Golden Rice: Potrykus Rant

Golden Rice: Potrykus Rant

By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero *

If so-called shortages really were the cause of hunger, then America should have the best-nourished population in the entire world. In that country, the so-called "breadbasket of the world", there are currently 30 million people who have nothing to eat, and 8.5% of children suffer from hunger.

Mr. Ingo Potrykus is angry, furious, angry. What's more, he is ranting.

Swiss biotechnologist Potrykus is the co-inventor of the so-called "golden rice", a genetically altered rice whose grains contain beta carotene, a substance that the human body converts into vitamin A. According to the United Nations, 2 million children are at risk of going blind for lack of vitamin A, and the World Health Organization reports that 2.8 million children under five years of age suffer from a severe deficiency of this.

When one considers these latest data, Potrykus's work sounds like something for a Nobel Prize winner, doesn't it? But activist groups, such as Greenpeace, continue to stubbornly oppose GM crops, including golden rice, claiming, among other things, that they will not end hunger and that on the contrary, they will create more problems than solutions. Potrykus angrily says that those individuals or organizations that try to impede his work should be tried in an international court for crimes against humanity. For him, critics of transgenics are directly responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths in the Third World, by preventing the dissemination of a technology that can save the lives of starving children.

Potrykus and his supporters claim that golden rice refutes all criticism of GMOs. Critics say that transgenic crops are modified to contain traits that have no relevance to the quality or nutritional value of the plant, such as resistance to herbicides. But that's not the case with golden rice, made specifically and explicitly to improve human nutrition.

Critics complain that GMOs are developed by transnational corporations that only seek quick profit and not the good of humanity. But Potrykus proudly points out that his golden rice was developed in European public institutions with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, a non-profit entity.

That intellectual property rights prevent the benefits of GM agricultural biotechnology - and any other advance in agriculture - from reaching the poor? To overcome this obstacle, Potrykus reached agreements with all the corporations that owned the dozens of patents that had to be respected in order to proceed with its work with golden rice. Proponents of biotechnology argue that this shows that the intellectual property system, so harshly criticized by the enemies of neoliberal globalization, is not necessarily an obstacle to the progress of humanity.

What will the cost of golden rice put it beyond the reach of small farmers in the global South? What will create new forms of dependency? No way, as Mr. Potrykus will distribute it for free.

But activists remain opposed, claiming that the golden rice is a public relations stunt of the biotech industry. Why do they say that? Potrykus cannot explain it to him, and assumes that his critics are driven by a sinister and vicious agenda against science and progress.

Suppose the industry is right and the killjoy activists are wrong, that GM foods pose no risk to ecology, biodiversity or human health. Would these novel products help fight hunger? To answer this question you have to look at the causes of the problem.

Supporters of industrialized agriculture and of the new genetic revolution rely on the Malthusian calculation. There are many people and little food, and the population continues to increase. Therefore, agricultural production must be continually increased to avoid a catastrophe.

But is there really a food shortage? Is that really the cause of hunger? Let's look at the situation in India. Despite what the Malthusian demagogues tell us, there is no food shortage in that country right now. On the contrary, what there is is a grain surplus of tens of millions of tons.

Commenting on the problem of hunger in her country, writer Arundhati Roy says that India today produces more milk, more sugar and more food grains than ever before. Farmers who harvested too much grain faced a desperate situation, and the government bought their surplus from them, which was more grain than they could store or use.

In 2001, government warehouses were overflowing with 42 million tons of grain, equivalent to almost a quarter of the country's annual production.

? As grain rots in government warehouses, 350 million Indian citizens live below the poverty level and cannot get a single full meal a day, "says Roy." And yet, in March 2000 the government Indio removed import restrictions on 1,400 products, including milk, grains, sugar, cotton, tea, coffee, and palm oil. This, despite the fact that the market was more than saturated with these products?

Put bluntly: scarcity is a myth. This is not news, Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins told us in their book "Comer es Primero" (in English "Food First"), published some thirty years ago.

At the beginning of this decade Lappé traveled with his daughter Anna to India, where they both spoke with an official who said with obvious pride that his country now had the largest grain surplus in its history. When they asked him if it would not be a bad idea to share that surplus with his starving compatriots, the poor wretch changed color and said that this could not be done because the poor were already given too many subsidies.

If so-called shortages really were the cause of hunger, then America should have the best-nourished population in the entire world. In that country, the so-called "breadbasket of the world", there are currently 30 million people who have nothing to eat, and 8.5% of children suffer from hunger.

Meanwhile, overproduction is a real headache for American farmers. The United States has massive surpluses of dairy and grain products. In fact, the surplus grain is enough to make 600 pounds of bread a year for all the starving children in that country. In the world's richest nation, one in five children is born into poverty, and the American Journal of Public Health estimates that the country has 10 million people - including 4 million children - who have nothing to eat.

Economists, sociologists, and agronomists can theorize all they want about the causes of hunger, but don't say that food is scarce.

If people are starving and even dying from it in the face of absurdly massive agricultural surpluses, then there is no conceivable way that GM crops will give relief to the hungry. But in the meantime, Potrykus continues to rant against his detractors.

Published in the Puerto Rican weekly Claridad

* Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
Journalist based in Puerto Rico, collaborator of Ecoportal and other media.
Author of "Agriculture and globalization: GM foods and corporate control

Video: Genetic engineering: The worlds greatest scam? (January 2022).