Why We Oppose Golden Rice

Agrochemical companies are using concerns over food security heightened by the pandemic to promote GM product, tighten grip over agriculture.

A grand push is on for corporate-led solutions to hunger and malnutrition. On the GMO front this manifests as Golden Rice being pressed into service as a solution to the hunger and malnutrition worsened by the pandemic. In this way, global agrochemical transnational corporations (TNCs) and collaborating institutions such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are using concerns over food security heightened by the pandemic to promote an industrialized agricultural model that many think is already discredited.

photo of golden rice
Opponents of Golden Rice are concerned it will endanger agrobiodiversity and peoples’ health. Photo by Kervin Bonganciso/MASIPAG.

As IRRI’s head of Agri-Food Policy, Jean Balié, told a webinar sponsored by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (“The future of food systems in Southeast Asia post-COVID19”), IRRI is “looking to increase the mineral and vitamin content in rice grains” in response to the pandemic.

Golden Rice projects and applications for its approval are currently underway in three countries. On December 10, 2019, the Philippines issued a Golden Rice permit for Direct Use for Food, Feed, and Processing. This was despite the standing challenge by farmers, scientists, and civil society groups regarding Golden Rice’s unresolved safety and efficacy issues.

In Indonesia, it was confirmed in August 2019 that the rice research center (BB Padi) had grown Golden Rice in their testing fields in Sukamandi, West Java. However, BB Padi is still waiting for permission from Indonesia’s biosafety clearing house for confined field testing in selected areas.

In Bangladesh, rumors have been circulating since November 2019 that Golden Rice would be approved by the Biosafety Core Committee. Despite the delay, proponents are optimistic that approval in Bangladesh will still occur.

At the Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN) we believe that Golden Rice is an unnecessary and unwanted technology. It is being peddled by corporations purely for profit-making agendas and will only strengthen the grip of corporations over rice and agriculture. Moreover, we believe it will endanger agrobiodiversity and peoples’ health as well. In consequence, farmers, consumers and others have been campaigning against its use and commercialization since the mid-2000s, including through the uprooting of Golden Rice field trials back in 2013.

Why is there intense opposition towards Golden Rice?

The importance of rice in Asian countries cannot be understated; 90 percent of rice is produced and consumed in Asia. Rice is at the center of the social, cultural, and economic activities of peoples all across Asia.

And as the staple food for a majority of the Asian population, it is also a political commodity. As well, Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India are the centers of origin of more than 100,000 varieties of rice. Also considered as among the most biodiverse countries in the world, a wide array of vegetables, fruits, root crops, and cereals abound in the farms and forests of these countries, ensuring a dependable source of nutrition for the families and the communities.

Yet malnutrition is prevalent in Asia, particularly among children and women. This is not simply because of the absence of specific important nutrients or vitamins. It is caused by the “lack of access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food” due to poverty and changing food production and consumption patterns.

The impact of these changes is seen in IRRI’s Green Revolution in which many farmers across Asia have become bound to the expensive inputs and seeds peddled by huge agrochemical TNCs who promote a single-crop diet. As a result of the green revolution, white rice now dominates once very diverse Asian diets. White rice has a high glycemic index which causes diabetes and 60 percent of global diabetes cases are in Asia. Packing more nutrients, like Vitamin A, in rice, which requires more rice consumption would make this worse. Especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, for which diabetes is considered a risk factor for disease severity.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) identifies the dominance of large corporations over food systems as among the factors that contribute to food insecurity and malnutrition. In developing countries, large tracts of agricultural lands are being converted either to industrial and commercial land uses, or to large-scale mono-cropped plantations of cash crops such as pineapples, palm oil, and bananas — crops that hardly serve the nutrition needs of the people. FAO further acknowledges that the changes in food systems and diets, such as the prevalence of highly processed foods and displacement of traditional foods and eating habits, also contribute to the worsening trend of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Given this context, Golden Rice is simply a ‘band-aid’ solution to the wide, gaping wound of hunger and poverty.

More specifically, Golden Rice has a series of highly problematic aspects

  1. Negligible beta carotene content — The current version of the Golden Rice is called GR2E. It contains a negligible amount of beta-carotene (from 3.57 ug/g to 22 ug/g), which the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) also acknowledged, making the product useless in addressing Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in contrast to existing and readily available food sources. Already minimal, Golden Rice’s beta-carotene was also found to degrade quickly after harvesting, storing, and processing, such as milling and even cooking, unless the farmers vacuum-pack and refrigerate the GM rice. Farmers from developing countries however, do not seal or store paddy rice in vacuum packs, which will make the product more expensive. Electricity also remains scarce in remote farming communities so refrigerating the harvest is unrealistic bordering on the absurd.
  2. No meaningful safety tests have been done — Even as the Golden Rice has been approved in the Philippines, there has been no testing to ascertain if it is safe for human consumption. Meanwhile, the aforementioned beta-carotene degradation may result in toxic compounds causing oxidative stress damage–which might lead to cancer. Dr. David Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, USA and Dr. Michael Antoniou of King’s College London, state that “there have never been short nor, more importantly, long-term safety testing in laboratory animals (of Golden Rice) and this must be done for several generations in rats to determine if it causes birth defects, which we consider a serious possibility.”
  3. Contamination of other rice varieties and wild relatives of rice — Field trials conducted so far have only looked at the agronomic traits of Golden Rice, and not its long-term effects on the environment, including its possible effects on the genetic diversity of the thousands of rice varieties being cared for by small scale farmers and Indigenous peoples. Although rice is a self-pollinating crop, cross-contamination is inevitable. Contamination can also occur through seed mixing. Such contamination has already happened in the US with the Liberty Link rice scandal back in 2006 that caused US farmers millions of dollars in losses because of the inadvertent contamination of the yet unapproved GM rice.
  4. Safer sources of beta-carotene — Being some of the mega-diverse countries, vegetables and fruits that are high in beta-carotene are found in abundance in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and other target countries for Golden Rice. These foods are available and accessible for the people and contain much higher levels of beta-carotene than Golden Rice. Worsening land-grabbing and land conversion, liberalization of agricultural commodities, and increasing control of corporations over agriculture and food, however, are preventing farmers and their communities from having access to these safe and nutritious foods.

In developing countries the challenges described above remain the main culprit of food insecurity and malnutrition. Both the development of biofortified crops like Golden Rice for solving health issues and corporate led projects in agriculture as ways to ensure food security represent a worrisome push for top-down and anti-diversity approaches to food and health that will ultimately undermine people’s capacities to strengthen their local food systems. By emphasizing dependence on just a few market-based crops biofortification actually promotes a poor diet with little nutritional diversity

Golden Rice is a failed and useless product, and that is why we continue to resist and oppose it. Time and again, huge agrochemical companies, philanthrocapitalists, and pseudo-public agencies have attempted to deny the people’s right to participate in decisions about their food and agriculture. Already, zinc and iron GM rice and thirty other GM rice products are in the pipeline, with Golden Rice serving as the Trojan Horse to lure the people into social acceptance and false security.

More than resisting the release of Golden Rice however, we are pushing for safer, better and healthier alternatives to address VAD and other malnutrition issues. Malnutrition can be mitigated and addressed by having a diverse diet. Nutrition does not need to be an expensive commodity, nor rely on advanced technology. We believe that instead of pushing Golden Rice and biofortifying crops through genetic modification, governments should promote biodiversity in farms and on tables by supporting safe, healthy and sustainable food production.

We are also calling on governments to pay attention to the needs of our food producers, including facilitating access to lands to till, appropriate technologies, and an agriculture policy that will promote and uphold the people’s right to food and the nations’ food sovereignty.

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