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A shining solution?

Janelle DumalaonAugust 25, 2015

Beta-carotene enriched Golden Rice is a much touted humanitarian solution to widespread Vitamin A deficiency in poor countries. But many argue the golden grains are only meant to improve the image of big biotechs.

Two bowls of rice, one gold, one white
Image: IRRI Photos/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As the planet's population increases and climate change impacts agricultural production, the big question for many is how to meet global food demand and ensure that food is nutritious in the future. So far, the solutions touted - ranging from intensifying farming to genetically modifying crops - are controversial.

In countries such as Brazil and Paraguay, the rise of soybean monocultures has already caused widespread deforestation and displacement of indigenous people - sparking protests. But another crop in the form of genetically-altered rice has been at the center of a raging debate for at least 30 years. It has become a debate over the acceptability of genetically modified foods in general - and passions run high on both sides.

Dubbed #link:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_rice:"golden rice"# by its backers, the yellow-colored rice is enriched with beta-carotene to combat widespread vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. They say it could improve human health and that preventing production is immoral.

"We call it a crime against humanity," said Patrick Moore, director of #link:http://www.allowgoldenricenow.org/:Allow Golden Rice Now#, a group advocating for the rice's acceptance. "We take a fairly hard approach, because you have two million children dying every year."

UNICEF estimates that vitamin A deficiency affects around 250 million children and that it's the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness in over half of all countries, mainly in Africa and South Asia.

Still, on the other side, it's detractors say genetically modifying a staple food - consumed by nearly half the world’s population, according to the International Rice Research Institute- could have untold effects on human health and biodiversity.

Masipag, the network for Philippine farmers and scientists, say caution is needed.

“Is Golden Rice food, medicine or both? If it is both, then the health department should be doing safety studies,” said Masipag’s director Chito Medina. “So far only feeding studies have been going on, showing that the Vitamin A is absorbed by the body, but there are no safety data showing whether chemicals may have been produced in the process of genetic engineering.”

Philippines: The theater of war

The Philippines is ground zero for the rice's warring factions. It's the base of the #link:http://www.irri.org/:International Rice Research Institute# (IRRI), which is spearheading the development of golden rice. It's also home to the rice's most fervent opponents. Anti-golden rice activists best expressed this opposition in August 2013 when they destroyed test fields in Pili, Camarines Sur in the west of the country.

The destruction of the fields sparked debates within the debate. Golden rice promoters saw the protest as a sign that the activists feared the dangers to human health and environment they had been warning of for so long would prove unfounded - and destroyed the evidence that could prove the contrary.

"On the one hand, they say there hasn't been enough science, enough testing on golden rice and then they trash the science that would show golden rice works," said Moore.

To Masipag, however, the test field's destruction made clear that golden rice simply isn't welcome in the Philippines. Medina said the network itself wasn't officially part of the destruction, but some of its members were there in their own capacity. Medina also says that IRRI's logic when it comes to golden rice is faulty.

For IRRI, rice will remain a staple, so what's wrong with making it more nutritious? Masipag and other activists say that's the wrong approach. The safer, more biodiversity-friendly way to combat vitamin deficiency is to provide a more balanced and varied diet, with protein and vegetables. And they say enough beta carotene is found in nature - there’s no need to modify a staple food.

“The orange sweet potato has five times more beta carotene than golden rice. Carrots have twice to three times more,” said Medina. “But vitamin A needs fats in order to be absorbed by the body. That is one of the reasons there is vitamin A deficiency of very poor people - it’s because they can’t afford to buy meat and they don’t have balanced diets.”

Bad for biodiversity?

Just what golden rice may mean for biodiversity, and for the future of native rice varieties is also hotly contested. IRRI says misinformation about the detrimental effects of the genetically-modified grain on existing varieties is contaminating debate.

"We don't understand, we don’t know where these ideas are coming from. There is no such thing as wiping out the other varieties because rice is a self-pollinating plant," said Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's deputy general. "It's an accusation without scientific basis."

But activists point to an incident in 2006, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture Department said trace amounts of a genetically modified strain of rice known as LibertyLink were found in long-grain rice set for export - apparently after contamination.

"I find it absurd that they use the self-pollination argument, because past experience in China and the US has shown the opposite," said Dirk Zimmermann, a sustainable agriculture campaigner at Greenpeace. "Where they planted the rice in small test fields, it spread wildly onto other production surfaces."

Golden rice's cause also isn't helped by the fact that many of the patents for the rice are held by big-name biotechs like Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto - all of which have been singled out for criticism in the GMO and monoculture debate.

Still, advocates of the rice point out that the biotechs have granted royalty-free access to allow scientists to further develop the rice on a non-profit basis. But many are still worried the introduction of golden rice will end up pushing farmers into industrial monoculture production.

The golden rice debate isn’t going to end anytime soon - partly because the product isn't on the market yet. The IRRI recently reported setbacks on their newest data: right now the rice doesn't produce the same yields as other industrial varieties and can't compete commercially.

IRRI’s Tolentino said researchers are working on breeding the rice to address the yield aspect. If they succeed, they will have to apply for a regulatory permit to test the new variety in an open field. Only after that would the seed be registered onto the standard seed regulatory system for the government and private seed growers to use in the market.

“It will take awhile. We’re still only at the breeding stage,” he said. “It can be anywhere from at least two years to five years from today.”

But Masipag’s Medina takes little comfort in the wait. He says regulatory approval is likely.

“Regulators will tend towards approval, they are in favor of it without really knowing what it is,” he said. “But for us 35,000 MASIPAG farmers, we will be avoiding golden rice consumption. We’ll consume what we grow. It’s sufficient for us.”

Rice planting in the Phillippines
It is unclear what genetically modified rice means for biodiversity - particularly for the future of other varieties of riceImage: IRRI Photos/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Rice terraces
The Philippines is home to both developers and critics of the controversial golden grainsImage: Tricia Fernandez