Last week a large group of activists and farmers in the Philippines raided a government facility and destroyed a 1000 square meter field of genetically modified (GM) rice. It was a research field growing Golden Rice, a variety created to combat vitamin A deficiency in poor populations, according to the New Scientist magazine.
Willy Marbella, a farmer and deputy secretary general of a militant farmers’ organization known as the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP), told the New Scientist why the GM field was destroyed. “Golden Rice is poison,” said Marbella. He went on to state that malnutrition is caused by poverty and needs to be addressed by support services, not genetically modified crops.
But all the scientific research done to date indicates that Golden Rice is perfectly safe, and even healthy, to eat. It won’t, however, be made available for consumption until more testing is completed, according to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The IRRI operates the GM research facility where the Golden Rice field was destroyed, in conjunction with the Philippines Department of Agriculture.
Moreover, Golden Rice is designed to alleviate very real health problems that plague the Philippines as well as much of Southeast Asia. According to the New Scientist, “Golden Rice is engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A which gives the rice its distinctive yellow colour. Vitamin A deficiency kills up to 2 million people and causes blindness in 500,000 children worldwide each year. It was recently shown that replacing half of a child’s rice intake with Golden Rice provides them with 60 per cent of their daily vitamin A requirement.”
In the Philippines, childhood illness and malnutrition are major public health problems. According to Helen Keller International, an organization devoted to combating malnutrition and blindness around the world, vitamin A deficiency affects as much as 38% of the population of the Philippines. Access to basic eye care services in the Philippines is also lacking, adding to the risk of malnutrition-related blindness.
The Philippine farmers that destroyed the Golden Rice field were reportedly also concerned about the risk of their own fields becoming contaminated with the GM crop. The IRRI has responded that such concerns were and are unfounded, for several reasons. First of all, the research field destroyed by the farmers was isolated and enclosed, and the crops were therefore physically incapable of spreading to other rice fields far away. Also, rice is generally self-pollinating, so does not typically pollinate other fields. The IRRI also pointed out that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice does not give it an evolutionary advantage over wild rice, and so it is unlikely to spread anywhere it is not planted.