In December 2019, around 20 years after its development, the Philippine Ministry of Agriculture classified the genetically modified Golden Rice as a safe food and granted permission for its direct use as food, feed and for further processing, despite decades of resistance from farmers and consumers, as well as campaigns by civil society.
The MASIPAG network, a long-standing partner organization of ASTM, strongly condemned the approval of Golden Rice and the related agreement between the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice) and the Ministry of Agriculture, which not only endanger human health and the environment, but also the future of rice production and the control of seeds by farmers.
«We are appalled that the approval has prevailed in spite of the many problems that MASIPAG and many other organizations are facing regarding golden rice, particularly in terms of safety and long-term effects on children, women and other consumers,» said Elpidio Paglumotan, a rice farmer from Negros and Chairman of the MASIPAG Board of Trustees. MASIPAG and other farmers’ and consumers’ organizations had previously written to the Ministry of Agriculture in October, criticizing the claims of Golden Rice proponents regarding its security.
Golden Rice was already classified as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May 2018. The rice contains additional genes that are a precursor to vitamin A, which, according to proponents, is critical to preventing child blindness. According to the developers at IRRI, a single serving can provide half of the recommended daily dose of vitamin A – allegedly essential, especially for malnourished children. However, the fact that Golden RIce may have saved millions of children from death or going blind is pure propaganda and is aimed in particular at simplifying future approvals of other genetically modified foods such as soybeans, cotton, potatoes and corn.
Many farmers and consumers in the Philippines and elsewhere are firmly convinced that Golden Rice will not combat the vitamin A deficiency of malnourished populations in developing countries, but will rather serve as a tool for increasing the control of multinational companies over agriculture.
«So far, advocates have not addressed concerns about the negligible beta-carotene content of the Golden Rice, its rapid breakdown, and the potential toxicity associated with beta-carotene breakdown,» said Cris Panerio, national coordinator of the MASIPAG network. «Instead, they’re hiding behind the supposedly stringent biosafety assessments and controversial security reviews from the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.» According to MASIPAG, Golden Rice’s beta-carotene content is negligible compared to that of local foods. In addition, it is quickly dismantled after processing and a long storage period. «The risks of the Golden Rice far outweigh the assumed benefits,» says Dr. Chito Medina, scientific advisor to the MASIPAG network. «We would be better advised to diversify the variety of food crops on our children’s farms and diets to ensure that a good nutrient supply is achieved.»
The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand had already approved the launch of Golden Rice in their respective countries in 2018; with its approval in the Philippines a large part of the Asian market is now also affected. Its release in these countries means that there are no longer any regulatory obstacles to importing food that contains Golden Rice. The approval of Golden Rice in the Philippines is a disaster for the farmers there. With its “Stop Golden Rice” campaign, MASIPAG has campaigned internationally for years against the market launch in Asia. The development of local rice varieties as an alternative to hybrids and genetically modified species is of central importance for MASIPAG’s work. Its members manage a large pool of local rice varieties and develop new ones that are adapted to local conditions, such as flood or drought-resistant seeds. It is now only a matter of time before the rice is given the green light in Bangladesh, where an application was made in 2017.
However, the issue here is not only that the approval process was completely intransparent and carried out without public consultation. Most importantly, the conscious acceptance of the loss of national food security in favor of maximizing the profits of multinational corporations and research institutions creates a precedent here. In many places it is already a daily occurrence that the well-being of the population is subordinated to corporate interests by exploiting and exporting raw materials or expropriating farmers. This blatant act of support for the introduction of genetically modified food on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture is criminal and completely unacceptable, especially under the pretext of combating blindness and malnutrition with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and despite awareness about the harmful effects on people’s health. Humanitarian arguments are being used here to treat symptoms instead of causes and to deliberately make people dependent on multinational corporations.
The current version of Golden Rice contains a negligible and inconsistent amount of beta-carotene. Even the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes that «the concentration of beta-carotene in the Golden Rice is too low to warrant a nutritional claim.» Also, recent studies from India show that the beta-carotene content of Golden Rice decreases rapidly after harvesting and processing. Research by the Indian government shows that 84% of beta-carotene can be lost after six months unless it has been vacuum-packed and refrigerated. However, electricity is still scarce in remote rural areas today, making cooling the harvest unrealistic. High temperatures and humidity greatly contribute to the breakdown of beta-carotene, and cooking the rice leads to a further loss of 25%
Furthermore, according to experts, beta-carotene breakdown will also lead to toxic compounds that can cause cancer. So far, neither short-term nor long-term safety studies have been carried out with Golden Rice. In addition, contamination can occur during field trials, and since the Philippines is one of the centers of rice diversity, genetically modified rice pollution can affect genetic diversity or affect thousands of rice varieties grown by smallholders and indigenous peoples.
The solutions to malnutrition are obvious: in the Philippines and other Asian countries sufficient amounts of inexpensive vegetables and fruits rich in beta-carotene that could remedy the prevailing vitamin A deficiency are widely available. The problem is rather people’s lack of access to these agricultural goods for several reasons. Malnutrition and hunger are the result of widespread poverty and inequality of access to vital resources, two problems that are still very present in the Philippines today but which can never be solved by Golden Rice. Government measures such as the liberalization of the rice sector, the strong promotion of chemical-based agriculture and massive changes in land use, also mean that farmers become highly indebted and lose their land titles, thus leading to increased food insecurity in rural areas.
The recently adopted rice tariff law has made the Philippines one of the largest rice importers, even surpassing China. With the liberalization of the rice industry, agricultural production is currently at its lowest level in eight years, as cheap, highly subsidized rice floods the market and competes directly with locally grown rice.
In early November 2019, Golden Rice proponents claimed in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian that resistance to genetically modified rice and the precautionary principle of the Cartagena protocol «have cost millions of lives» as they have delayed the launch of Golden Rice. It is a fact, however, that the Cartagena Protocol, as an international follow-up to the Convention on Biological Diversity, for the first time governs international transport and handling of genetically modified organisms, for instance through measures to protect genetic resources from possible dangers that may be associated with the release of genetically modified organisms.
But fuzzy legal formulations provided loopholes, leading to farmers’ dependency on chemicals and privatized seeds. In combination with the pricing pressure by agrochemical companies, the production costs for rice exploded in recent years. Subsistence farming with farmer-owned products is hardly possible anymore; instead, farmers are under pressure to export at world market prices, while inferior agrarian products are imported. Fertile land is being converted to other uses, mainly for environmentally harmful industrial sites or plantations, which further aggravates the problem of food insecurity. Corporate control of the agricultural market and government measures such as trade liberalization have thus caused hunger and malnutrition for millions of people – despite a law that has been in place since 2010 to promote organic farming in the Philippines. How could this happen? The reason is that, inconsistently, the government also supported research on and cultivation of genetically modified crops and hybrids that require the use of chemical additives, pauperising farmers and rendering them hungry. In fact, Golden Rice will only make these social grievances worse by maintaining the illusion that getting a balanced diet is possible simply by using Golden Rice. Instead of a varied diet, the population will be forced to restrict itself to cheaper, but unhealthier foods with a low nutritional value: high in calories, but with few essential micronutrients, vitamins, proteins and fat.
According to MASIPAG, genetically modified zinc and iron rice as well as thirty other genetically modified rice products are already in preparation. The Golden Rice acts as a Trojan horse to promote social acceptance and to give people a false sense of security.
MASIPAG has asked the Ministry of Agriculture to put the well-being of the Filipino population above corporate interests and to ensure access to farmland, suitable technologies and an agricultural policy that promotes and maintains people’s right to food.