Initiative 522 is about food labeling. Some initiative supporters say the labels are strictly for information purposes. But for one major supporter, PCC Natural Markets, labeling is about warning consumers concerning the hazards of GMOs.
With nine stores in and around Seattle, PCC has a wide, intelligent and receptive audience for its views on food issues. PCC has been resolute in its opposition to GMOs, seldom missing an opportunity to suggest that there is a possible health risk from consuming the products of genetic engineering (GE).
PCC supported the signature gathering effort for the initiative and now promotes its passage in information available to organic food shoppers. And its public affairs director is a campaign spokesperson. PCC's financial contributions to the signature gathering and ballot campaigns total $200,000, with half of that matching contributions from its members.
Whether some GMOs on food store shelves produce negative health effects is still an open question. But by painting all GMOs with the same broad brush — a food warning label — I-522 discourages consideration of the health benefits individual GMOs may deliver as well as the risks.
PCC raises this broader issue in its “Facts about I-522
” by focusing on Golden Rice, a GMO that has been under development for more than two decades. But it’s curious that Golden Rice has been singled out since it’s unlikely that it will ever be sold in U.S. grocery stores. Even more curious is the tone of PCC’s critique that leads with: “The hype over genetically engineered Golden Rice is deceitful.” And it goes on to suggest that Golden Rice produces compounds which cause birth defects, a serious charge unsupported by technical references.
Golden Rice deserves a thoughtful discussion since it has potential health benefits for millions of people in the less-developed world. It is an atypical GMO compared to GE foods such as corn and soybeans, which have been grown in the U.S. for a long time and now dominate in their markets. It is being carefully studied in field trials, and will not be introduced until vetted by international and national food safety organizations. By agreement, its introduction will not profit the large seed companies. Farmers can save seeds for the next planting.
So PCC’s focus on it in the context of I-522 may reflect a larger concern. Perhaps it’s motivated by the fear that Golden Rice will be successful in countering malnutrition. And that would threaten the conventional wisdom of opponents of GE foods that none are beneficial and that all GMOs must be considered as a whole, thereby challenging the need for a blanket non-GMO labeling policy.
It’s also possible that it indicates concern about the substantial financial backing
that the development of Golden Rice and other GMOs has received from the Gates Foundation, and of the outspoken support by Bill Gates Jr. for improved seed generally
through genetic engineering.
Rice is a staple in the food diet for half of humanity. For some, rice is eaten at every meal. It provides calories in its carbohydrates, protein, and unsaturated fats. What it doesn’t provide much of are other nutrients such as essential vitamins.
One of these, Vitamin A, protects the immune system. A diet deficient in Vitamin A can lead to blindness and even death for young children and pregnant women. The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million preschool children are Vitamin A deficient, and that in Vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women are also deficient. The WHO estimates that because of the deficiency 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind every year
, with half dying within 12 months of losing their sight.
Many of those at risk live in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Golden Rice is intended to provide the necessary daily value of the vitamin or at least a major portion of it, with the balance obtained through other locally available foods or through supplements. In some cases, where Vitamin A is largely missing from the local diet, it has been therapeutically administered through massive doses given twice each year, or in daily tablet form. But these have been found to be costly and difficult procedures, given the geographical distribution of the population at risk.
Other foods containing Vitamin A are sweet potato, carrot, and squash. Depending on climate and other growing conditions, they can provide the needed supplement. And since Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin, the diet needs to include sufficient levels of fat.
But even when other foods are locally available, they may be unaffordable to those in poverty status. Generally, the costs are less and the benefits greater when diet staples such as rice provide enough of the vitamin.
Golden Rice was invented by Swiss scientists. Vitamin A was introduced into rice using a genetic engineering procedure. The result is a rice plant that produces beta-carotene in the seed pod which is the source of the golden color. Ingesting the rice transforms the beta-carotene to Vitamin A. Rice plants so rendered can then be crossbred with local varieties that have other attributes such as pest resistance and heat tolerance.
One challenge has been to develop varieties that have beta-carotene levels sufficient to supply the vitamin at the level of required daily value. Research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has produced GE rice with levels
exceeding the daily value.
The dispute about Golden Rice escalated to a physical level in August when anti-GMO activists trashed an IRRI Golden Rice test plot in the Philippines. Their actions were viewed with dismay by local rice farmers who believe it is unlucky to kill a living rice plant. And an international group of scientists weighed in with a statement in Science magazine condemning the vandalism
All of this was examined in Andrew Rivken’s New York Times “Dot Earth” blog
. Rivkin’s coverage of environmental issues is well-respected and balanced. He quotes at length Alexander J. Stein, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, who has researched and written favorably about Golden Rice for a decade, and organic food guru Michael Pollan. Although a skeptic of the value of Golden Rice, Pollan supports the resumption of field trials.
Thus the bottom line for both a GMO supporter and a critic: Golden Rice should be individually evaluated for its benefits and risks. That would seem to be a reasonable approach for all GMOs.