Indur M Goklany,
Manager, Science and Engineering; Office of Policy Analysis
US Department of the Interior,
Roger Bate, Kendra Okonski
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Will children eat GM rice, or risk blindness from vitamin A deficiency?
We were struck by the photograph -- provocatively captioned, "Will these children be eating genetically modified rice in the future?" -- which accompanied Mr. Mudur's article on an Indian proposal to grow bioengineered crops to help reduce vitamin A deficiency. (1) However, it only raises half the issue. The other half of the issue is summed up by a parallel question: "Or will these children go blind from vitamin A deficiency?"
We have taken the liberty of putting the two halves together, with accompanying photographs.
Photo: "A girl blind from corneal
scarring, probably due to vitamin A deficiency precipitated by measles
infection." Courtesy: Sight and Life (Quarter 1, 1998), a newsletter of
the Sight and Life Task Force (PO Box 2116, 4002 Basel, Switzerland.
Editor: Martin Frigg,
By providing only half the picture (literally), the otherwise balanced news report risks creating for your readers the same trap as seems to have snared many advocates of a ban on GM crops. Such a ban has been justified on the basis of the precautionary principle, the environmentalists' version of the Hippocratic oath. But unfortunately while this justification takes credit for reducing risks that might result from a ban on GM crops (as hinted in photograph 1), it does not account for any risks generated (or prolonged) by the ban (depicted in photograph 2). Death and disease associated with vitamin A deficiency (VAD) are merely one class of malnutrition-related risks that such a ban might prolong. According to the World Health Organisation, each year vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is responsible for at least 350,000 pre-school children going totally or partially blind, about 60% of whom die within a few months of going blind (2). It also contributes to 1.1 million childhood deaths annually because of synergism between VAD and measles infection (2).
Most formulations of the precautionary principle provide no guidance for evaluating a policy if it results simultaneously in uncertain benefits and uncertain harm. This contributes to one-sided accounting which, in turn, could result in a cure that is worse than the disease. In a recent policy study titled, "Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops", one of us has developed a framework to evaluate just such policies, where the net result might be ambiguous because their effects -- both beneficial and harmful -- are uncertain (3). This framework attempts to sort out competing claims on both sides of the ledger by considering, among other things, the nature, magnitude, and the certainty of the positive and negative effects of a ban, and the likelihood that a ban would reduce or aggravate those effects. Based on this, that study concludes that such a ban would more likely than not do more harm to public health (partly because it would make it harder to reduce vitamin A deficiency) as well as to the environment (because it would increase the amount of land and water devoted to agriculture, further intensifying the major threats to global biodiversity).
Indur M. Goklany (4)
Roger Bate (Fellow) and Kendra Okonski
1. Mudur, G. India's plans to grow GM crops draw flak. BMJ 2001; 322: 126. (20 January.)
2. World Health Organisation. Vitamin A deficiency. Available at http://www.who.int/vaccines-diseases/diseases/vitamin_a.htm
3. Goklany, Indur M. Applying the precautionary principle to genetically modified crops. St. Louis, Missouri: Center for the Study of American Business, Washington University, 2000. Available from the Social Science Research Electronic Network at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?cfid=76796&cftoken=89182273&abstract_id=246530
4. Views expressed here are the author's and not necessarily those of the Department of the Interior or any other unit of the U.S. government.