The claimfactFiction41 FactCheck: has the environment minister struck gold on GM?

“Over the last 15 years, despite offering the seeds for free to those who would need them, every attempt to deploy this golden rice has been thwarted. In that time 7 million children have gone blind or died.”

Owen Paterson, environment secretary, 20 June 2013

The background

It’s a golden moment for GM crops, according to Owen Paterson.

While the world has been “ploughing ahead” with GM technology, Europe “risks being left behind”, he said on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning.

He went on to say the next generation of GM “offers the most wonderful opportunities to improve human health”.

Mr Paterson continued: “Golden rice was first created in 1999 by two German professors. They did this out of goodwill at a non-profit independent research institute.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 500,000 children go irreversibly blind a year and 250,000 of those actually die.

“The problem is mainly in South East Asia but over the last 15 years, despite offering the seeds for free to those who would need them, every attempt to deploy this golden rice has been thwarted.

“In that time 7 million children have gone blind or died.”

Is there a grain of truth in the minister’s rice claims?

The analysis

Golden rice is a strain of the grain that was genetically modified to contain beta carotene, giving it its golden colour.

It was invented in 1999 by Professor Ingo Potrykus, who was then at the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Professor Peter Beyer, of the University of Freibur, Germany.

The idea was that beta carotene is converted into Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, according to the World Health Organisation, and can lead to death in children.

The two scientists got together with the biotech giant, Syngenta, to develop the rice.

Since then, it has been upgraded, most notably in 2005, and has been going through numerous regulatory processes and field trials in the Philippines. It is awaiting approval from the country’s government regulators.

Golden rice is not yet available on the market. Which is why FactCheck got confused when Mr Paterson implied it was being offered for free.

We checked with the Department for Food and Rural Affairs. They confirmed that the seeds hadn’t yet been approved, but said that Mr Paterson was referring to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the Philippines.

Set up in 1960, the IRRI is a non-profit organisation which is now working to develop golden rice. It has received support from biotechnology companies, such as Syngenta. Scientists funded by Monsanto have also gone to work at the IRRI.

The DoH said that the IRRI had been trying to “give the seed away”, but due to regulation, had been prevented from doing so.

The inventors claim golden rice has been made to jump through more hoops than other foodstuffs might have to. But as yet, prices haven’t been fixed for the seed because it hasn’t been approved.

However, the IRRI said on its website: “Golden Rice is expected to cost farmers about the same as other rice”.

In addition, the IRRI says, farmers won’t incur additional charges for using it, and they “are free to save the seeds for replanting”.

So the minister may be stretching the truth when he says that golden rice could be a free lunch.

What’s perhaps more alarming is his claim about 7 million children otherwise going blind or dying.

He’s right to quote World Health Organisation (WHO) figures. The WHO said an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A deficient children become blind every year, and half die within 12 months of losing their sight.

But, it’s far too simplistic an extrapolation – the figures haven’t been constant for 15 years (they’ve gone down), and it takes the worst case scenario – half of 500,000 for 15 years, when it could have been half, or even less, of 250,000 for 15 years.

What’s worse is that he makes a causal link when there is none. He can’t claim that by not providing the rice the blindness and deaths have occurred, as we don’t know what would have happened had the rice been provided.

It’s also the case that the problem, according to health experts, is a lack of Vitamin A, not of golden rice.

FactCheck asked Allen Foster, professor of international eye health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whether ophthamologists working internationally had considered the use of golden rice to combat blindness caused by Vitamin A.

He said: “Over the last 20 years there has been a reduction in blindness from Vitamin A deficiency due to better education and the provision of vitamin A with immunisation programmes.

“Golden Rice has more vitamin A than conventional white rice, however it needs to be accepted by the communities and families in which vitamin A deficiency occurs.

“There are locally available foods which have vitamin A including green leafy vegetables and some fruits. However often mothers do not know that they need to supplement breast feeding with these solid foods.”

It’s also worth pointing out that it was only later versions of golden rice which were thought to contain enough beta carotene to have an effect. So even if golden rice had been available 15 years ago, it would have been an early version that was scientifically proven to be less effective in eliminating Vitamin A deficiency.

The verdict

Mr Paterson has been misleading on a number of counts.

There haven’t been attempts to give golden rice out for free. The leading exponent of it says it will cost “about the same” as ordinary rice.

To then claim that 7 million children have gone blind or died as a result of such attempts being thwarted doesn’t follow either. The numbers are a large and inaccurate extrapolation, and we can’t claim one led to another without knowing what would have happened had golden rice been around for all these years.

The minister might be accused of over-filling his plate with statistics. Perhaps he’s bitten off a bit more than he can chew, on this occasion.

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