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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”.

Antoine.Couturier

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.