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01 / 05
GM Crops Like Golden Rice Will Save Countless Children

Blog Post | Food & Hunger

GM Crops Like Golden Rice Will Save Countless Children

Potentially lifesaving methods of food production still face severely misguided opposition.

Any day now, the government of Bangladesh may become the first country to approve the growing of a variety of yellow rice by farmers known as Golden Rice. If so, this would be a momentous victory in a long and exhausting battle fought by scientists and humanitarians to tackle a huge human health problem—a group that’s faced a great deal of opposition by misguided critics of genetically modified foods. 

Compare two plants. Golden Rice and Golden Promise barley are two varieties of crop. The barley was produced in the 1960s by bombarding seeds with gamma rays in a nuclear facility to scramble their genes at random with the aim of producing genetic mutations that might prove to be what geneticists used to call “hopeful monsters.” It is golden only in name, as a marketing gimmick, with sepia-tinged adverts helping to sell its appeal to organic growers and brewers. Despite the involvement of atomic radiation in its creation, it required no special regulatory approval or red tape before being released to be grown by farmers in Britain and elsewhere. It went almost straight from laboratory to field and proved popular and profitable. 

Golden Rice, by contrast, was produced in the 1990s by carefully inserting just two naturally occurring genes known to be safe—from maize and from a common soil bacterium—into a rice plant, disturbing no other genes. It is quite literally golden: its yellow color indicates that it has beta carotene in it, the precursor of vitamin A. It was developed as a humanitarian, non-profit project in an attempt to prevent somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 people, many of them children, dying prematurely every year in poor countries because of vitamin A deficiency. (Vitamin A deficiency causes children to go blind and lose immune function.) Yet the rice has been ferociously opposed by opponents of GM foods and, partly as a result, has been tied up in red tape for 20 years, preventing it from being grown. One study in 2008 calculated that in India alone 1.38 million person-years of healthy life had been lost for every year the crop has been delayed.

Golden Rice was the brainchild of two scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, aimed at helping the 250 million children—predominantly in Asia—who subsist mainly on rice and suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Telling the parents of these children to grow vegetables (most don’t have land), or distributing vitamin capsules—the preferred alternative of some environmental activists—has not proved remotely practical.

Potrykus hit upon the idea of awakening the molecular machinery in the seed of a rice plant—it is active in the leaves—to make vitamin A while casting around for something he could do to help the world towards the end of his career. Within a few years, and with Beyer’s help, he had succeeded. With additional assistance from scientists at the agricultural company Syngenta, organized by Adrian Dubock, they eventually produced a version of Golden Rice that was sufficiently rich in beta carotene to supply all the vitamin A a person needs. (Dubock wrote about the development of Golden Rice here.) With some difficulty, they cleared the many intellectual property hurdles, getting firms to waive their patents so that the rice could be sold or given away. Potrykus and Beyer insisted that the technology be donated free to benefit children suffering from vitamin A deficiency and Syngenta gave up its right to commercialize the product even in rich countries.

Given the scale of human suffering Golden Rice could address, there may be no better example of a purely philanthropic project in the whole of human history. Yet some misguided environmental activists still oppose Golden Rice to this day.

Prominent among these is Greenpeace, the environmental lobby group which now has annual revenues of nearly $300m and a highly-paid chief executive overseeing a sophisticated fund-raising operation. Greenpeace lobbied to set very strict rules on the use of genetically-engineered crops which had the effect, whether intended or not, of making life difficult for Potrykus and Beyer. In January 2000, the same month that the development of Golden Rice was announced to the world in Science magazine, there was a meeting in Montreal of delegates from 170 countries working to come up with an international protocol on the regulation of biotechnology. This process had been started the year before in Cartagena, Colombia. Greenpeace was there, both protesting in the streets (“Life before profits!”) and working behind the scenes to draft rules for the delegates.

It was here in Montreal on 29th January 2000 that the “precautionary principle”—one of the lodestars of the environmental movement—was incorporated into an international treaty after days of intensive lobbying by Greenpeace. “We won almost all the points we were pushing for,” boasted a spokesman. The environmental group believed it to be a ‘victory’ that would save lives, but the effect was to hobble the development of Golden Rice for many years. As Potrykus said ruefully: “Once Greenpeace had fixed the regulations to be extremely precautionary, they didn’t have to do much more.”

Most people think the precautionary principle simply says “better safe than sorry” and helps to prevent disasters like the release of Thalidomide for pregnant women. In fact, it goes much further and is often a barrier to innovation. As applied in practice, especially in the European Union, it requires regulators to take into account all possible hazards of a new technology, however implausible, to discount all possible benefits, however plausible, and to ignore all the hazards of existing technologies that might be replaced by the innovation. As Ed Regis puts it in his new book Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood: “The principle focuses on theoretical or potential risks, those that are only possible or hypothetical, while ignoring the specific and actual harms that restrictions or prohibitions are likely to produce.” In this way, it creates obstacles to anything new.

