Imagine that you have worked for years to develop a strain of rice that contains vitamin A in a world where an estimated 100 million children under age 5 suffer from vitamin A deficiency. This vitamin can prevent diarrhea, which kills 2.5 million children a year, and measles, which kills some one million children a year. So you've offered to give the seeds to poor farmers in India, where many children are raised on a rice-centered diet.
You rightfully could expect to be lauded as a hero.
You would not expect to be shouted at by angry students or have to place your rice in a fortified grenade-proof greenhouse. Yet as the New York Times has reported, that is exactly the situation for Dr. Ingo Potrykus of Switzerland and his "golden rice.''
You see, the rice is genetically modified, which offends the sensibilities of self-styled environmentalists, who argue that genetically modified foods will endanger biodiversity. They call a strain of rice that could save millions of children "Frankenfood.'' And they are especially incensed at golden rice because they see it as a "Trojan horse.''
Anuradha Mittal of the Institute for Food and Development, based in Oakland, Calif., explained that golden rice "is being used by biotech companies as the silver bullet to end vitamin A deficiency, which causes night blindness. For us at the institute, it shows a blindness to other alternatives.''
There are other alternatives that, Mittal argued, can be used immediately and cheaply. For example, UNICEF fights vitamin A deficiency by giving high-dose capsules to children twice a year. The cost: two cents per pill. (If you want to send a check for the UNICEF vitamin A project, call 1-800-FORKIDS, or try unicefusa.org. You might save a few lives.)
Mittal also suggested injecting more leafy green vegetables in the Third World diet. And: "We need to have the political will to end hunger.''
That's a nice agenda, but hunger won't end tomorrow, and leafy green vegetables don't grow on trees in Calcutta.
UNICEF adviser Werner Schulting isn't anxious to scoff at a product that could save lives. He said of golden rice, "I think it is in principle a great development, which could potentially contribute significantly to a reduction in vitamin A deficiency.'' If children don't have enough vitamin A, he said, they risk a 20 percent higher chance of dying in early childhood.
Gary F. Barton of Monsanto, a biotech company that has developed a "golden mustard'' that will yield vitamin A-rich cooking oil for the Third World, is taken aback by the venom at genetically modified foods. To Mittal's criticism that there are other ways to address vitamin deficiency, he responded, "Why aren't they doing it? No one's stopping them.''
Golden rice "is going to lead to further concentration of wealth and control by corporations,'' critic Mittal argued.
"They're afraid it might work and provide benefit to people," Barton added. "I don't understand that.''
It is hard to understand.
Of course there is a need for safeguards to keep bioengineered foods from contaminating other plant life. Ditto studies that use objective criteria to measure the effects of genetically modified foods.
That said, there also should be a sense of urgency to push for these foods to reach the Third World in order to spare countless children from blindness, sickness and death.
And America is silent. The anti-bioengineered food people have managed to frame the debate as one between the good people, who want to protect the purity of our food, and the bad people, who want to use evil science to alter it.
The good people who want to save the environment so that Twinkies will be safe for "our children'' versus the bad people who develop seeds that allow farmers to use fewer pesticides (which just happens to be good for farm workers, but forget that).
Today, sensibilities trump sense. The modern person sneers at Marie Antoinette's famous remark, "Let them eat cake.'' He sneers, happily oblivious to the 21st century American equivalent: Let them eat leafy green vegetables.