Philippines spark controversy over genetically modified rice

MANILA – The Philippines became the first country to approve commercial production of genetically modified and nutrient-enriched golden rice, raising security concerns even as the government tries to tackle malnutrition and consolidate the supply of one of the world’s leading importers of the grain staple food.

Golden Rice was developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), headquartered in Laguna, south of Manila, to help reduce vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. It is named for the yellow color of the grain. Pilot planting began in the Philippines in 2013, overseen by the Department of Agriculture and its attached agency, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).

When official biosafety approval was granted last July, the agriculture department said golden rice was a nutrition milestone in the country, with plantings expected in some provinces during the growing season. wet crops 2022. According to IRRI, about 1 in 5 children in the poorest communities in the Philippines suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Golden rice is also under final review by regulators in Bangladesh. Vitamin A maintains healthy skin and eyes, and a deficiency can cause problems such as difficulty seeing in low light.

But the Philippines’ move sparked criticism amid growing global concerns about the safety of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

“Golden rice is going to poison our land,” said Melanie Guavez, a rice farmer from Camarines Sur, the southeastern tip of Luzon, where Manila is located, who also heads the anti-GMO alliance SIKWAL-GMO. His home province was the site of pilot plantations in 2013. In August of the same year, Guavez and hundreds of other farmers uprooted the crops in protest before the harvest could be assessed by authorities.

“The government is not telling any of us about the negative effects that golden rice can have on our lands and livelihoods,” Guavez said. “They’re trying to trick us with band-aid solutions and half-truths. They say they’re going to help us with our pesticides, seeds, etc., but they’re trying to get rid of traditional planting methods.”

Dr Rey Ordonio, Golden Rice Project Manager at PhilRice, told Nikkei Asia that “we just provide Golden Rice as another inbred variety that farmers can choose to plant. Golden Rice was developed for humanitarian purposes and we deliberately developed it as an inbred variety. just like conventional rice varieties to ensure it will be affordable and accessible to farmers and consumers. These purebred rice varieties still make up the bulk of the genetic variety of rice commonly grown in the Philippines.

Ordonio has assured consumers that golden rice is completely safe. It was based on a 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in the United States, which reviewed nearly 900 studies and publications that confirmed that genetically modified crops are not dangerous.

Golden rice seedlings were planted in a laboratory south of Manila in 2013 © Reuters

Guavez said growing golden rice requires excessive reliance on pesticides and herbicides that ordinary farmers cannot afford. She said the whole initiative would plunge farmers into debt. In order to repay their growing loans, she fears that indebted farmers will sell their land to big corporations that hover like vultures over anyone willing to give up their property. Guavez fears that over time, agricultural areas in the Bicol region will be more vulnerable to business takeovers.

“Big business will benefit, not us,” she said. “We are trying to protect our local seeds and our land. Why do we need something cooked up in the lab? Rather, the government should support local initiatives.

Giovanni Tapang is the Dean of the College of Science at the University of the Philippines and the President of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (AGHAM). He targeted the biotechnology industry.

“Agricultural inputs are under the development and control of multinational agrochemicals. Claims by the agricultural biotech industry that only their products are needed to feed the world ignore the realities in which the majority of our farmers find themselves. Land is concentrated in the hands of a few owner families, while most farmers are landless or lack the land to support their families. “

Cathy Estavillo of Amihan, a national organization of farm workers and a member of the Stop Golden Rice Coalition, also singled out multinational companies. She says the introduction of Golden Rice to the country means the Philippine government has stepped up its adherence to neoliberal globalization, which does not bode well for farmers. In addition, she said, conglomerates have supported the development of GM rice for years with the aim of profiting from their production and markets.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated millions of dollars over the years to IRRI for rice research. The tech billionaire is also a frequent donor to foundations set up by agrochemical giant Syngenta. Some of its startups also have partnerships with the company. Syngenta, along with several other companies, holds a patented license to the technology needed by Golden Rice. Estavillo claims that the whole premise of the fight against vitamin A deficiency is a smokescreen launched by the promoters of companies who want to make money with a new product.

Estavillo added that even the underlying premise of Golden Rice is wrong. “You would need to eat around 4 kilograms of golden rice to meet your daily vitamin A requirement. Why not subsidize the production and delivery of other local vegetables instead? The reason is that GMO crops are a cash cow and the Philippine government is negotiating this deal. to those who benefit. ”She cited a study by Madeleine Love, an independent researcher based in Australia, which claimed that 4 kg of golden rice and a carrot had roughly the same vitamin A content.

However, Ordonio insists that the project fits perfectly with the country’s lifestyles. “Rice is a staple food among Filipinos. It is already a good source of carbohydrates but lacks other nutrients. It is important to note that golden rice is intended to be a complementary source of beta-carotene in the diet. ‘food.” Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body.

But Estavillo believes golden rice will not be a hit in the Philippine market. She witnessed the government handing out free samples of golden rice in 2015 and said children were put off by the yellowish color.

Amihan is currently working with lawmakers and congressional officials in several provinces to impose a resolution or injunction against growing golden rice.

Meanwhile, farmer Guavez wants the state to support local and organic farming methods and workers. “Since the pilot test in 2013, there has been no consistent support from the Ministry of Agriculture for golden rice. It is a scam designed to get rid of our land and our work. with this implementation of a new strain, we will continue to do the same. “

She said farmer groups in her area were planning a protest caravan, entering vehicles to stage protests in other provinces and calling for the uprooting of golden rice crops.

About Alma Ackerman

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