Chinese leaders have fired three government officials involved in a study of genetically modified rice, after complaints that the study’s subjects weren’t properly informed. The subjects were kids whose parents didn’t know what their kids were eating.
The study involves golden rice, a goldenrod-colored form of the grain developed more than a decade ago for the express purpose of addressing vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. It has been alternately hailed as a humanitarian breakthrough and denigrated as an empty promise to the poor–but one thing it has not been is actually approved for use. The study at the heart of this new controversy was a step on that path. It was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and included some U.S.-based researchers.
In the study, some Chinese children were fed golden rice, which had been genetically modified to produce beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A formation. Other children in the study ate meals containing spinach or beta carotene capsules. Scientists wanted to determine how well the beta carotene converted to vitamin A after the rice was eaten. Parents were told their kids were eating rice that contained beta carotene, but they weren’t told it got this way through genetic modification. They were also not told about skepticism and controversy surrounding GMO foods generally and golden rice specifically.
Greenpeace pointed out this study back in August, and Chinese officials launched an investigation, culminating in a recent report about the trial on state-run TV station CCTV. In the program, Chinese officials admit that they didn’t mention golden rice because it was “too sensitive,” and that they wanted to save time and move the study forward. Now families are outraged, reports Nature News, which covers the controversy in depth. And three Chinese officials have been fired.
Most of the food we eat in this country contains some ingredients from genetically modified plants, whether it’s weed-killer-resistant soybeans or pest-resistant corn, and most people don’t know it–so it’s in some ways this isn’t all that shocking. But genetically modified food is met with more skepticism in China than it is generally in the U.S.
What’s really at issue here is informed consent, a serious matter in any scientific study. People need to understand what they’re volunteering to do–or volunteering their kids to do–especially when it involves ingesting something.