By Gerry Albert Corpuz, Dorcas Yee-Bee and John Lloyd Hoffman
MANILA, Philippines-Gold is absent in golden rice. Dr. Michael HansenMichael Hansen, Senior Scientist of the Consumers Union (USA) stressed this concern during a forum on the controversial Golden Rice staged recently at the NCAS Auditorium, University of the Philippines Los Banos in Laguna province. The forum, titled “Golden Rice in Focus: An Eye-opener on the Promises and Threats of Vitamin A Rice” aims to inform the general public of the status of the Golden Rice project, as well as IRRI and Philrice’s future plans and steps.
The event was organized by the Office of Representative Teddy Casino of Bayan Muna partylist, Pesticides Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN AP) and the Resistance and Solidarity against Agrochem TNCs (RESIST). Organizers include the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), UPLB Environmental Science Society, KASAMA-TK, KMP, AGHAM-ST, NNARA Youth and the Samahan ng Kabataan para sa Bayan (SAKBAYAN).
The Golden Rice was developed by scientists from Germany and Switzerland during the 90’s to supposedly address the problem of Vitamin A deficiency in children and pregnant women by genetically engineering rice to produce beta carotene. But Dr. Hansen pointed out the 1st generation of Golden rice only produced minimal amounts of beta carotene.
In 2004, Syngenta acquired the Golden Rice and developed the 2nd generation of Golden Rice by inserting genes from corn and bacteria. Syngenta then donated the Golden rice license, technology and patents to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board (GRHB). The GRHB is composed of the public and private institutions tasked to deploy Golden Rice to target countries affected by VAD, such as the Philippines. Vitamin A deficiency is known to cause night blindness among children and total blindness in severe cases.
Hansen, an expert in food safety also cited some studies that Golden Rice (GR) might aggravate instead of answering the problem on Vitamin A deficiency. He said that Golden rice is a result of an unintended discovery, thus raising the question of the uncertainty of the said technology. He said that “Golden rice 1 (GR1) was supposed to produce lycopene (as in tomatoes) and so be bright red; instead, it produced ß-carotene due to an unexpected metabolic pathway.” He also cited that there are also problems in storing Golden rice because beta carotene degrades during storage.
He said that in ”2001, samples of GR1 was sent to German scientists to test for absorption of beta carotene in intestines and utilization by the body. However, the rice had less than 1% of ß-carotene levels expected. After cooking, the level declined by 50%.” According to the RESIST network, the proponents of the Golden Rice in the country are already geared for its commercialization in 2013. The Golden Rice is being developed and bred with a PhilRice variety (PSB Rc82) and was harvested last June. However, only its argonomic characteristics are currently being evaluated, such as height, amount of harvest, susceptibility to pest, beta carotene content among others.
The network has yet to see risk assessment reports on its effect in the environment and health. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is also applying for a field test of Golden Rice 2, which was bred with IR64. The field test area of PhilRice only has 50 meters of buffer distance (corn is their catch pollen) and is situated nearby or across the houses of several of its employees. Wilfredo Marbella, KMP deputy secretary general for internal affairs and RESIST convenor, said that the “development of Golden Rice will pave the way for the legitimization and widespread control of TNCs in agriculture and food by patenting seeds and varieties. The problem of malnutrition and hunger is caused primarily by the lack of access to land and food resulting to terrible poverty.”
Dr. Romy Quijano, President of PAN Philippines and a medical doctor specializing in toxicology, asserts that “there is still much debate with regard to the safety of genetically modified crops. GMOs are not naturally occurring organism and that it is possible that they might produce unintended effects to the consumers. Also the nature of malnutrition in the country is multiple, in which Vitamin A rice is but simplistic solution to a very complex problem.
The body needs fats or oils and other nutrient for Vitamin A to be absorbed by the body, but for poor families doesn’t have access to this type of diversified diet. ” Hansen further remarks that “so many basic questions remain unanswered with the Golden Rice. How much ß-carotene degrades during storage? How much ß-carotene remains after cooking? There is no systematic data available. What is the exact biochemical makeup of Golden Rice? Since there can be unexpected effects due to insertional mutagenesis, a complete molecular characterization is needed for each separate transformation event.
No such data have been published on GR2 that was used in human feeding trial” he said. “Although the development of a rice variety that is high in pro-vitamin A is a development in science and technology, there is no scientific evidence that it can answer the problem of malnutrition and blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency. It is merely a public promotion of scientists and agrochemical corporations to easily accept genetic engineering. The development and promotion of Golden Rice illustrate an industrial model of agriculture that limits bio-diversity and lessens dietary diversification, which primarily causes malnutrition,” stated by Dr. Chito Medina, MASIPAG national coordinator and RESIST convenor.
“According to the proponents of the Golden Rice, they will make it royalty free wherein farmers can use the seeds, materials and process for free due to humanitarian purposes. However, patents were still owned by the agrochem transnational corporation Syngenta, in which they can alter the agreement regarding royalty any time” added Marbella. “Agricultural research must be based on the farmers’ capacity and needs. It should take into consideration the diversity and complexity of the environment, and maximize rich natural resources such as traditional rice varieties.
Local seed varieties are more suitable and adapted to the environment and climate, which assures the farmers of better yields. Organic fertilizers from plants, and livestock are a safer means to enrich the soil and rice crop. Also, there is no lack of Vitamin A rich foods in the country. We can get beta-carotene from mangoes, yellow corn, papaya, carrots, red curry peppers, cabbage, spinach, etc. ” ended Medina. Marbella ended by saying that the, “Farmers’ rights should be safeguarded against the negative effects of globalization including the excessive power and influence of TNCs. Intellectual property rights and genetic engineering may compromise farmers’ ability to produce food. We need genuine land reform to address hunger and poverty.”