Did NPR Miss the Point When Reporting on Our Food System . . . Again

Josette Madonia March 11, 2013 1

By Josette Madonia
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org

Recently on Morning Edition, NPR posted a story about biofortified rice, In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods. This rice is fortified with vitamin A and is supposed to help poor people in Asia and undeveloped countries who suffer from vitamin A deficiency and are therefore at risk of going blind. The story mentions that proponents of the rice think that this product will silence GMO food critics.  However, there are many reasons to be skeptical of “golden rice” or biofortified rice.  For one, the claims that it will save lives and is capable of saving lives has not been proven.   According to Michael Pollan, “an 11-year-old would have to eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day—quite a bowlful—to satisfy his minimum daily requirement of vitamin A.”

Why are people hungry?  The reason why people are hungry all over the world is related to poverty.  Individuals and families that do not live paycheck-to-paycheck also do not have to worry about going hungry.  In the United States, the food system is subsidized and big agriculture businesses are on corporate welfare.  This started in the 1930s after the Great Depression when farmers needed government handouts to stay in operation.  Yet these handouts did not end and agriculture business has changed dramatically.  Now large agricultural companies rely on monocultures, producing a large amount of one crop, which are usually genentically modified.  In effect, these crops, corn for example, are used to produce many products cheaply.  The result is cheaply-processed food made with corn starch or corn sweetners, as an example.  These products are high in calories and low on nutrition and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), their production “generate[s] large greenhouse gas emissions and promote[s] marked alterations of ecosystems such as biodiversity loss, deforestation, soil erosion, chemical contaminations, [and] water shortage.”  Now these same biotech companies want to produce “golden rice” and the cause for concern is understandable.  Who will benefit the most from the production of the biofortified rice?  In the case of other genetically modified foods, the answer is clear, Monsanto.

The story on NPR mentioned one leader in the golden rice project, Gerard Berry: “He’s listed as first inventor on some of Monsanto’s most valuable patents. He found the gene that made crops immune to the weedkiller Roundup. That gene is now in soybeans, corn and cotton grown on hundreds of millions of acres.  But along the way, Barry also got interested in rice. “It was very exciting. It was probably my favorite crop to work on,” he says. “Because you got to meet really passionate people. Rice is something that’s vital to large numbers of people. I mean, a couple of billion people eat it.”  One only needs to tune into NPR for a short time before Monsanto and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are mentioned as sponsors.  The Gates Foundation is a big supporter of Monsanto and genetically modified crops as evidenced by their connection with AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa).

In effect biofortification is a distraction promoted by large agricultural companies which diverts the public’s attention from the real problem, food justice.  This is not the first time NPR has not given the public the full story on food.  In September of 2012, Talk of the Nation did a story that claimed there is no nutritional difference between organic food and conventional food.  The story set up a straw man argument that supporters of organic food had to defend.  There are many reasons people choose organic, among them are:

  1. to avoid ingesting pesticides, particularly a concern for children,
  2. to avoid pesticide use on land and deterioration of insect, particularly bee, colonies,
  3. to avoid genetically modified foods that have not been properly tested and are suspect for health concerns.

It seems that considering its ties to Monsanto and the Gates Foundation, NPR listeners need to wonder, is NPR a reliable source when reporting on the food industry?

  • Cam Reuker

    In the 80’s I was in a high school class in Indiana and the teacher
    assigned the class an assignment to evaluate whether or not we would want to
    grow a certain strain of bio-fortified rice. It was explained that it was a
    test market question and the producers wanted our opinion. Pictures of the rice
    were shown. They were a beautiful translucent gold color. They were golden
    looking because of the vitamin A. It was explained that this modified rice
    would help end hunger and improve nutrition. As a class we discussed our
    answers. We decided not to grow the rice, for many reasons.

    Although we were in a farming community. Rice is
    grown in paddies. We did not have the climate for it. It was not explained if
    this rice was modified rice that could grow in our climate.

    We had been inundated with the pictures of the
    starving children and periodically discussed the reasons for the starvation.
    Our reasoning was that the food was not causing the starvation it was the
    poverty that was being caused by wars and the apathy and neglect from the
    people with the power to stop the conflicts.

    We were educated in nutrition class that rice is
    not a healthy choice in food. It is a carbohydrate and the starch converts
    straight to sugar and contributes to high cholesterol. We understood that
    vitamin A helped prevent blindness in impoverished countries but supplements
    already existed.

    We still argued on the point of the rice only in
    a diet. We still had the pictures of the starving children and the flies that
    stuck on their faces and the rice bowls they ate from in our minds. We could
    not embrace the thought that a rice only diet no matter how bio-fortified would
    still be the best solution. We lived on a varied and omnivorous diet. How were
    the starving people going to get the protein and other nutrients? Why pick just
    vitamin A?

    The discussion ended it was not a graded assignment
    when we stated an opinion because everyone had a right to their opinion. I
    thought nothing of this exercise until several years later. I received a sucker
    punch to my conscience. I watched an expose about the cause of suicides in
    India. An agricultural company encouraged many farmers to grow bio-fortified
    rice. There was a catch huge costs were
    associated with growing the crop and getting the seeds. The costs seemed
    justified because the farmers thought they would be getting fertile seed after
    the first crop to continue to grow in the next growing seasons. This did not
    happen because the crops were one season only crops. They had to repurchase
    seeds for the next season. Well the farmers did not get the profits promised
    and other issues of debts occurred and in India when you die your debts are
    forgiven so it resulted in many people committing suicide to save the family
    from the choking debt. Now even several
    years later from that news expose, this is still the case in India of farmers resorting to suicide. The problem is growing too. Farmers
    in Mexico are threatened from these producers of having their farm land being
    taken from them so biofortified crops can be grown. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/12/20121213111851423855.html
    Even with the word out and farmers are
    not buying into the lies, they still live in threat of losing their livelihood to
    bioengineered crops.