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A Communication Plan to Make Golden Rice a Grain of Hope to Save Millions of Children
by Gene Gregorio

I. Historical Opposition to Golden Rice


At the start, Golden Rice originally did not have sufficient vitamin A. This problem was solved by
the development of new strains of rice (Golden Rice 2). However, there are still doubts about
the speed at which Vitamin A degrades once the plant is harvested, and how much would
remain after cooking. A 2009 study of boiled Golden Rice fed to volunteers concluded that
Golden Rice is effectively converted into Vitamin A in humans.

Second, Greenpeace opposes the release of any genetically modified organisms into the
environment and is concerned that Golden Rice is a Trojan horse that will open the door to
more widespread use of GMOs.

Third, Vandana Shiva, an Indian anti-GMO activist, argued the problem was not that the crop
had any particular deficiencies, but that there were potential problems with poverty and loss of
biodiversity in food crops. These problems are aggravated by the corporate control of
agriculture based on genetically modified foods. By focusing on a narrow problem (Vitamin A
deficiency), Shiva argued, the Golden Rice proponents were obscuring the larger issue of a lack
of broad availability of diverse and nutritionally adequate sources of food.

II. Potential Risks to Consider


There are several other risks that could be important. First, after substantial investment, Golden
Rice may not be widely adopted and will have little semblance of the impact envisioned.
Farmers who wish to sell it in markets (most rice in Asia is traded in markets, not consumed at
home) may not want to take the risks of adopting a new variety (e.g., lower yield, susceptibility
to pests and diseases) unless they are compensated with higher prices or yields. However,
such higher prices would work against its incorporation into the diets of the poor, possibly
causing it to wind up as a niche product for rich consumers.

Second, Golden Rice may cause unforeseen health risks, particularly if it is the first GMO to be
widely consumed by children. This speaks to the importance of extensive testing to ensure that
Golden Rice has limited side effects and, after storage and cooking, has enough bioavailable
beta-carotene to substantially reduce Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD).
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Third, Golden Rice may be adopted and have a positive impact, but one that is difficult to
perceive or measure, so that little “credit” is given to the innovation. To remedy this situation, it
will be important to undertake education campaigns to inform any skeptical farmers, consumers,
or NGOs about the nutritional benefits of Golden Rice (assuming a successful variety is
developed) and its benefits for farmers. Such campaigns will be important for ensuring
widespread adoption as well as giving due credit once it is adopted.

Many members of the educated general public in Asia are convinced that most new
technologies hurt farmers, especially if the corporate sector is involved in the technology. To
some extent, this is a legacy of the Green Revolution, which is still viewed with skepticism by
many even though it increased productivity, has been adopted widely by farmers, and was a
major force in averting the widespread famines forecast by many observers.

As a specific example, many people assume that because of the corporate sector’s involvement
in the origins of Golden Rice, farmers will need to purchase this seed every year. While this is
true for many crops in developed economies, no company at present has plans to
commercialize Golden Rice in developing countries. In addition, the technology to create
Golden Rice was donated by its inventors and private companies holding intellectual property
licenses so that any organization or farmer can freely distribute or replant seed. Thus, farmers
will be under no compulsion to buy new seeds every year, but this fact will need to be clearly
and creatively communicated to the public. The public may also need to be convinced that a
reasonable share of benefits from adoption of Golden Rice goes to farmers.

Fourth, a risk that seems minimal at this stage is that NGOs will be able to derail field testing on
a large scale. Several countries in Asia (including the Philippines and India) have already
approved GM crops for commercial purposes, and there are procedures for such approval in
many countries. If the data support the effectiveness and safety of the new crops, it seems
politically likely that field testing will proceed.

III. Objective
In view of the risks, the objective is to gain crucial general approval and acceptability of Golden
Rice by its major stakeholders. In so doing, the challenge for the International Rice Research
Institute (IRRI) is to reduce social and regulatory obstacles by addressing the following:

 400 million people are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, 124 million of them children.
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 2 million children die every year because of a lack of vitamin A in their diets.
 500,000 children go blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency.

Many of the people at highest risk of developing a Vitamin A deficiency live in Southeast Asia,
where rice is a dietary staple. These statistics provided by Gurdev S. Khush, the principal plant
breeder at IRRI.

IV. Target Audience

 Farmers and the agricultural sectors;


 The general public;
 NGOs;
 The scientific community;
 The Church;
 International & multilateral organizations;
 Governments, agricultural ministries, National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS)
and other regulatory agencies; and
 Other concerned sectors

V. Key Messages
A. Golden Rice is a safe, environmentally sustainable and appropriate technology for
development.

B. Golden Rice is meant to complement, not replace, existing strategies. Golden Rice was
not intended to be the final solution to VAD, but rather an additional arrow in the humanitarian
quiver of weapons aimed at mitigating malnutrition. It effectively delivers a beneficial natural trait
(beta-carotene) in a standard crop plant.

