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Want a better world? You can’t look at GMOs in isolation

The Philippines (also known as the rice-bowl of Southeast Asia) has become a test bed for genetically modified (GM) crops. Proponents argue GM grains and vegetables can improve the life of farmers and…

Workers attend to the seedlings in a confined Golden Rice field trial. IRRI Images

The Philippines (also known as the rice-bowl of Southeast Asia) has become a test bed for genetically modified (GM) crops. Proponents argue GM grains and vegetables can improve the life of farmers and malnourished locals.

But is this technical approach the right one? Does it take account of the bigger picture, of a socio-political model that keeps many people in poverty?

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Philippines. The Philippines’ Court of Appeals struck a blow to proponents of genetically modified crops on May 17 this year, ruling that field trials for genetically modified, pest-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) talong (eggplant) have not yet proved the plants safe for humans and the environment and must stop.

Following the Court of Appeals’ decision, organic farming advocates are also calling for a ban on a genetically modified breed of rice known as Golden Rice.

Golden Rice and Vitamin A deficiency

The force behind Golden Rice is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which has created a “Humanitarian Board” comprising scientists, food security specialists, and representatives from industry, USAID, US Department of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation.

According to IRRI, malnutrition is common in white rice-eating populations and the Golden Rice Project could constitute a major contribution towards sustainable vitamin A delivery. This vitamin is essential for eye health and the proper functioning of the immune system.

A World Health Organisation report titled Global prevalence of Vitamin A deficiency in populations at risk 1995–2005 suggests that worldwide nearly 190 million children are at risk for diseases related to Vitamin A deficiency. Some 5.2 million preschool age children suffer from eye damage (xerophthalmia).

A 12-year-old girl who has corneal blindness as a result of suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Community Eye Health

Rice produces beta-carotene in leaves but not in the grain, where the biosynthetic pathway is turned off during plant development. Beta-carotene is important as it’s changed into vitamin A (retinol) in the human body.

In Golden Rice, two genes inserted into the rice genome by genetic engineering restart the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway leading to the production and accumulation of beta-carotene in the grains.

Scientists speak out

As the emotions about the introduction of GMO into rice production run high, a group of activists destroyed a trial GM rice crop in the Philippines on August 8 this year, prompting a strong condemnation from scientists and proponents of GMO.

The authors of an editorial published in the journal Science on September 20 claimed:

protests like this are anti-science; the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations.

And in a letter written to the editor of the Daily Mail, London on February 20 2009 in support of Golden Rice, seven scientists claimed:

the best available evidence supports the conclusion that GM crops are as safe as, or safer than conventional and organic crops. At a time of increasing poverty globally, and reduced food security generally, all possible technologies capable of improving the quantity and quality of food should be embraced.

So, should we believe that one food staple – genetically modified – could resolve Vitamin A deficiency and address development problems?

Creating a bigger problem for farmers

IRRI says Golden Rice seeds will be freely available to poor farmers in the Philippines.

This assertion brings to mind the stories of many small farmers in Africa and South America whose livelihood and independence have been shattered by the harsh conditions imposed by GM seeds suppliers.

Golden Rice grains compared to white rice grains. IRRI Images

Seed companies require farmers to sign contracts that aggressively protect the biotechnology company’s rights to the seeds, significantly limiting the farmers' rights to the purchased seeds. The contracts generally contain a “no saved seed” provision so farmers cannot save or reuse seed from GM crops.

It is company policy for Monsanto, which describes itself as a “sustainable agriculture company”, to sue farmers who breach this provision. In effect, the provision requires growers of GM crops to make an annual purchase of GM seeds.

While the farmers struggle, corporations supplying the GM seeds – and their consultants – are making handsome profits.

What started as a humanitarian endeavour has turned into exploitation.

Not everyone accepts the benefits

Some are sceptical about GMO proponents' claims.

In a recent televised Q&A debate in Australia, Professor David Suzuki told a live audience that “scientists in genetics are no longer open to the possibility of harmful effects – and it is far too early to say what the effects of GMO will be with certainty”.


Like Suzuki, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), based in Ithaca, New York, does not share the view that GMOs are entirely safe.

In a report titled The Intellectual and Technical Property Components of pro-Vitamin A Rice, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and published in 2000, the organisation stated that:

Given the ever-changing biotechnology and IP environment in which every plant breeding and biotechnology institution operates today, virtually no transfer of germplasm or research is without some degree of risk. As transgenic strategies begin to dominate crop improvement practices, both the risks and rewards of transferring and releasing products by national programs can be expected to rise.

And in contradiction with its early claims, IRRI issued a statement on February 21 2013 clarifying that:

it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice – genetically-modified rice – does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.

Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum

Malnutrition is not merely a health problem; it is also a social problem. It reflects an overall impact of multiple causative factors, and these are also experienced in other developing countries where rice is not a major staple.

Nutritive deficiencies and malnutrition occur because of poverty and lack of purchasing power. Lack of adequate public health systems and education, environmental degradation, social disparity, depletion of fish stocks by large foreign trawlers (operating often illegally with impunity), corruption among local officials and conflicts are some of the underlying reasons.

