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Rice is responsible for feeding half the world, or more than 3.5 billion people. In other words, rice is important. A tweak to how the grain is grown, sold or eaten can send ripples through the world economy. Take Thailand, which supplies 30 percent of the world's rice. Government subsidies there threaten to raise the price of putting dinner on the table in Mexico. GlobalPost takes a closer look at a tiny grain with a giant footprint.
Genetically modified golden rice could save millions of lives, but in India it may never get into the ground.
Editor's note: Of the world's 50,000 edible plant species, only a few hundred find their way to menus around the globe. Of those, just three — rice, wheat and maize — make up two-thirds of the human food supply. And only rice is responsible for feeding half the world, or more than 3.5 billion people.
In other words, rice is important. So important, in fact, that a tweak to the way rice is grown, sold or eaten can send ripples through the world economy. Earlier this year, government subsidies for rice in Thailand, where 30 percent of the world's crop originates, did just that. Prices everywhere shot up, though it looks like any looming instability has been offset by other exporters, namely India, steadying the market.
Still, the point is rice in one place affects millions. Tainted crops in China mean two-thirds of the country's people ingest toxins everyday. In Japan, global warming changed rice and an entire culture. Rice 2.0 is GlobalPost's look at a tiny grain with a giant footprint.
NEW DELHI, India — When Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer unveiled genetically modified golden rice a decade ago, they promised to save millions of lives across India and other developing countries by providing the poor and malnourished a ready source of betacarotene.
But in India, opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) may well kill the initiative before it takes off.
“I have no hesitation in saying that we will make all efforts to stop it,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural researcher and farmers' advocate based in the Punjab.
In many respects, golden rice represents the fantastic potential of GM foods. But because of the method used to create it — piggybacking genes from maize on a kind of bacteria found in the soil to induce the plant to produce betacarotene in the rice kernel — opposition remains fierce.
Environmentalists fear the new variety might spread and overwhelm other native crops. Anti-globalization activists fear that the new technology represents the thin end of the wedge for multinational corporations seeking to make slaves of the small farmer. And advocates of organic farming fear that “tampering with nature” may result in unknown health costs.
“Sensible people should be aware that this [opposition] is not scientifically justified at all,” said Adrian Dubock, executive secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and the architect of the project designed to distribute golden rice to the world's poor.
“The reasons for objections are complicated. Sometimes they're religious. Sometimes they're related to fears about globalization.”
And those fears could be costly, according to Dubock. While the vision problems associated with Vitamin A deficiency are better known, it also causes immune system problems that are especially vicious among pregnant women and newborn children.
More Rice 2.0: Happy farmers, hungrier planet?
“The latest WHO figures [from 2005] have shown that between 23 and 34 percent of child mortality could be prevented by having a universal source of vitamin A,” Dubock said. “Similarly, with mothers about 40 percent of maternal mortality could be prevented.”
Proponents of technological solutions to the world's food and nutrition problems believe golden rice could be the answer.
After some tweaks to the original strain, the latest generation of the genetic modification — known as the r event — promises to provide as much as 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A for poor people who consume as little as 40 grams of golden rice a day. At least one study of a theoretical plan to give the modified rice to poor farmers claims that it would be 50 percent more efficient than the current efforts to provide dietary supplements.
More Rice 2.0: Toxic rice in China
And the technology's inventors compelled the owners of the patent, a biotechnology company called Syngenta, to allow poor farmers around the world free access to the new variety as long as they earn less than $10,000 a year — ostensibly eliminating fears about industrialized agriculture that have plagued other GMO crops like Monsanto's Bt Cotton.
“All the normal arguments don't apply here,” said Dubock. “This is a gift from the inventors.”
Here in India, however, farmer advocates and environmental activists view that gift as a Trojan Horse.
“They are using the humanitarian window to actually push for GM