Bizarrely, the Cartagena Protocol applied this principle to crops bred by the precise insertion of specific genes from other plants but not to the older technique of random genetic scrambling with gamma rays, like Golden Promise barley, even though the potential unknown risk of the latter is clearly greater. The effect on Golden Rice was twofold. First, the requirement for greater regulation tarnished all biotech crops as risky (if they’re safe, how come they have to go through so much regulation?). Second, it made the testing of different varieties impossibly expensive and time-consuming, killing a key part of the innovation process: the trial and error that is always necessary to turn a good idea into a practical product. Thomas Edison tried 6,000 different materials for the filament of a light bulb. Imagine if he had had to get separate regulatory approval for each one.

The European Union’s directive on the deliberate release of genetically modified crops includes the statement that “the precautionary principle has been taken into account in the drafting of this Directive and must be taken into account when implementing it.” This effectively killed off biotechnology on the continent, though Europe happily imports huge quantities of GM soybeans from the Americas today. Since 2005, Canada (which did not sign the Cartagena Protocol) has approved 70 different biotech crops, while the European Union has approved just one—and that took 13 years, by which time the crop was outdated.

To illustrate just how impenetrable the EU’s regulatory thicket is, take the biotech potato developed by the German company BASF in 2005. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) initially approved it, but the European Commission then blocked it, citing the precautionary principle. BASF took the Commission to the European Court of Justice, which ordered another evaluation from the EFSA. This confirmed that the crop was safe and the EU was instructed by the Court to approve its use, which it did. But Hungary’s government then intervened on behalf of green pressure groups, pointing out (Kafka-like) that the EU had based its approval on the first EFSA ruling instead of the second one, even though the two rulings were practically identical. In 2013, eight years after the first approval, the EU General Court upheld Hungary’s complaint. By then BASF had lost interest in banging its head against this precautionary wall, so it withdrew the application, packed up its entire research into biotechnology and moved it to the U.S., which has never signed the Cartagena Protocol. Syngenta did the same.

After a quarter of a century of growing biotech crops in North and South America, Asia and parts of Africa, the evidence is now clear: they have caused no human or animal illness, and have huge environmental benefit, such as greatly reduced pesticide use, less ploughing, lower greenhouse gas emissions, less land required to grow a given quantity of crop, lower costs and higher yields. This is the environmental bounty Europe has missed out on thanks to its over-zealous regulation of GM crops.

Greenpeace, having helped to create the red tape that held up Golden Rice, has campaigned against the crop more or less continuously for two decades. At first it argued that Golden Rice was useless because the very earliest prototype, which contained a daffodil gene, had too little beta carotene to be of any use. It then switched to arguing that a later version, with a maize gene, had too much beta carotene and could be toxic.

Despite these difficulties—including constant verbal attacks on themselves, and physical attacks on their field trials—Potrykus, Beyer, Dubock and their allies refused to give up. By 2012, it was clear from studies in China that the latest version of Golden Rice, grown in secure greenhouses, gave children sufficient beta carotene to make them healthy but could not harm them, and did so far more effectively than feeding them spinach. However, the research caused a fuss. The US-based, Chinese-born researcher followed precisely the approved protocols for the research, which did not describe Golden Rice as a GMO-crop. Nevertheless, the same university which had approved the protocols, then found that not describing Golden Rice as a GMO-crop was an ethical omission. Overall, and without any credible analysis, the university found insufficient evidence that the principle of ‘prior informed consent’ from the subjects of the research had been properly applied, handing the opponents of GM foods a huge propaganda victory at a crucial time. Yet by this date, billions of meals of biotech crops had been eaten all around the world, and three independent reviews of the Chinese research concluded that the trial had been safe and effective. Nevertheless, the reputational harm lingered.

The International Rice Research Institute developed numerous different Golden Rice strains back-crossed into commonly grown varieties, behind tough security barriers because of constant threats from activists encouraged by Greenpeace. Eventually, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board chose one of the varieties for field testing. They would have liked to have chosen lots of different varieties, because in plant breeding it is always necessary to weed out sports that have for some reason acquired undesirable traits along the way. But the precautionary principle made this impossibly expensive and laborious since it required evaluation in advance of the potential risks of each separate variety. So they had to pick one.

Disastrously, that one variety turned out to have a genetic flaw that made it poor at yielding grain outside the greenhouse. Once again, the environmentalists crowed that the project was doomed.

