The protestors destroyed 1000 square metres of Golden Rice – a variety created to reduce vitamin A deficiency.
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.
Not everyone views it positively though. “The Golden Rice is a poison,” Willy Marbella, a farmer and deputy secretary general of the militant farmers’ group KMP, told New Scientist. Marbella, who attended the protest at Pili, Camarines Sur, where the Golden Rice in a trial site was uprooted, says malnutrition is caused by poverty and needs to be addressed by support services, not genetically modified crops.
The research so far indicates that Golden Rice is safe, but it won’t be made available to eat until further testing is completed, says the International Rice Research Institute, a non-profit research body that develops new rice varieties. IRRI runs the test site, in partnership with the Philippine Department of Agriculture.
Beau Baconguis, programme manager for Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines is concerned, however. “There is not enough safety testing done on any GM crops,” she says.
Baconguis believes the farmers took matters into their own hands because they were concerned about their crops being contaminated. “I think that the farmers know what they want. What they want is a safe environment that they can grow their crops in,” she says.
But Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general at IRRI, says there was almost no risk of contamination. “These are confined field trials,” he says. “They’re fenced. They’re covered by nets. They’re protected from rats and birds. And, we hoped, people.”
He also pointed to research showing that rice is generally self-pollinated and so is unlikely to contaminate other crops. And because the beta-carotene that Golden Rice contains doesn’t give it a competitive advantage over wild rice, it is unlikely to endanger biodiversity.
Tolentino says the destroyed field was part of a study aiming to figure out whether Golden Rice will behave just like ordinary rice, thereby not requiring farmers to change their practices. “We were hoping we would get data from this field but we also have five other locations to get the data from. So it is not a major blow to the research process,” he says. “But it is a major blow to public acceptance of what’s going on.”
Although Golden Rice is not being developed for profit, activists argue that it is being used as a propaganda tool to soften the image of GM crops. Golden Rice is the “poster boy” of the industry, says Baconguis. “This is playing with the lives of people when you are using Golden Rice to promote more GMOs in our food.”