Is GM rice’s future golden?

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

The vandalised golden rice field site showing uprooted and trampled plants.
The vandalised golden rice field site showing uprooted and trampled plants.

Related tags: Agriculture

A recent attack on a GM golden rice trial field in the Philippines has raised questions about the future of the project in the country and beyond.

Last week, 400 protesters uprooted and destroyed crops at one of the Filipino Department of Agriculture’s five trial fields at a gated research complex in Camarines Sur province. 

The protesters’ motives were fuelled by suspicions of corporate domination and the potential health implications of GM foods. 

Dr Antonio Alfonso, leader of the research at PhilRice, said that they were yet to fully “evaluate the impact”​ of this attack on the project as a whole, but their actions mean the submission of the vitamin A-fortified rice for bio-safety assessments will likely be delayed.

‘An informed decision’

Daniel Ocampo, Greenpeace’s sustainable agriculture campaigner in Southeast Asia, told FoodNavigator-Asia that this attack was “an informed decision”​ made mostly by local farmers who were angry about being “kept in the dark”​ about the trials of a project they ultimately see as a threat to their livelihoods.

The farmers’ protests, said Ocampo, were based on a fear of corporate control and safety, both in terms of consumption of the rice and cross-pollination with their own crops. 

He added that there is “no scientific consensus”​ concerning the long-term health effects of GM foods, and for this reason trials should remain within labs.

However, Alfonso claimed that the researchers had met many times with those who ransacked the fields, with “the same issues”​ raised in each meeting.

In whose interest?

Although agribusiness giant Syngenta had funded much of the research, Alfonso said it was simply “not true”​ that big corporations would hold more patents in golden rice technology. 

“Syngenta donated the research to The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board”​ and does not hold rights to make money from it, he said.  

This is at odds with Ocampo’s belief that the involvement of corporations in biotechnology can only lead to their monopolisation of the rice industry.

The GRHB is an honorary body whose members include doctors, professors, governments and private foundations like The Rockefeller Foundation, whose funding kick-started golden rice research 20 years ago.

Alfonso added that farmers would be able to buy golden rice seeds for around the same price as any other seed, and would be able to sow them again in subsequent years from their own reserves without patent ownership worries.

Widening or narrowing horizons?

Golden rice has been engineered so that the beta-carotene already naturally occurring in the plant’s inedible leaves will also be found in its grains.

Beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A, leading the researchers to put the variety forward as a possible solution to the widespread problem of deficiency in the vitamin.

This deficiency reduces immunity and can lead to blindness. It is particularly prevalent in developing countries like the Philippines where 1.7m children under five are said to be affected.

Yet Ocampo said that greater resources should be put into developing existing solutions for malnutrition, which he says are safer and cheaper.

Citing the Organic Agriculture Programme as an example of “effective solutions”​ already in place, he said that greater emphasis should be placed on the consumption of fruit and vegetables within which vitamin A is naturally found. 

“The problem is that these trials only address the issue of vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency is only a sign of other deficiencies.”

For his part, Alfonso noted that while he appreciated that the many other positive methods for tackling the problem, the golden rice trials were a “long-term investment”​. 

The alternatives, such as supplement programmes, require continual funding without solving the problem in the long-run, Alfonso said.

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