From disagreements to dialogue: unpacking the Golden Rice debate

Research output: Journal contributionsScientific review articlesResearch


Transgenic Golden Rice has been hailed as a practical solution to vitamin A deficiency, but has also been heavily criticized. To facilitate a balanced view on this polarized debate, we investigated existing arguments for and against Golden Rice from a sustainability science perspective. In a structured literature review of peer-reviewed publications on Golden Rice, we assessed to what extent 64 articles addressed 70 questions covering different aspects of sustainability. Using cluster analysis, we grouped the literature into two major branches, containing two clusters each. These clusters differed in the range and nature of the sustainability aspects addressed, disciplinary affiliation and overall evaluation of Golden Rice. The ‘biotechnological’ branch (clusters: ‘technical effectiveness’ and ‘advocacy’) was dominated by the natural sciences, focused on biophysical plant-consumer interactions, and evaluated Golden Rice positively. In contrast, the ‘socio-systemic’ branch (clusters: ‘economic efficiency’ and ‘equity and holism’) was primarily comprised of social sciences, addressed a wider variety of sustainability aspects including participation, equity, ethics and biodiversity, and more often pointed to the shortcomings of Golden Rice. There were little to no integration efforts between the two branches, and highly polarized positions arose in the clusters on ‘advocacy’ and ‘equity and holism’. To explore this divide, we investigated the influences of disciplinary affiliations and personal values on the respective problem framings. We conclude that to move beyond a polarized debate, it may be fruitful to ground the Golden Rice discourse in facets and methods of sustainability science, with an emphasis on participation and integration of diverging interests.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)1469-1482
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 01.09.2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
JF acknowledges a Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). Synergies with the ERC-related work helped to support this paper. DJA was supported by the VolkswagenStiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur funded project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainable Transformations: Institutions, People and Knowledge’ (Grant number A112269). Handled by Osamu Saito, United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, Japan.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Author(s).

    Research areas

  • Cluster analysis, Disciplinary divide, Food security, Genetically modified crops, Problem framing, Sustainability science
  • Sustainability Science