Nationalism and Frankenfood: the Hunan GM Rice Scandal

September 6, 2012

A lot of folks here in China are up in arms about a joint research project that involved feeding genetically modified rice to some kids in Hunan Province for six months. The criticism has taken on an outraged, nationalist tone, which has fueled the distrust that many Chinese already have of GM food.

I think everyone needs to take a deep breath here. All the facts have yet to come out, but we do know that Tufts University was leading the study, and it certainly appears as though authorities here knew about, and probably signed off as well.

What’s the real problem? Consent. The core issue is whether parents were properly informed prior to their kids being enrolled in the study. If not, that’s a huge problem and reason to get mighty pissed off at whoever was doing the field work. I seriously doubt that Tufts University would have moved forward with a study knowing that the subjects had not been given adequate information. I’m sure the nationalists out there would disagree with my faith in the U.S. in this regard, but universities and research facilities there really don’t fuck around with this sort of thing. It’s a big deal, and these studies must be approved by ethics committees before they get the green light.

If the parents did know, then there still is a question about the limited use of GM food for experimental purposes in China (I honestly don’t know what the legal side of this is – it’s been years since I looked into this area).

The rhetoric has been, unsurprisingly, hyperbolic. Some people are angered that “American scientists” would come over to China and experiment on kids here. This is a surprise? Foreign pharmaceutical companies are, at this very moment, experimenting on thousands of Chinese citizens, testing drugs that may have dangerous side effects. The clinical trial business in China has been booming for years, what with lower costs, an excellent labor pool, and the “flexibility” of some research institutes here. This shouldn’t be news to anyone.

Strange how no one seems to have a problem with those clinical drug trials, but when GM rice is involved, then everyone is outraged.

Why are folks so freaked out? Certainly the kid angle is a big part of it. Do a study on 150 adults with Hep B, and no one really cares. But involve children? That’s another story entirely, particularly in a country with a one-child policy.

Additionally, there’s a knee-jerk reaction in some countries against GM food. The Chinese don’t compare to the Europeans in this regard, but there are certainly a lot of skeptics here. It’s unnatural, so it must be dangerous. Right?

I feel sorry for these poor parents, but you can see that their suspicions are not exactly scientifically grounded:

“I learned about the US research paper on the Internet,” said Xie Xiaohua. “I’m really scared. My daughter took part in the study and now she looks smaller than other children of the same age. I don’t know if that is related to the study.”

Um, no, it isn’t related. The kid ate a different kind of rice for six months, that’s all. Hard to see how that could stunt her growth. Do I know for sure? No, but call it a logical guess.

So what’s the big concern with this rice? Well, it’s called “golden rice,” and it was designed to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, the shortage of which causes millions of children to die or go blind each year. Researchers have been working on this for at least a decade and have been funded by governments, research institutes, the Gates Foundation, you name it.

Yes, some big agribusiness companies are involved, and no, I don’t exactly trust them either. On the other hand, a free license scheme for this strain has been hammered out, and the stance of these corporations seems to be a lot more friendly towards farmers than in the bad old days of the 90s.

Critics say that this rice could trigger allergic reactions. OK, sure, that’s a reasonable concern. So the folks at Tufts just fed this stuff to kids over here without doing any preliminary work on toxicity or allergenic properties? Somehow I doubt that.

The critics also say that this product is unnecessary. Kids can eat foods like spinach, which is naturally rich in Vitamin A. Gee, those researchers must have felt foolish when that was pointed out. Just feed those poor kids spinach – problem solved!

But of course many poor kids don’t have spinach, or much of anything else to eat. The whole point of this is to stop blindness and death ASAP, not wait decades until “natural distribution systems” can be put into place to feed these kids other foods. What a ridiculous argument.

Last, critics point out that if this rice turns out to be a success, it will encourage a reliance on this one crop to the detriment of others, many of which are important sources of dietary nutrients. What? At the moment, that isn’t really a problem for the malnourished kids who don’t have enough to eat. Moreover, if some year in the future golden rice rudely shoves spinach out of the way, can’t government step in at that point and work with the agricultural sector to come up with a solution? Do we really have to let millions of kids die or go blind because of this possibility?

GM food critics annoy me. This rice wasn’t spliced with crocodile DNA or anything, and these kids are not going to wake up one morning with a third arm growing out of their forehead. While golden rice should obviously be studied and pronounced safe before consumers can pick it up at the supermarket, I bet it’s already probably safer than most of the food I buy here, which is laced with a mysterious cocktail of preservatives, additives, and who knows what else. And that includes “fresh” produce!

The big question about this study, and the legitimate outrage, concerns informed consent. The fact that it may have involved GM rice and American research partners is of far less importance.