London (8.9.12) – The Sept. 5, 2012 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1) published the study “Beta-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as Beta-Carotene in oil at providing Vitamin A to children,” which was conducted by researchers at Tufts University (Boston). The study was not to determine food safety; several scientific studies have shown Golden Rice to be safe for human consumption. Instead, the Tufts University study was focused on the efficacy of the beta carotene in Golden Rice.

In the study, a total of 72 children, aged six to eight years old, from Hunan province in China, were randomly assigned to take spinach, Golden Rice, or Beta-Carotene in oil capsule in order to evaluate the conversion of Beta-Carotene to Vitamin A in children. The study concluded that the 24 children consuming Golden Rice had a “high bioconversion efficiency of … Beta-Carotene to Vitamin A,” and that “this rice can be used as a source of Vitamin A.” The researchers also found that Golden Rice may be “as useful as a source of preformed Vitamin A from Vitamin A capsules, eggs, or milk to overcome Vitamin A Deficiency in rice-consuming populations.”

The study was first criticized when initiated in February 2009, when the Daily Mail reported that 22 scientists had written an open letter denouncing the involvement of children in the feeding study (2). The article pointed out the risks of poisoning from excessiv e intake of Vitamin A and that the use of children in such experiments was a breach of ethical standards.

After the study was published this month in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Greenpeace posted a blog which criticized the study for the use of children (3). Greenpeace also noted that the Chinese Ministry Agriculture and the Agricultural Department of Zhejiang Province had indicated it had stopped the clinical trial in 2008.

A more balanced evaluation came from China itself. Zhu Yuan (4) notes that “what is peculiar is the fact that the sources from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and other Chinese government departments, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, are vague in their explanations. If the experiment was real and if golden rice was used to feed the children, then some questions need to be clarified. The first is: Which Chinese department approved the experiment? This is important to answer because growing and selling GM rice is forbidden in the country. The safety of GM food is still a matter of debate and the possibility that Chinese children were fed GM golden rice for a study is certainly worthy of scrutiny. If a Chinese government department approved such an experiment, what rule did it take that action under? Then there are the questions of whether the children's parents were given enough information about GM golden rice to allow them to make informed decisions before they allowed their children to participate in the experiment, as well as whether the process used to select the children and conduct the experiment conformed to pertinent rules. It is quite possible that such an experiment was conducted with good intentions and will produce good results. Even so, the way in which it was conducted should conform to established professional and ethical rules. The ends should never justify the means.”

So it is not a safety issue. The China Daily article remarks that safety of GM food is still a matter of debate and so it will be as long as anti-GM opponents perceive it as a useful political tool to further their agendas. But in practice Golden Rice had already been evaluated as safe to eat. So it is not primarily a safety issue but perhaps an ethical one. The anti-GM brigade are for ever complaining that no long-term feeding experiments have been carried out on human beings but as soon as anyone tries to test anything, they complain about the testing. But then evidence is not what they want; they prefer political advantage which they perceive as deriving from keeping the pot boiling.

Sources:

1. Tang G, Hu Y, Yin SA, Wang Y, Dallal GE, Grusak MA, Russell RM (Sept. 2012). Beta-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as beta-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(3), 658-664 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22854406)

2. Sean Poulter (17.2.09). British scientists condemn using children in GM food trials as unacceptable. Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1147635/British-scientists-condemn-using-children-GM-food-trials-unacceptable.html)

3. Greenpeace alarmed at US-backed GE food trial on Chinese children. Greenpeace magazin (30.8.12)
(http://www.greenpeace-magazin.de/tagesthemen/einzelansicht/artikel/2012/08/30/greenpeace-alarmed-at-us-backed-ge-food-trial-on-chinese-children/)

4. Zhu Yuan (5.9.12). The truth about GM rice experiment? Who should we believe? China Daily (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2012-09/05/content_15734267.htm)


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  Tests of Golden Rice in China