The already considerable gap between the rich and the poor is rapidly growing. So is the highly unequal distribution of resources, especially in rural areas where the poorest live.

Golden Rice and other GMOs can never fully resolve these underlying issues.

As a human rights advocate – with extensive experience in the area – I can’t help but wonder what future awaits those less fortunate people in the Philippines whose health could now be turned over to the hands of an international scientific community eager to medicate them at the source with genetically modified products.

This is in a country where the church is still denying these same people access to basic contraception. World population and consumption are still growing and some central issues in this discourse are ignored.

Suggesting that GMO will change all people’s lives for the better merely shows how disconnected the proponents of GMO are from the realities on the ground and the needs of the population. What is lacking is the political will and determination to address these socio-political issues, on a local level and internationally.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. Laurie Willberg


    GMOs are a good example of genetic technology gone haywire. I'm sure Monsanto and Dupont are quite happy that their PR agencies have been having some success at polarizing/propagandizing those who dispute the advertised claims for these products as being anti-science. Nice try, no cigar.
    The proponents of Golden Rice are pushing the false "only choice" doctrine. There are plenty of other vegetables with high beta carotene content. Of course another logical choice is in the use of dietary supplements.
    Since Mexico has just banned GM corn even more resistance to GM technology is expected.

    1. John Doyle


      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Considering the track record of big business vested interests, there should be an automatic disqualifier on anything they promote. These companies are limited liability organisations with no moral agenda required to constrain how they act. They primarily act for their shareholders and that doesn't include the welfare of the general public.
      It is just common sense to not automatically believe claims. It's complicated by so called scientific endorsement from supine regulators, which has happened all to often. There doesn't today seem to be any genuinely unbiased regulators. Governments have abrogated their responsibilities and joined the forces which are proving so damaging to our health.

  2. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article.
    Jonathan Bogais wrote; "Golden Rice and other GMOs can never fully resolve these underlying issues" however the branding of Golden Rice as a cure for cultural and systemic issues is clever. A media agencies campaign that is designed to fit the simple three to five second soundbyte and well crafted media stories. Pushing the empathy button in everyone in an attempt to let these transnational corporate products pass our scrutiny. It is easy to set aside the central premise of many of these corporations is just long term profit and that corporate social responsibility is not a high priority.
    Golden Rice highlights a need for a serious conversation around designing a framework of international corporate law preventing these groups putting themselves before life on this planet.

  3. R. Ambrose Raven


    Food security is indeed becoming an increasingly pressing issue. The world has been consuming more than it produces for since 2003. Stocks of grain and of rice, wheat and maize are down at levels not seen since the early 1980s, hence the dangerous reality that the world is only one harvest away from crisis.

    Food insecurity stems from a complex mix of political, economic and environmental policy failures including failure to ensure substantial international reserves and exporter restrictions…

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  4. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    A well- presented, thought-provoking article. While I don't have a blanket prejudice against GMOs, accepting that they will play an increasingly important role in food production and much resistance to them is irrational, the following is most pertinent:
    "Nutritive deficiencies and malnutrition occur because of poverty and lack of purchasing power. Lack of adequate public health systems and education, environmental degradation, social disparity, depletion of fish stocks by large foreign trawlers…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Thanks Paul - couldn't agree more.

      I'd just want to add the concern that GM approaches seem always to be designed for, and therefore to encourage and entrench, soil-mining industrialised 'agriculture', as if this were the only means to feed the world. I think there is solid evidence that there are better, and far more sustainable alternative approaches - based on a mix of traditional knowledge and state of the art scientific research.

      Even Norman Borlaug, the 'inventor' of the so-called green revolution (which amounted to little more than a profoundly inefficient but at-the-time-cheap way of converting oil into food) suggested that it couldn't be a long-term, sustainable solution and that it had merely bought us some time to sort out the deeper problems like population management, distribution, social equity and so forth.

      In this light, while I wouldn't oppose GM per se, I think it constitutes little more than a distraction from the real issues.

  5. wilma western

    logged in via email

    J. Bogais's article is a "soft" anti-Gm argument that cherry-picks statements from Suzuki and the Rockefeller Foundation.

    Everyone knows that the big problems are inequality ,poor services and education procvision etc. Outsiders cannot impose equality and better services provision on sovereign states, but where a technological innovation can be shown to safely assist in a health issue such as Vitamin A deficiency ,why not permit this to be introduced?

    Products a such as golden rice have been…

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  6. David Tribe

    Senior Lecturer in Food Biotechnology and Microbiology, Agriculture and Food Systems at University of Melbourne

    Vitamin A malnutrition in the Philippines has many contributory causes. The question not analysed in the article is whether there is a common adverse consequence of those causes leading to harm which supplementation of diets via the staple food can be effective in elimination, and indeed that is true. Vitamin A deficiency is the link. Whether or not it can be effective is based on empirical evidence that supplementation of diets with beta-carotenedecreases death rates.

