What is GM rice?

Genetically modified (‘GM’) rice is one of the most publicly cited examples of a genetically modified organism (‘GMO’), and has become increasingly more controversial in recent years. Basically, GM rice is a genetically engineered version, taking natural varieties of rice and modifying them to introduce certain desirable characteristics, such as increased yields or resistance to certain weather conditions. In essense, this process utilises the ability of scientists to join DNA from two different organisms.

Why is GM rice controversial?

Arguably, genetically modified (GM) rice has the potential to help the developing world, but has also been charged with harming it. Although, there is the intent that rice has been modified to address malnutrition and disease (as so-called ‘golden rice’), many object to the notion of scientific solutions to such problems, where more pragmatic solution may exist. Moreover, GM rice has generally been developed for purely commercial interests, to increase productivity and develop particular consumer friendly traits. This has led to charges of ‘biopiracy’, which suggests the theft of biological resources and traditional knowledge.

Thus it is unclear whether GM rice is an exciting new development in the fight against world hunger and disease, or a vehicle for the pilfering of indigenous knowledge and the loss of biodiversity. Perhaps it is both. It is this very uncertainty that characterises the debate. Many argue that we do not yet have a complete understanding of all the risks and benefits of GM rice and other GMOs, and as such, production should be halted until credible research can be undertaken.

An interesting facet to this debate, is the realization that rice forms the basis of the diet of much of the world’s population, especially in developing countries. The issues surrounding GM rice are thus crucial, and will become increasingly prominent as further scientific progress is made.

What is golden rice?

‘Golden rice’ was designed to reduce vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries, and thus improve nutrition and reduce disease. From a social point of view, it raises issues about how we address problems such as world hunger and health, and in particular, provokes ethical and philosophical questions about whether science and technology can and should be used as solutions to such problems.

Golden rice was created by Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany. The results of their invention were first published in Science in 2000. Potrykus and Beyer developed a strain of rice that produces beta-carotene in the endosperm (the part of rice that is eaten), which incidentally also gives it a distinctive yellow colour. Beta-carotene is believed to be converted to retinol (the dietary form of vitamin A) in the gut. This is of note, because Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) affects millions of people globally, especially women and children, and causes many serious health problems including blindness, xerophthalmia (a condition in which the eye cannot produce tears), measles, diarrhoea and death. The World Health Organisation estimates that a staggering 140 – 250 million children under five years of age are affected by VAD.

Golden rice therefore appears to be a more realistic and less expensive alternative to providing vitamin A supplements or improving access to foods naturally rich in beta-carotene (such as leafy vegetables and dairy products). However, critics argued that an unrealistic amount of golden rice would need to be consumed in order to significantly reduce VAD. To offset this, British scientists, in 2005, at the biotechnology company Syngenta, announced the development of an improved version. Here, ‘Golden rice 2’ contains more than twenty times the amount of beta-carotene as its predecessor, and according to its inventors, seventy grams of golden rice 2 provides one hundred percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. Furthermore, Sygenta has pledged to donate seeds to the Humanitarian Project for Golden Rice, a project chaired by Potrykus himself, and committed to addressing VAD specifically rather than commercial benefit.

Indeed, Golden rice was even featured in the ‘Massive Change’ exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in early 2005. While it is not yet available, it has been hailed as exciting development in scientific research that demonstrates the potential benefits of biotechnology.

So is golden rice an appropriate and desirable solution to a major global problem?

Intuitively, a new scientific solution seems appealing – if we have the means to try an innovative and relatively inexpensive approach to a seemingly intractable problem, why not give it a try? Perhaps a problem we have not been able to solve through political will and foreign aid can be more successfully addressed by scientists.

