Tufts University researchers revealed Tuesday that a member of their team violated ethics rules in a study designed to measure the nutritional efficacy of so-called "golden rice," genetically modified rice with the nutrient beta carotene added. NPR's science blog The Salt said that Tufts stands by the results of the study, but that one researcher in China broke the rules by not informing test subjects -- who were all children -- or their guardians that the food they were eating had been genetically modified.
Biotech industry supporters of the golden rice program say that the modified rice could serve as a valuable weapon against malnutrition worldwide. One bowl of golden rice, according to fans, can provide a child with half of her daily Vitamin A requirement.
Skeptics of the program argue that no single modified crop can address the complex web of societal issues and deficiencies in public health programs that lead to widespread malnutrition in parts of the developing world. Furthermore, there are still questions about the safety of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) foods, given that most safety studies have been sponsored by companies with a financial stake in the outcome.
With its announcement on Tuesday, Tufts confirmed accusations by Greenpeace China that scientists were using children as guinea pigs to test the safety and efficacy of golden rice without disclosing the real nature of the experiment.
At issue are results by the Chinese team -- led by scientist Guangweng Tang -- that were published in August of 2012 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, claiming that golden rice lives up to the claims of its inventors.
Greenpeace was alarmed that no one on Tang's team saw fit to inform the parents of the 24 children from Hunan province, ages 6 to 8, that the children were eating gene-modified food. Chinese journalists found an email to the research team from a Chinese government official urging scientists not to speak openly of genetic modification, a subject deemed "too sensitive" to discuss with the families.
An investigation by the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed and, Nature magazine said, two government officials were fired for their role in the project.
Golden rice supporters were initially skeptical of the investigation, saying that the researchers were being swept up in anti-GMO hysteria. However, Tufts carefully investigated for more than a year and found that researchers in the study were out of compliance with multiple regulations and requirements.
The Chinese government has barred Tang from carrying out any research on human subjects until 2015. After that, all experiments she conducts involving humans must be supervised by other scientists for a period of at least two years.
In August, a group of Filipino farmers representing the Peasant Movement of the Philippines destroyed acres of golden rice plants at a research facility in Pili, Philippines. The group said that GMO crops have not been adequately tested for safety and that if their own crops are contaminated by seeds or pollen from GMO crops, they could face a boycott like the one imposed on U.S. exports of soft white wheat this year after herbicide resistant GMO wheat was found growing wild on a farm in Oregon.
[image of scientist studying genetically modified plant via Shutterstock.com]