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Alexander J. Stein

Economist interested in agriculture, food, nutrition, health, technology, sustainability, economic development & poverty alleviation worldwide. This is a personal account; posts are not necessarily endorsements. More at
Aug 27 '13

Comment on: From Lynas to Pollan, Agreement that Golden Rice Trials Should Proceed

This was written in response to points raised by Michael Pollan in Andrew Revkin’s article From Lynas to Pollan, Agreement that Golden Rice Trials Should Proceed on the Opinion Pages at the New York Times, but then I realised that I exceeded the permitted length for comments by far and therefore posted it here: 

I did research on the potential impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice for my PhD and I feel that I can alleviate some of Michael Pollan’s concerns. 

His first concern is that there may be too little fat in the diet of potential beneficiaries. It is true that a certain amount of fat is needed for the bioavailability of vitamin A. However, according to the literature only 5 g/d are sufficient, whereas even in the poorest quintile of households in India average fat intake per adult equivalent is 35 g/d, and e.g. on the Maldives the fat intake of children aged 1-3 years is 22 (±11) g/d, i.e. for Golden Rice to work no additional fat is needed in the diet of the target groups. (Otherwise suggestions that people should simply eat carrots, papayas or mangoes would run into the same problem.) 

In his next point Pollan comes to an important question when he asks why not just getting people a better diet or how other micronutrient interventions compare to Golden Rice. He acknowledges that he doesn’t know the answer and he suggests no one seems to be asking those key questions. Alas, answering those questions was exactly what I did in my research and it is perhaps my fault that the answers have not reached a broader public, even if I published them widely, but I’m trying to correct this shortcoming now. 

Everybody in the field agrees that the ideal solution is for people to diversify their diet and to simply eat well. However that’s exactly the crux of the matter: People are simply too poor and in some cases they do not know enough about nutrition, either. This means the question is a bit akin to the purported suggestion by Marie Antoinette to “let them eat cake” – if they could they’d be probably more than happy to do so. While it is a horrible thing that millions and millions of people still live in poverty, there’s no denying that this situation will only be solved slowly over the coming 1-2 decades (or at least I very much hope it will be solved). This leaves those who cannot afford a sufficiently diverse diet out in the cold for the time being. Clearly, they deserve our attention and the help society can give. 

This brings me – and Pollan – to the next point: vitamin supplements (distributed and consumed in addition to the regular diet) and fortification (vitamins added to the food people eat normally and regularly) or, also, biofortification (staple food crops bred to produce and accumulate vitamins and minerals in the very crops poor people often grow themselves and eat regularly). How do these interventions compare? Which one represents “the best use of our resources”, as Pollan asks? This is what I sought to answer in my research. 

First of all, there is general agreement that most micronutrient interventions represent very cost-effective solutions, and all have their strengths and weaknesses, i.e. it is probably difficult to pin-point one “best use” for all cases: Countries are different: health care systems, food supply chains, seed distribution systems, dietary habits and preferences, agro-ecological conditions, nutrition knowledge and education levels, etc. all differ from one country to another and even within countries. This means what can be an optimal mix of the various interventions in one country may not be the best use of resources in another. However, this makes it the more important to have as many different tools available as possible, so decision-makers in each country can use the strengths of one intervention in one setting to complement the strengths of another intervention in another. (If there is no “best” solution, it is also difficult to say that there is a “never-good” solution.) 

Having said so much, there is a fairly intuitive argument why biofortified crops, such as Golden Rice (or other crops that were developed using “conventional” breeding), can be even more cost-effective than supplementation or fortification: Economies of scale. In the case of vitamin A supplementation all children in at-risk households need to receive two mega-doses of vitamin A per year, year after year. The cost of one supplement may only be cents, but distribution and monitoring costs need to be added, too. And these costs need to be incurred over and over and over again. This means the small initial costs for the single supplement quickly run up into the millions and millions (think of South and South-East Asia with countries like India or Bangladesh where hundreds of millions of children need to be reached one time, the second time, the first time next year, the second time next year, the year after and after…) 

