GMOs and the Malthusian Specter: The Case of Golden Rice

Golden Rice and White Rice
Golden Rice. A GMO type of rice with added vitamin A

In 1798, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus warned the world of impending disaster. He theorized that the human population, growing exponentially, would soon become so immense that the food it required would surpass the food it could grow. But as the Industrial Revolution thrust ahead into the nineteenth century, bringing forth advancements in agricultural production, the world heaved a sigh of relief that Malthus was wrong, and new industrial man scoffed at Malthus’s failure to credit human ingenuity with its due regard. For the moment, we had overcome the Reverend’s gnawing little problem. However, at the time that Malthus was warning us about our food supply, the global population numbered just one billion. Today, as 7.6 billion people are expected to become eight within a decade, the specter of Malthus arises to warn us once again. Food insecurity has crept back into view. What will be our new revolution?

This time, with mechanical means of agriculture already highly developed, we turn not to engineers, but to biologists. And just as the radical leaps in industrial technology met with its Luddites, so the modern biological age of agriculture contends with its own neigh-sayers. But we ought not be hasty to dismiss their doubt as alarmist: the modern answer to Malthus involves supplanting the food supply with genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. In other words, today’s Luddites aren’t simply disaffected workers but an entire human species concerned with the long-term health problems arising out of genetic tooling. Many worry that the very miracle products meant to save us from starvation may sooner impair our global health and that of posterity.

One case of genetic food engineering still on trial by global opinion is the recent innovation known as “golden rice.” Golden rice is a genetically modified rice grain that has been biologically altered to include vitamin-A, a vitamin necessary to human survival and eyesight. The creation is dubbed “golden” because of the hue it takes on when the vitamin-A is added. Vitamin-A is the same vitamin that gives carrots and pumpkins their bright orange color, thus turning this new rice from white to gold. The benefit of golden rice, however, does not come from its lofty name or brilliant sheen but from its vital global health potentiality. The World Health Organization (WHO) has persistently warned of the deleterious effects of vitamin-A deficiency (VAD) in many regions of the world.

Specifically, the WHO reports that VAD is the single most important cause of childhood blindness in developing countries” and that VAD contributes significantly “to morbidity and mortality from common childhood infections.” The United Nations International Childhood Emergency Fund (UNICEF) warns that VAD is the “leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and increases the risk of death from common childhood illnesses.” In the regions of the world where foods containing the vitamin-A are economically or agriculturally inaccessible, VAD poses a major health threat. The condition overwhelmingly affects poorer communities, particularly in the Pacific, Southeast Asian, and Sub-Saharan African regions. The WHO has officially named VAD a global public health concern on account of VAD’s vast reach and pervasiveness. Approximately one third of children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years suffer from VAD, and an estimated 250 million children suffer from VAD, with blindness occurring in 250,000 to 500,000 children each year. Of those children affected with blindness, half of them die within a year of going blind. All this despite VAD being highly preventable. The initial response to VAD, carried out by a number of health organizations around the world since the 1990s, was vitamin-A supplements. While this remedy helped reduce some incidence of death, it failed to reach much of the affected populations.

Enter golden rice. Rice itself is the crucial source of energy for a significant portion of the world population. Over 3.5 billion people depend on rice for at least 20% of their caloric intake. And while rice is third in global grain production after corn and wheat, it is cheaper and therefore the more prolific grain among economically poor regions of the world. Crucial to golden rice’s efficiency as a solution to VAD is rice’s role as a staple grain in developing Asian countries and Sub-Saharan Africa, the same regions where VAD occurs in high numbers. Thus, golden rice presents itself as an elegant solution to the VAD problem. In theory, if golden rice can be grown in place of regular rice in these Asian and African regions, VAD may be treated and prevented more effectively and economically than with the traditional vitamin-A supplement approach put forth by UNICEF and the WHO.