C. Over 3 thousand scientists, including 25 Noble Laureates, have signed a “Declaration


in Support Of Agricultural Biotechnology”. This should be amplified to counter anti-
technology politics that is based more on emotion than agronomy and genetics and
humanitarianism. The Declaration asserts “recombinant DNA techniques constitute powerful
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and safe means for the modification of organisms and can contribute substantially in enhancing
quality of life by improving agriculture, health care, and the environment.”

D. The introgression of Golden Rice into local varieties can occur within 2 years, thus
preserving biodiversity. Scientists argue that Golden Rice is not a ruse to addict the world’s
population to a monoculture controlled by multinational corporations.

E. “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is,” said former U.S. President
Jimmy Carter. For proponents of Golden Rice, it is time to shift attention from debate to
implementation. A U.S. Department of Agriculture research geneticist exhorted in 2006, “The
current resistance to acceptance of this novel technology should be assessed and overcome so
that its full potential in crop improvement can be realized.”

F. The poor don't get enough food for a number of reasons (infrastructure, such as poor
roads along which to take their goods to market; lack of fertilizer; lack of training in farming
methods).

VI. Strategy
To achieve stated objective, the major thrust of the messaging strategy is to have a strong
influence on journalists, policy-makers and opinion-formers, influential politicians, policy-makers,
scientific bodies, and official development organizations through the following
recommendations:

A. Launch education campaigns to inform any skeptical farmers, consumers, or NGOs


about the nutritional benefits of Golden Rice and its benefits for farmers. Such campaigns
will be important for ensuring widespread adoption as well as giving due credit once it is
adopted.

B. In concert with other actors, engage in a broad-based effort to publicize its


developing-world activities and promote GM crops as a safe, environmentally friendly
technology that is relevant to international development, food security, and smallholder
farming.
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C. Get the mutual support of third party organizations (such as the Biotechnology Industry
Organization (BIO), the International Food Information Council (IFIC), the Agricultural
Biotechnology Council (ABC), the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications (ISAAA) and other major agribusiness companies) that have vigorously promoted
GM crops as a safe, environmentally sustainable and appropriate technology for development.

D. Clearly and creatively communicate to the public that farmers will be under no
compulsion to buy new seeds every year. The public may also need to be convinced that a
reasonable share of benefits from adoption of Golden Rice goes to the farmers.

E. When Golden Rice is adopted, educational campaigns targeted to farmers, NGOs, and
the general public will be of crucial importance. However, NGOs may have more influence
on adoption by farmers and consumers than on field testing. Many large NGOs are likely to
support Golden Rice if it is safe and effective, e.g., the influential NGOs in Bangladesh such as
Grameen, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), and Proshika. These NGOs are
unlikely to take a major lead in promoting GR, but they will probably not oppose it and may lend
some support to its dissemination if there is strong evidence it will help the poor. But many other
NGOs advocate organic farming, and it seems unlikely that any amount of evidence will
convince them to support Golden Rice: their objections are due to ethical or ideological
considerations, not scientific skepticism. Their influence should not be ignored.

F. Initiate policy dialogue among agriculturalists, health specialists, and advocates for
the poor in Asian countries for successful development and delivery. The political
response to the on-going development of Golden Rice is reviewed to draw lessons for
biofortification efforts that employ modern biotechnology.

VII. Considerations for Advocacy and Development of Biofortified Crops in the Future
Golden Rice technology still needs considerable research investment to be viable in farmers’
fields and to meet a rigorous standard for consumer safety. Moving past regulatory hurdles will
not be easy, and thus, this crop is unlikely to play a role in meeting micronutrient needs until the
middle of this decade.

From the political standpoint, there are still no advocates for this technology within Asian
countries. Ministries of Agriculture and National Agricultural Research System (NARS) are
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production-oriented by training and mandate; thus, they have little interest in a project that
diverts attention from production goals and requires innovative cooperation with nutritional
science. The Intellectual Property arrangements have not given participating NARS a sense of
ownership or control of this technology. Ministries of Health may find that biofortification poses a
threat to their traditional programs, although it can potentially save lives and government
expenditures in the long run. NGOs have yet to embrace this technology.

To move forward, it seems clear that Golden Rice must be agronomically viable at a minimum.
To be acceptable to consumers and accomplish its nutritional goals will require that countries
make some strategic decisions about implementation, adoption, and promotion. Such decisions
include desirable beta-carotene levels, target populations, desirable agronomic characteristics,
and methods for distribution and promotion. These choices would be best informed if the health
and agricultural policy-makers can agree on the need for and potential benefits from this
technology and if NGOs who work with the poor embrace it. As this approach to biofortification
is relatively challenging, future investments in research need to increasingly be driven by policy
dialogue.

The Golden Rice story provides guidance for other biofortification efforts. First, any
biofortification of a staple crop using GM technology will likely encounter greater political
resistance, as well as more challenges in safety assessments and delivery, than non-GM
approaches. Second, any biofortification effort will need support and guidance from NARS and
NGOs within countries with nutritionally deficient populations in order to be designed and
targeted appropriately.