GE-Free New Zealand planning to sue authorities over golden rice approval

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

GE-Free NZ had urged the Minister for Food Safety and FSANZ to review their approval of GM golden rice. ©GettyImages
GE-Free NZ had urged the Minister for Food Safety and FSANZ to review their approval of GM golden rice. ©GettyImages

Related tags Golden rice International rice research International rice research institute

Campaign group GE-Free New Zealand is considering taking legal action against regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Minister for Food Safety for the approval of foods containing genetically-modified golden rice to be sold in the country.

Towards the end of last year, FSANZ had approved the application​ by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which cultivated the GR2E rice.

Last month, GE-Free NZ urged the minister, Damien O’Connor, to urge FSANZ to review their approval.

According to the IRRI, the GR2E rice was developed to express elevated levels of provitamin A (mainly β-carotene) in its rice endosperm, which is converted in the body to vitamin A.

The IRRI wants the GR2E rice to be cultivated for humanitarian purposes in developing countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, which are at high risk of vitamin A deficiency and where 30–70% of energy intake is derived from rice.

However, GE-Free NZ disputes this, stating: “A person would have to eat 4 kg of cooked rice, assuming it was fully absorbed and eaten immediately after harvest with minimal cooking, to get the same level of Vitamin A that one medium carrot or one teaspoon of parsley would provide."

GE-Free NZ has since met the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) to raise concerns about what it says is “the total absence of data”​ relating to safety of the GM rice for consumers.

However, MPI staff responded that any concern would have to be addressed to the minister himself, as their assessment had been done.

Insufficient evidence cited

GE-Free NZ said FSANZ’s GM rice decision misleads the public, in saying the application is “based on the available evidence, including detailed studies provided by the applicant… is considered to be as safe and wholesome as food derived from other commercial rice lines… approval of such foods is contingent on completion of a comprehensive pre-market safety assessment”.

“There is a total absence of data on the food when eaten,” ​said Claire Bleakley, president of GE-Free NZ.

"A pre-market assessment has not been done and significant differences occurred in the GE rice proteins and nutrients; it is difficult to see how the GE rice can be deemed safe and wholesome, when no research has been done on its safety.”

GE-Free NZ added that widespread community concern and the public interest warrant an appeal on the approval.

Currently, it is considering taking legal action regarding “a regulatory body failing in its mission to protect the health of the public”​.

In approving the application earlier this year, FSANZ stated: “FSANZ has determined that Golden Rice would contain novel DNA and novel protein, as well as an altered nutritional profile (contains beta-carotene).”

While the Institute acknowledged that GR2E rice will not solve the issue of population-based vitamin A deficiency, it believes it can be a major part of an overarching strategy to reduce it.

FSANZ had clarified that permitting golden rice in the Australian Food Standards Code would mean that if small amounts were present in other shipments of imported rice there would be no trade issues.

It did not permit the rice to be grown in Australia or New Zealand.

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