in the fight over Mexico’s future” Geoforum 39: 148-160.

Nash/Zurich, J. 2000. “This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year” Time.

Patel, R., E. Holt-Gimenez and A. Shattuck. 2009. “Ending Africa’s Hunger” The Nation.

Pollan, M. 2001. “The Way We Live Now: The Great Yellow Hype” The New York Times Magazine.

Potrykus, I. 2012. “‘Golden Rice’, a GMO-product for public good, and the consequences of GE-regulation” Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology 21(Supplement 1): 68-75.

Shiva, V. n.d. “The ‘Golden Rice’ Hoax – When Public Relations replaces Science” http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/GEessays/goldenricehoax.html.

Syngenta. 2013. “What Syngenta thinks about…” http://www.syngenta.com/global/corporate/en/news-center/Pages/what-syngenta-thinks-about-full.aspx.

Scoones, I. 2002. “Can Agricultural Biotechnology be Pro-Poor? A Skeptical Look at the Emerging ‘Consenus’” IDS Bulletin 33(4), Sussex.

Then, C. 2012. “Golden Lies: The Seed Industry’s Questionable Golden Rice Project” FoodWatch. http://www.biosafety-info.net/file_dir/1757847325125d0edc7154.pdf.

Then, C. 2009. “The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development” FoodWatch. http://www.gmwatch.org/files/golden-rice-10yrs-on.pdf.

Toenniessen, G. 2000. “Vitamin A Deficiency and Golden Rice: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation” The Rockefeller Foundation. http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/uploads/files/4c1fc130-3db5-477d-a1b2-d2cfa60f5f65-111400ght.pdf.

World Health Organization. 2013. “Micronutrient deficiencies” http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/index.html.

 

Annotated Bibliography

King, A., M. Rautner, G. Tyler. 2010. “Golden rice’s lack of lustre: Addressing vitamin A deficiency without genetic engineering” Greenpeace International.

This comprehensive report by Greenpeace, the most vocal opponent to golden rice, presents a detailed overview of the history of technology.  The report also highlights where the money for the project is coming from as well as viability of other strategies for combatting VAD.

Potrykus, I. 2012. “‘Golden Rice’, a GMO-product for public good, and the consequences of GE-regulation” Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology 21(Supplement 1): 68-75.

This article by the co-inventor of golden rice stresses the developers’ claim that golden rice is a humanitarian project and a technology for the public good.  Potrykus also emphasizes the way in which GE regulation is at fault for the delay of the implementation of golden rice.

Shiva, V. n.d. “The ‘Golden Rice’ Hoax – When Public Relations replaces Science” http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/GEessays/goldenricehoax.html

In this article, Vandana Shiva uses the golden rice debate to criticize industrial agriculture.  She attacks the project as a public relations campaign created by biotechnology industry.  Using sensationalist rhetoric she argues that the technology would not help farmers but rather make them “bio-serfs.”  When reading this article, it is important to keep in mind Shiva’s extensive work as an environmental and feminist activist and intellectual.

Then, C. 2009. “The campaign for genetically modified rice is at the crossroads: A critical look at Golden Rice after nearly 10 years of development” FoodWatch. http://www.gmwatch.org/files/golden-rice-10yrs-on.pdf.

This report published by FoodWatch, a consumer rights organization based in Europe, outlines the history of development of golden rice with a particular focus on the lack of existing scientific data that supports the effectiveness of the technology.  The organization espouses general European attitudes towards GMOs, calling for a precautionary approach based on sound scientific research conducted by independent scientists.

Toenniessen, G. 2000. “Vitamin A Deficiency and Golden Rice: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation” The Rockefeller Foundation. http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/uploads/files/4c1fc130-3db5-477d-a1b2-d2cfa60f5f65-111400ght.pdf.

This article presents a summary of the involvement of the Rockefeller Foundation in the development of golden rice, focusing specifically on the technical aspects of the science.  It also offers a brief explanation of how Intellectual Property Rights and testing constraints have delayed the dissemination of the technology.

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