However, some, such as prominent Indian environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, argue that scientific solutions to such problems are not appropriate or desirable. Rather, we should consider the underlying structural impediments to food security and disease – the distribution of economic resources, governance, structural poverty and so on. Dr Shiva argues that genetically modifying strains of rice only augments the loss of biodiversity, which she believes is a root cause of malnutrition in the first place – and an unfortunate legacy of the so-called Green Revolution. Another common objection is that the poor are deficient in many vitamins and minerals, not just vitamin A – a reflection of generally suffering from malnutrition. From this perspective, golden rice speaks of a simple quick-fix solution to an entrenched, pervasive problem.

Advocates of golden rice counter that it is not intended to solve the problem, but is intended to be a potentially effective part of a wider solution. For example, Sandy Thomas of the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics in the UK notes that ‘we do not claim that GM crops will eliminate the need for economic, political or social change, or that they will feed the world. However, we do believe that GM technology could make a useful contribution.’ In any case, some would argue, other solutions have not worked. It is unclear at present whether this position is viable or ethical, particularly given that we are not yet aware of the long term effects of GM foods. The debate is certain to continue and become more vehement, as further scientific breakthroughs are made in genetic modification.

What is the debate about commercial GM rice and ‘biopiracy’?

The debate over GM rice is more impassioned when rice produced for commercial purposes is discussed. Currently, new strains of rice are developed in order to increase yields or introduce desirable traits. US companies, in particular, have introduced GM rice to increase domestic production or to develop the ability to grow certain types of rice unsuited to the North American domestic climate. This has led to claims of ‘biopiracy’, of which two cases, involving basmati rice and jasmine rice, have been especially prominent.

How are basmati rice and jasmine rice affected?

– In 1997, RiceTec Inc, a Texan company, received a patent for ‘Texmati’ (its genetically engineered strain of basmati rice). Critics argue that basmati varieties rightfully belong to India and Pakistan, and launched a campaign to prevent RiceTec Inc from producing the rice. They also claim that by marketing Texmati as ‘American basmati’, RiceTec Inc is using a brand that is not its own, endangering the livelihoods of Indian and Pakistani farmers, and also misleading consumers.

– Dr Christopher Deren of the University of Florida led a project supported by the US Department of Agriculture to genetically engineer a strain of Thai jasmine rice, that requires less sunshine and thus can grow in the US climate. Thai rice producers have claimed that this amounts to biopiracy under the WTO’s Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (‘TRIPS’). However, the rice is not yet commercially available and has not been patented, so the Thai claim is premature.

– RiceTec Inc has introduced its ‘Jasmati’ rice which it markets as ‘American jasmine’. It is not actually derived from jasmine rice, but from a variety called ‘Della’ which was developed in the US from an Italian strain. Thus, jasmine rice has not been directly involved in the creation of Jasmati, but its name alludes to both jasmine and basmati rice.

What is the biopiracy debate in regard to basmati and jasmine rice?

There is much debate and disagreement regarding these developments. On the one hand, protests have been mounted against the use of the terms ‘basmati’ and ‘jasmine’ by US companies. Indeed, legal action was taken in April 2000, by both the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) in Washington D.C. and the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) in New Delhi (and headed by Dr Shiva). The groups filed legal petitions with the US Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), demanding that the term ‘basmati’ be only permitted for rice grown in India and Pakistan, and the term ‘jasmine’ permitted only for rice from Thailand. However, in May 2001, the FTC ruled that the terms ‘basmati’ and ‘jasmine’ are generic and are not considered specific to a region.

In addition to the furore over branding, various activists have contested what they regard as the theft of indigenous resources and a loss of biodiversity, resulting from the use of basmati and jasmine rice for genetic engineering. Dr Shiva has been particularly prominent in this movement, organising a letter-writing campaign to the companies involved in GM rice development. In her own letter to Mike Moore, the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), she defends the rights over biodiversity and ‘biodiversity-related knowledge’ as embodied by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). She argues that these rights have been infringed by the WTO, particularly by the TRIPS, which has “globalised and legalised a perverse and unethical intellectual property rights system which encourages the piracy of our indigenous knowledge.” Dr Shiva argues that TRIPS recognises only the private property rights “enhrined in the culturally biased system of the Western industrialised states.” She thus regards TRIPS as enabling biopiracy.

