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Food for thought: Debating Golden Rice

By Jason Wong
On January 29, 2014

Nearly every night for 18 years, rice was a part of my evening meal. I could have steamed fish, braised pork, curried chicken, all manner of stir-fried vegetables - but there would always be a bowl of white rice accompanying it all. A friend of mine reacted quite incredulously when I told him this. "Every night?" he said bemusedly. "Didn't you get sick of it?" Oddly enough, I didn't. Even today, when I see that there's a rice entrée (or even just plain white or brown rice) available at the dining hall, I always experience a little lift in spirits. Sure, rice is tasty, but that's not the only reason I'm pleased. Rice also serves as a comforting reminder of home as well as the culture I come from and share with billions of people around the world who eat rice as a staple.
Why am I not sick of rice after years of eating it every day? It doesn't taste like anything, not really. It's only when spices or entrées are added that it really becomes a meal. It's not a particularly good source of any nutrients - it's pretty much empty calories, even if you are eating brown rice. The answer is simple; people of my heritage have been eating it in much the same way for thousands of years, and have developed great tasting cuisine to go along with it. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to that variety of food, especially in poorer, developing countries. The cultural use of rice as a staple remains. "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are," said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. And those poor people are just like the rice they eat: lacking in practical nutrition.
But what else could they be? Sequencing genomes has become technically easy, and it becomes easier and cheaper to do so every year. Nearly 200 plants and animals have been sequenced already, and so have thousands of bacteria. Genetic engineering takes a single, target gene and inserts it into the genome of the recipient organism. Does that change the recipient organism enough so that its original descriptive term is no longer enough? Is a tomato that's been given the gene of a fish to be able to grow in cold temperatures no longer a tomato, but now something altogether different...a fishmato? Less-than-clever portmanteau of the words fish and tomato aside, what does that make us humans who eat it?
Maybe things are murkier when it comes to that kind of genetic engineering. Golden rice is a type of rice that has been genetically engineered to synthesize beta-carotene. Before it is made golden, rice plants already possess the gene that allows them to produce beta-carotene. Genetic engineers only turn the gene on, which results in the rice's golden color and its more nutritional value. Many people argue that doing such things is "playing God" and not natural, but in so complaining they forget that humans have been genetically modifying food for thousands of years. The ancient Mayans domesticated maize into the large corn cobs we have today, and carrots were originally white or purple in Europe (and now orange due to selective farming methods). As for the "natural" concern, one could counter by stating that most, if not all, of today's food crops would not be able to grow in the wild without human aid.
Still, like virtually all food that has been genetically modified in the "modern" way, golden rice has undergone a lot of criticism. As a person who has a personal connection to eating white rice, I too have my reservations. I don't fear for my health; there has been no empirical evidence to suggest that consuming food from genetically modified crops leads to long-term health problems. The only possible health issue is that of allergens, and that is easily remedied. I don't even fear that it won't have the same cultural feel. After all, white rice is frequently colored yellow through the use of saffron, and many varieties of fried rice also end up having yellow grains.
I'm concerned that golden rice may have some consequences that were unintended in its genesis. What will happen when golden rice does exactly as it was designed to do and nothing more, and it becomes more fruitful for rice farmers to plant it rather than white or brown rice? Will those species die out because of the incessant siren song of capitalism? And then, what happens when the seeds for genetically modified crops become too expensive for rural farmers in developing countries, already struggling to compete in the face of the overwhelming agricultural subsidies of rich nations?
There comes a time when humanity must take a step back and look at its place in nature and wonder what we find important and valuable about it. Does nature stay something that is used always in the name of progress? Do we revere it as the pagans did in the ancient past? Or can we find a happy medium, where nature provides us with the materials to be great while we in turn ensure that nature itself never dies.

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