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The Golden Rice Controversy

Golden Rice (on the right) could save millions of lives, its inventors say.

Vitamin A deficiency is the No. 1 cause of preventable blindness in children, and it has also contributed to the deaths of millions of children in the developing world. So when a published study finds that a certain type of rice can significantly increase Vitamin A levels, you’d think it would be greeted universally as terrific news.

Not in this case.

That’s because the rice in question is Golden Rice, a genetically modified grain that has been the subject of controversy for more than a decade. As with other genetically modified foods, there are concerns that Golden Rice might be unsafe. There’s no evidence that it’s harmful, but critics say it hasn’t been properly tested.

So when a paper was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this month that said that 24 Chinese children (ages 6 to 8) had participated in a study in which they were fed Golden Rice, there was outrage in China, particularly on Weibo, the country’s Twitter equivalent. Now a Chinese researcher involved in the project has reportedly been suspended. In addition, Tufts University, where the lead author, Guangwen Tang, is director of the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory, has started an investigation.

Tang didn’t respond to an e-mail request for an interview, but Tufts did send along a statement that said the university “respects the laws, regulations, and cultures of all countries in which our researchers work or collaborate.” The investigation, according to the statement, was undertaken to “ensure that the strictest standards were adhered to.” This isn’t the first time research on Golden Rice at Tufts has been criticized.

One oddity is that last week government officials in China told reporters that the study did not involve genetically modified rice and that it was not done in association with American researchers—even though just a glance at the paper’s abstract indicates otherwise.

This is just the latest chapter in a decade-plus battle over Golden Rice, hailed on a Time magazine cover in July 2000 as the food that could “save a million kids a year.” But the vigorous opposition, including from Greenpeace, that flagged the new study, and helped stir the latest controversy, has kept it in the lab rather than on the shelves.

That’s been an enormous frustration to Ingo Potrykus, a retired professor of plant science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, who developed the potentially life-saving grain with Peter Beyer, a professor of cell biology at the University of Freiburg, in Germany. In a 2008 article in Science, Potrykus complained that he might not live to see his invention do the good he believes it can.

In a recent review article, published in the Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, Potrykus argued that the delay in approving the rice had led to the “loss of numerous lives, mostly children and women.”

News of the latest study, while on its face a victory for Potrykus and other proponents of Golden Rice, may actually set back their cause even more.

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