By Annika Kettenburg
How come scientists disagree quite fundamentally at times? In our new paper, we investigated the academic controversy over transgenic Golden Rice. Itself a microcosm of the broader debate surrounding genetically modified crops, it shows some unique particularities: Here, rice plants were modified to synthesize beta-carotene and thus act as an edible cure against Vitamin A deficiency – a humanitarian project developed in university halls, to be handed out for free to smallholders. It is anticipated to become available in the Philippines and Bangladesh in two to three years from now.
At first sight, the scientific position on Golden Rice seems to almost exclusively consist of utmost approval. In 2016, 131 Nobel laureates signed a petition to accelerate the introduction of Golden Rice – calling to end the “crime to humanity” committed by the GMO opposition. Though critics are outweighed in numbers, they voice various concerns. Most often, they point to an overshadowing of malnutrition’s root causes, namely the social determinants of access to food, and the inadequacy of Golden Rice in addressing these.
Corresponding to this bifurcation, our cluster analysis identified two major branches in the Golden Rice literature. Interestingly, the branches and their clusters correlated with the disciplines authors adhered to and the scope of topics they addressed. Put simply, the branch optimistic up to euphoric about Golden Rice was mostly comprised of plant scientists, and the topics our indicator analysis marked as constitutive centered on deregulation. The more critical branch consisted mostly of social scientists writing on a variety of topics relevant to sustainability.
What now is the cause for this divergence? In our paper, we argue it is mainly the authors’ starting point – the perception of the problem (also discussed in this blog here, here and here). In simplified terms, if the problem of vitamin A deficiency is a result of mainly eating rice that lacks beta-carotenes, then the solution is to enhance the rice. In contrast, if one sees the problem in a lack of access to diverse, nutritious food, then one has to pursue biophysical, economic, political and social changes altogether. This means bio-fortification of crops results to be only one out of many strategies – a short-term fix until social and political structures change.
But even if scientists were to overcome disciplinary divides and arrive at a shared conclusion on Golden Rice – is it for us to decide what people should plant and eat? Why has nobody involved affected communities in their research? When reviewing the literature I was bewildered by the paternalistic undertone of some articles: either local people were completely left out or treated as passive victims. (Would we like to have Asian scientists donating to us a GM wheat variety against high blood pressure?)
A lot of the questions I came across were ultimately ethical in nature: what type of agriculture to pursue, whose needs to prioritize, which risks to take – can the concept of sustainability provide guidance here? We argue that for this to happen it is necessary to explicitly recognize which criteria constitute sustainability in a particular context (as we tried in our paper, see Table 1) and to ultimately seek genuine dialogue across disciplines and actor groups.
The full paper is available here.