    To describe such intervention…

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  7. Richard Meredith

    logged in via email

    Unfortunately, Prof Bogais appears to make the common mistake of avoiding a full discussion of the pros and cons of an important issue - GM crops - by introducing a whole lot of side issues. In doing so he makes it rather obvious on which side his bread is buttered.

    It would have been nice to see him present some deeper, evidence-based arguments and insights for and against continued research and trials of GM rice (as well as other GM crops), while maintaining a healthy skepticism.

    It seems…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Richard Meredith

      I would have thought that the discussion elicited by the article was far more nuanced than you fear, Richard. I can't detect anything I would describe as 'anti-GM evangelism' in the comments so far: some pretty trenchant criticisms of the behaviour of companies like Monsanto (and reasonably well-deserved, I'd suggest!) and some arguments that GM is not an adequate solution on its own and may be less powerful that a raft of other issues that require action.

      I don't see anything academically irresponsible about canvassing the full complexities of the food issue. To argue solely for GM without paying attention to the full range of issues (which I am not in any way suggesting you are doing!) would be every bit as 'evangelical'.

      And I'm not sure it's fair to insist that every article on GM condemn the undeniably silly actions of Greenpeace in Canberra...I mean, he didn't condemn a whole range of bad things, but that doesn't imply he supports them.

    2. Richard Meredith

      logged in via email

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Hi Felix. Thank you for your thoughts. Since you wrote this I have had the dubious pleasure of perusing your contributions in full flight on the climate issue, a lot of hot air achieving very little it seems. As that string ( is now closed i thought i would use this contact just to let you know that a metaphor is "the application of a name or descriptive term or phrase to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable." eg "the long arm of the law." i think my argument against Lewandowsky's dubious tactics holds. Cheers.

  8. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    "field trials for Bt eggplant have not yet proved the plants safe for humans and the environment and must stop."

    Crazy, isn't it? Trials (under controlled conditions with isolation from the wider environment, which are not the same as the release of the crop for general cultivation in the environment) haven't yet proved the plant safe, therefore the trials must stop!

    We don't know it's safe! Therefore ban the research to find out whether it's safe!

    "It has not yet been determined whether…

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  9. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    "Golden Rice and other GMOs can never fully resolve these [inequality] underlying issues."
    Yes it can. By raising IQs.
    "But is this technical approach the right one? Does it take account of the bigger picture, of a socio-political model that keeps many people in poverty?"
    Yes the "technical approach" is the right one, because it is the only one capable of taking THE determinative metric into account - IQ. So called "socio-political" models of poverty are as wrong as the so called "social determinants of health" model, because both exclude IQ as a variable. But once IQ is added to these models, "inequality/coloniaism/blah" almost disappear as causes of poverty and ill-health. And if there is one factor that will kill anybody's IQ it is malnourishment

  10. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    but but MONSANTO!! EVIL MONSANTO!! What's that you say? We're discussing something that has got nothing to do with Monsanto? MONSANTO!!

  11. Georgie Hope


    Just because you can make rice high in vitamin D does not mean that it will help blindness. Until you do a double blind clinically controlled study in Humans you don't know if it's effective or if it causes more harm than help.

    Until research is done in humans scientists are only guessing.

    Many times in drug research the drug has a mechanism of action that gives the theory that it will help. But when the research is done in humans the drug ends up killing more people then it helps. Genetically modified food that inserts a gene from bacteria into food is not natural and we have no idea what effect it will have in humans as there has never been any research in humans. Many people in the world are currently in a big experiment but no one is measuring the outcomes.

  12. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    The addition of B vitamins to white bread was legislatively mandated many years ago, in many jurisdictions, not because there were no other sources of B Vitamins but because some people were so poor that they subsisted on white bread, and were subject to vitamin deficiency diseases as a result of their poverty.
    So let's please not trot the stupid commentary about other sources of Vitamin A being available in countries with large numbers of poor people who subsist on the cheapest food, white rice.
    Only the most blatant ignorance permits such stupid arguments against vitamin enriched staple food for poor people.
    Intelligence and empathy deficiency disease; a plague of entitled, middle-class suburbia.
    Throw them some more welfare.

    1. Laurie Willberg


      In reply to James Hill

      This supposedly monumental act of benevolence did nothing to eliminate poverty or improve anyone's standard of living.
      In many of these societies access to clean water and public sanitation are far higher priorities than shilling a supposedly new and improved variety of rice.
      It's ignorant and stupid to insist that there's only one solution -- the one that plays up to corporate interests. Cheaper and easier to provide beta-carotene or vitamin A supplements, or better, still, set up manufacturing that would provide jobs and income.
      In the meantime it's the middle class that donates the most $$ to charities, employs the highest proportion of workers, and pays the highest proportion of taxes.

  13. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.


    This article points to a return to a government funded scientific approach to research rather than the corporate.

    Filipinos, and others in so-called 'developing world' aren't stupid or blindly anti-science. The science needs to be local, open, peer-reviewed and the benefits and costs clear to all.

    If the seed stock belongs to Monsanto, and growers can't use traditional means of putting their own seed stock aside for the following crops, then citizens' bowls are filled or not at the behest…

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