But the anti-GMO activists didn’t always enjoy universal support within the broader environmentalist movement. One of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, became so infuriated by the organization’s opposition to Golden Rice that he launched a campaign called Allow Golden Rice Now! on the very day that left-wing activists vandalized a Golden Rice field trial. Moore’s group went on to organize protests at Greenpeace’s offices in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Brussels, Rome and London. In 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the US Patents and Trademark Office rewarded Golden Rice with their Patents For Humanity Award. In 2017, a group of 134 Nobel-prize winners (now expanded to 150) called on Greenpeace and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program to “cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general.” They concluded: “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”

In 2018, Mark Lynas, a prominent campaigner against biotechnology, switched sides and wrote a book in which he said: “We permanently stirred public hostility to GMO foods throughout pretty much the entire world, and—incredibly—held up the previously unstoppable march of a whole technology. There was only one problem with our stunningly successful worldwide campaign. It wasn’t true.”

By 2017, a new variety of Golden Rice, GR2E, had been tested in the field in the Philippines and shown to be robust, true-breeding, high-yielding and strong in its expression of beta carotene. The IRRI submitted an application to release it to farmers, in the form of eight hefty documents, one more than 800 pages long and detailing the many tests of the physical, nutritional, allergenic, and toxicity done on the plant to show that it could not conceivably be anything other than safe to grow and eat. Probably no crop has ever been so exhaustively evaluated. Thankfully, 2017 was the year the dam began to break. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US approved Golden Rice as a safe food, though none of them planned to grow it (vitamin A deficiency is rare in these countries). But this only stirred up more ferocious opposition among the usual anti-GMO suspects, who frantically lobbied the governments of India, Bangladesh and the Philippines not to approve the crop.

As Regis summarizes the sorry tale in his book:

The rice had to overcome numerous scientific challenges and extremely burdensome regulatory obstacles. It had to withstand years of constant abuse, opposition, factual distortions, disinformation, and ridicule by anti-GMO individuals and groups. It had to survive the destruction of field test specimens by cyclones, hurricanes, and paid vandals. It had to survive its one major scandal and one major mistake.

More than 13,000 supportive citizens (including Jeff Bezos) have now appealed to the governments of the world, the United Nations and Greenpeace to stop vilifying genetically-modified crops in general and Golden Rice in particular. Yet the United Nations remains in thrall to the opponents. Shockingly, UNICEF’s hefty recent report State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition does not even mention Golden Rice. The World Health Organization continues to ignore the product. In effect, a GMO superfood has been developed that could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children every year, it’s been proved to be both safe and effective, and yet the world’s leading global health organization has decided to turn a blind eye.

The story of Golden Rice is deeply, deeply shocking. This is not a story of incompetence and ignorance, but of an antediluvian hostility to science and technology. In the end, though, the evidence in favor of Golden Rice proved absolutely overwhelming.

This originally appeared in Quillette. 

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Bloomberg | Infrastructure & Transportation

      An Underground Lunch Delivery Train Comes to the Atlanta Suburbs

      “Underground tubes are already the transportation method of choice for essentials like water, sewage, and Wi-Fi. This week, one Georgia city will start sending sandwiches through the pipes, too.

      Peachtree Corners, northeast of Atlanta, is the first test case for an underground last-mile delivery mode, developed by the logistics startup Pipedream Labs. Founded in 2021, the company seeks to solve the problems that plague the terrestrial delivery space: the emissions and congestion from vehicle traffic, the jockeying for curb space, and the costs. About 40% of supply chain logistics expenses are associated with last-mile trips.”

      From Bloomberg.

      Blog Post | Food Prices

      Eight Centuries of Increasing Food Abundance in England: Dairy (Part 2)

      The work required for an average English worker to afford a gallon of milk has fallen from 13 hours to 14 minutes.

      Human progress is often incremental, but many positive trends have become clearly visible over time. One of these trends is the growing abundance of food. This series of articles looks at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present.

      For this series, the average nominal hourly wage since 1260 came from the Bank of England’s Millennium of Macroeconomic Data. The UK Office of National Statistics collected nominal prices of milk, cheese, and butter since 1914. The price data for before 1914 is from professor Gregory Clark’s “The Price History of English Agriculture, 1209–1914.”

      Figure 1: A continuous series of dairy product abundance

      An hour’s work buys a lot more than it used to. For much of English history, the purchasing power of the average nominal wage remained relatively constant. There were some fluctuations, such as cheese becoming slightly more abundant in the 1400s. However, the purchasing power of nominal wages increased rapidly during the 20th century.

      Figure 2: A continuous series of dairy product time prices

      As we can see, at its peak, an English worker worked over 13 hours to afford a gallon of milk. That fell to just 14 minutes in 2022 (i.e., less than 2 percent of the previous time price). Next time you hear someone complaining about increasing food prices, think about just how affordable they are compared to the past. Food is much more affordable in terms of the one commodity that is truly scarce: our time.

      Blog Post | Wellbeing

      Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

      Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

      Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

      As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

      For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

      How much progress?

      Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

      In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

      Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

      With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

      Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

      These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

      So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

      Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

      In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

      A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

      Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

      Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

      Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

      Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

      Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

      Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.