In the case of Golden Rice the situation is different from there other interventions. There are certainly initial investments into the development of the rice that are not negligible, and all investments can go wrong, but once the “golden” trait has been developed and it is approved, it can be used and bred into local varieties and enter the existing seed distribution and extension system. Of course there are further costs for this adaptive breeding; information campaigns are needed to explain the benefits of the new, yellow rice (and the more agitation and negative headlines there are against and about Golden Rice, the more costly those campaigns will be); some maintenance breeding will be necessary throughout, etc. But overall there are initial costs that fall in relative terms the more Golden Rice is grown and consumed, i.e. each successive year in which Golden Rice is eaten by its beneficiaries, and each additional region where it is grown will help “cut” the initial costs. With the increasing adoption and consumption of Golden Rice over space and time, its costs will be split among more and more beneficiaries and it represents an increasingly better use of our resources – meaning more resources become available to address other, pressing problems in the field of agriculture, food, nutrition and health. 

Finally, Pollan raises the question if people will eat yellow rice. There are various arguments out there that this may not be such an obstacle: There is good experience with the introduction of orange-fleshed sweet potato in Africa (where before only white-fleshed sweet potato was consumed) [addition: a new study finds also high acceptance of yellow instead of white cassava], in many rice-eating regions there are specialty rice varieties that have different hues, and in spiced dishes (curry) the different colour many not even be very visible. But of course this was also a question that I asked local stakeholders and experts when I did my research in India and the general answer was that if the government approves of it and if its introduction is properly managed there is little doubt that people will eat it. That may be overly optimistic, and behaviour change can be difficult, but it is not impossible, and a conducive press will help increase acceptance of Golden Rice. Here I also see a direct responsibility of the media and key journalists, such as Michael Pollan, not to vilify a crop that may do a lot of good, but to help and facilitate its acceptance. 

Regarding the time it takes to cook Golden Rice: It will be absolutely the same as for the rice people currently eat – the very point of Golden Rice is to improve the nutritional value of the rice but not to change other characteristics farmers and consumers are interested in. However, and perhaps Pollan mixed that one up, unpolished brown rice indeed takes more time to cook (i.e. higher costs in terms of time and fuel may matter for the poor acceptance), but this is not the case for Golden Rice. 

Pollan concludes by writing that “We deserve to find out once and for all if this shining promise can live up to the hype.” For all the people who may benefit from it, I certainly hope that Golden Rice will come up to its promises. However, as I noted elsewhere, in the end it may well be that the biggest contribution of Golden Rice is that of a catalyst: It focused attention on micronutrient malnutrition and encouraged more research – whether to determine the potential of Golden Rice or to show the viability of alternative interventions. That additional attention and the knowledge generated in its wake hopefully will do a lot of good and allow more rapid progress in the fight against undernutrition, irrespective of whatever happens with Golden Rice.  

And one last note regarding the eternal “corporate” argument that also surfaced in the article above: People who develop Golden Rice and other GMOs are people who studied biology or agronomy, people who support Golden Rice are paediatricians and nutritionists – are those the kind of people we distrust? Are those the kind of people who pursue their studies primarily for financial gain? (If I as an economist am suspected for lack of ethics and an interest in money, I could follow the prejudice, but those people? And even in my case, after I did my Masters I could have gotten a job as an investment banker in the City and made a lot of money, but instead I did a PhD in agriculture focusing on developing countries. Go figure.) Of course also well-meaning people can be caught in a system, be instrumentalised and follow the system’s logic, but the same can be suspected of the opponents of GMOs, who may be caught in their respective ideological echo chambers, who are subject to peer pressure (see the reaction to Mark Lynas’ change of heart), and also they have financial incentives to the extent that GMOs represent a rallying point to drum up support (funds, new members, etc.) Therefore perhaps one way forward could be to assume good intentions on both “sides” and look at the data in a neutral, unbiased way. A vain hope, I fear. 

Most of the more tangible info in this comment is referenced here – but feel free to contact me. So far I have yet to come across an argument that I did not look into and address in my work and I’d be happy to provide answers or additional references – or actually to learn about a new argument… 

Addition: In this comment I try to give some more background on our research and on how we evaluated the impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice, how we compared our assessment with the results of other micronutrient interventions, and how interventions with different time horizons can be balanced. (This comment may be more technical and abstract, though.) 

Addition: And in this comment I explain how our work on Golden Rice has been assessed. 

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