However, simply introducing vitamin-A into the rice of VAD regions is not as easy in practice as in principle. As with all GMO foodstuffs, health questions arise. The countries targeted by golden rice have serious concerns about unintended side effects from consuming biologically-engineered rice. As golden rice development continues, these countries will push for stronger evidence that the rice is safe to eat before allowing mass production for their people. Already there has been serious resistance to the product among organizations such as Greenpeace and by the populations of some VAD countries. In one instance in 2013, hundreds of protesters in the Philippines uprooted golden rice crops that had been planted in the country for field testing, displaying the yet undetermined fate of this health innovation. As of today, testing and development of golden rice continues, and mass appeal for the miracle grain is left up in the air. Developers of golden rice hope their invention can step out from the shadow of more contentious GMO products, but its fate is left to the tension of science, fact, and global caution.

Today, the question of our modern food insecurity problem is yet left undetermined. The international controversy surrounding the pros and cons of genetically modified foods will continue to pit the celebrators of scientific discovery against the pragmatic representatives of regional health concerns. Meanwhile the Malthusian clock is whirring in the background: one in nine people on earth suffers from chronic undernourishment, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Many are optimistic that our modern answers to the global heath and scarcity issues brought by population growth, golden rice among them, will unravel a new age of food security. Others stay weary that in the end, we may be left with the bitter taste of scientific heroism gone wrong. Nonetheless, it is crucial that the debate remain focused, not on unsupported optimism or irrational fears, but on the facts of the case.

Written by Roberto T.

More info

Interesting facts about computers

Interesting facts about computers


One of the first modern examples of a computer was used in 1938 when the United States Navy developed an electromechanical analog computer called the “Torpedo Data Computer”. This machine was small enough to fit on a submarine and helped the Navy with guiding its torpedoes to their destination.

The world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer was developed by a British man named Tommy Flowers and his team. First seen working in 1943, this machine was called the “Colossus” and was used in the Second World War to decipher complex messages used in Nazi communications. Ten of these machines were being used by the end of the war but unfortunately all were destroyed to maintain secrecy of the project. After the war, Tommy Flowers went to the Bank of England to ask for a loan to build a similar machine to the Colossus; it was denied as the bank did not believe the machine could work.

The first desktop personal computer, called the Programma 101, was developed by Pier Giorgio Perotto and his team of only four people for the Italian manufacturer “Olivetti”. It was launched at the 1964 New York World’s Fair with a price of $3,200, in modern day terms that would be around $20,000; 44,000 units were sold. NASA used some of these machines the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.

The highest selling computer of all time is the Commodore 64 with most sources saying that around 17 million were sold. At the height of its power more than 400,000 Commodore 64s were being built every month for a couple of years, according to Commodore’s former president. The machine was popular due to its relatively low price and performance which was easily superior to competitors at the time. The “64” in the name is in reference to the 64kb of RAM that is used in the machine.

Apple computers was founded in 1976 by three people: Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Ronald Gerald Wayne. Wayne, who drew the first Apple logo, sold his 10% stake in the company for just $800 which today would be worth approximately $60 billion dollars; Wayne says he does not regret the decision. To raise the necessary funds to start the company, Steve Jobs sold his Volkswagen van and Steve Wozniak sold his Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator.

The name “Microsoft” is a combination of the words “microcomputer” and “software” and was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975. The company has around 35 cafeterias which serves approximately 37,000 people each day, the most popular item being pizza. Microsoft owns 10,000 patents and files around 3,000 every year making it one of the top 5 patent owners in the USA. Microsoft are known for asking difficult interview questions, one of the most common examples is “Why is a manhole cover round?”

In May 2011, Google received over one billion visitors with users in total spending 200 billion minutes. The most searched terms in Google are “Facebook”, “Youtube” and then “sex/video”. The company is known for treating its employees well and offer them gourmet food three times a day. Unfortunately, this has caused a risk of all the employees gaining considerable weight but Google uses some subtle psychological techniques in order to dissuade people from choosing unhealthy options.

