March 9, 2013


How Genetically-Modified Crops Can Save Hundreds of Thousands from Malnutrition (Mark Lynas, 3/07/13, The Breakthrough)

Although it has been a long time in development, vitamin A-enriched 'golden rice' could soon be a breakthrough intervention in south and east Asia, where the largest-scale deficiency problem persists. It has now been scientifically established that golden rice "is an effective source of vitamin A" (to quote from the title of Tang et al, 2009, Am. J. Clin. Nutr) and thereby potentially an effective intervention to save lives in areas where white rice is the staple food. (Technically golden rice, like other vitamin A-fortified foods, contains enhanced levels of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.)

Even so, continued opposition threatens to derail this progress. Much of this focuses around the idea that other approaches to vitamin A deficiency are more 'appropriate' than one involving GMOs and should be tried first. This seems to me to run counter to the WHO's 'arsenal' approach - why not try everything you can in response to a crisis which takes the lives of up to a quarter of a million young children per year? A common variant is the 'let them eat broccoli' argument (with apologies to Marie Antoinette) - that promoting a more balanced diet is more appropriate than fortification of staple foods.

No-one disputes that a balanced and nutritionally-adequate diet is the best long-term soluton to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition in general. But achieving this requires the elimination of poverty (which is why rich countries do not have this problem), something which will take time and decades of economic growth in the developing world. In the meantime, millions of preventable deaths will occur, and many of those children that survive will have their life prospects permanently harmed.

A useful analogy might be providing water and sanitation - another issue which can only be solved permanently by povery elimination. As far as I know, no-one argues that charities are wrong to provide clean water in African villages because it this is merely a short-term 'fix' for a long-term problem. (And dirty water is the biggest killer of all.) The challenge is to save lives of vulnerable people right here, right now, in any way that works.

Posted by at March 9, 2013 10:11 AM

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