Some argue that the debate over biopiracy is overblown, given that RiceTec Inc has only received a varietal patent for Texati, not a patent over the original Indo-Pakistani basmati strain. Further, Dr Deren’s jasmine rice is probably still a decade away from commercial production. However, notwithstanding such details, these issues understandably provoke tensions in North-South relations, and provoke claims that Western (mainly US, but also Canadian) companies are pilfering Third World resources in a new form of colonialism.

At the heart of this, in addition to the ethical implications, there is real fear that GM rice may seriously threaten developing countries’ economies. If an when Dr Deren’s jasmine rice is finally introduced to the market, US imports of jasmine rice from Thailand will presumably decline. Given that jasmine rice is a major Thai export, and the US is Thailand’s primary export destination, this will likely be detrimental to the Thai economy, to the point where it may threaten the livelihoods of farmers. Similarly, Indian and Pakistani farmers believe that Texmati has reduced the demand for ‘genuine’ basmati from their countries. Thus, biopiracy claims are likely provoked by commercial interests as well as a desire to protect traditional knowledge and property.

So is GM rice merely another way that industrialised countries can throw their weight around?

The development of GM crops is not only the domain of industrialised countries, and it should not be assumed that the debate is simply a matter of Western scientists and development officials imposing scientific solutions to world countries on aid recipients. Some developing countries are themselves introducing GM crops in order to address hunger, malnutrition and disease. In Kenya, for example, scientists have developed a GM sweet potato that they predict will increase yields by up to 80%. And in South Africa, scientists have used genetic modification to insert the vaccine for cholera into bananas. However, there are still several barriers to developing countries growing GM crops on a large scale.

What is the future for GM rice?

As GMO technology progresses, there are likely to be further intellectual property issues and more vehement debate regarding the use of science to alter our food supply. Such issues are emotive, and especially so in regard to rice, given its importance as a staple foodstuff in many countries, and its prominence in many cultures. It’s important to realize that GM rice and other GM food may change the nature of international agricultural trade, as countries develop the ability to produce certain crops themselves, and reduce their imports. Developing countries that depend on exporting such crops may well suffer. However, inventions such as Golden Rice proffer a potential means by which malnutrition and disease can be reduced. GM rice may thus be both a help and a hindrance to the developing world.


1. Ian Sample, ‘Trials on way for new GM rice,’ The Guardian, 29 March 2005, p. 5

2. Refer to Dr Vandana Shiva’s website, Date Accessed: 18 June 2005

3. Quoted in Pallab Ghosh, ‘GM Crops ‘good for developing countries’’, BBC News, 10 June 2003, Date Accessed: 18 June 2005

4. Harish Mehta, ‘Ensuring the rice bowl stays where it belongs’, The Business Times Singapore, 12 October 2001, p. 8

5. Danielle Knight, ‘Indian, Thai farmers fight ‘biopiracy’’, Asia Times Online, 2 May 2000, Date Accessed: 22 June 2005

6, 7. Dr Vandana Shiva, Date Accessed: 18 June 2005

8. ‘Indian Basmati is Quite Well, Thank You,’ Financial Express, 5 October 2001

9. BBC, ‘GM Food,’ Date Accessed: 22 June 2005

Sources and Further Reading

Ag BioTech InfoNet:
– scientific reports and analysis regarding biotechnology and genetic engineering

Dr Vandana Shiva:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
– based in Rome; focuses on long term international responses, and operates the FAO Special Programme for Food Security

Golden Rice Project:

International Rice Research Institute:
– non-profit agricultural research and training facility based in Manila

RiceTec Inc’s Texmati page:

World Food Programme:
-based in Rome; focuses on short term responses such as food aid

World Health Organization’s Vitamin A page:

World Resources Institute:
– includes pages on agriculture and food projects

Micronutrient Initiative:

Science and Development Network:

International Ford Policy Research Institute micronutrients page:

(artwork by Jane Wang)

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Avery Poole is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of British Columbia