Questions and Answers

What was the first electromechanical analog computer used for? (Guiding torpedoes)

Who invented the first digital computer? (Tommy Flowers)

What was the first digital computer used for? (Deciphering Nazi communications)

How many of the Colossus computers still exist today? (0, all were destroyed after the war)

When was the Colossus first seen working? (1943)

How big was the entire team that developed the Programma 101? (Pier Giorgio Perotto and his team of 4 people: 5 people)

How much did the world’s first desktop personal computer cost? ($3,200, $20,000 in today’s money)

What does the “64” mean in “Commodore 64”? (It refers to the 64kb of RAM the machine used)

How many Commodore 64s were built per month? (At the height of its power, 400,000 units a month)

Who drew the first Apple logo? (Ronald Gerald Wayne)

How many people founded Apple? (three)

How much would a 10% stake in Apple be worth today? (Approx $60 billion)

What did Steve Jobs sell to raise funds to start Apple? (Volkswagen Van)

What does “Microsoft” mean? (combination of the words “microcomputer” and “software”)

What is the most eaten food in Microsoft cafeterias? (pizza)

Who founded Microsoft? (Bill Gates)


Facts about Lithium-ion batterys

Lithium-ion batteries
Lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are a type of rechargeable batteries commonly used in consumer electronics. They have a high power to weight ratio, no memory effect, and only a slow loss of charge when not in use. The lithium battery was first developed in 1912 by G.N. Lewis but the rechargeable lithium battery was not commercially available until the early 1970s.

A typical lithium-ion battery can store around 150 watt-hours of electricity in a 1 battery of 1 kilo. A lead-acid battery can store only 25 watt-hours per kilo. Using lead-acid technology, it takes 6 kilograms to store the same amount of energy that a 1 kilogram lithium-ion battery can handle.

In certain circumstances Lithium-ion batteries can be dangerous and can pose a safety hazard because they contain, unlike other rechargeable batteries, a flammable electrolyte and are also kept pressurized. Although the risk is very low there has been concern about allowing Lithium-ion batteries to be transported by aircraft which could result in tragedy, a fire involving lots of them could destroy a plane. At present (2015) there is no adequate solution to this problem, about 4.8 billion lithium-ion cells were manufactured in 2013, and production is forecast to reach 8 billion a year by 2025.

It is likely that there will be important breakthroughs in battery technology involving lithium-ion battery’s which will enable a large reduction in the use of fossil fuels and nuclear generated power. A lot of the research and development has been encouraged by the electric car industry. Many improvements are starting to appear such as reducing the charge times and increasing the amount of charge cycles which affects the life of the battery.

A very interesting development in this field is the announcement by Tesla Motors in May 2015 of a new affordable battery capable of supplying power to homes or businesses. The price of solar panels has come down in the last few years so the price of actually generating electricity using solar power has come down to acceptable levels in comparison to electricity bought from the grid. The reason that solar power has not taken off in a big way is because of the price of electricity storage which until now had almost always using lead acid battery’s. The power generated during the day has to be stored for use during the night or at times of low sunlight.

The new Tesla includes the $3500 Powerwall, a home-based battery pack that can store 10 kilowatt-hours of power. That is like using a 1kw kettle for 10 hours. This would not be enough for heating but it could easily power a modern house fitted with led light bulbs and other efficient systems. The life of the battery is said to be 10 years. In a sunny country it would be possible to have free electricity for 10 years based on an initial investment of around $6000. For many people this would be cheaper than using an electric company.

The Powerwall batterys, – which are about 33 inches (0.8 meters) wide, 51 inches (1.4 m) tall and 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) deep — are designed to be easy to install, and will connect to the Internet so that users can monitor their power usage.

It seems that the change from centrally generated electricity to domestic and locally generated electricity is finally starting to become a reality. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.

Tesla website

Solar Energy tutorial