Golden Rice ignores the risks, the people and the real solutions

The Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines have been declared free of all genetically modified orgaisms (GMOs). Photo: Agricmarketing at
The Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines have been declared free of all genetically modified orgaisms (GMOs). Photo: Agricmarketing at
'Golden Rice' is being promoted by GM advocates as a solution to malnutrition. But Daniel Ocampo says it is for the 'target populations' in the Philippines and elsewhere to decide whether to accept the technology - and they don't want it!
It is Filipino farmers and consumers who will be the ones to deal with the risks, and so their wishes must be respected.

Recent articles and statements from the UK Environment Minister and others raise some interesting issues with respect to genetically modified (GM) 'Golden Rice'.

But those promoting Golden Rice in the UK and elsewhere appear to be doing so more as means of promoting the wider GM agenda - and attacking opponents of the 'GM project' - than as serious means of solving problems in the global south. 

And they entirely miss what are for us the main issues in the debate. First, problems of malnutrition are best addressed in their totality, not by a relentless focus on a single nutrient out of the hundreds essential for good health.

Vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is already being addressed in my country - the Philippines - through effective and safe solutions implemented through government programs, without the need to resort to genetic engineering.

The 2008 National Nutrition Survey in the Philippines reveals that VAD prevalence in the country has already decreased alongside successful government interventions based on vitamin A supplementation, food fortification and promotion of diverse diets.

For instance, in 2003 to 2008, VAD incidence decreased from severe (40.1%) to moderate (15.2%) in the vulnerable age group of children aged between six months to five years old and from severe (20.1%) to mild (6.4%) for lactating women.

Golden Rice is far from being a sustainable solution to vitamin deficiency - it encourages a diet based solely on rice. In Greenpeace's opinion, the tens of millions of dollars invested in the development and promotion of GM 'Golden rice' would have been better spent in supporting solutions that work.

A varied diet rich in fruit and vegetables

This means, in particular, providing access to fruits and vegetables rich in pro-vitamin A, like mango, canistel, sweet potatoes, squash, jute leaves and amaranth leaves, which are plentiful in my country, and key to combatting VAD and other vitamin deficiencies, while also supplying abundant mineral nutrients.

Ecologically farmed home and community gardens can contribute to healthy and varied diets by directly empowering people to produce their own nutritious food. This is the real long-lasting solution VAD affected communities need.

The threat of GM contamination

Second, farming communities are deeply concerned about the threat of GM contamination. If Golden Rice is released in to the environment, it will cause GM rice contamination and affect traditional, conventional and organic farmers.

It is highly likely that rice farmers will lose their markets, especially export markets, eventually causing negative impacts on rural livelihoods.

It is Filipino farmers and consumers who will be the ones to deal with the risks, and so their wishes must be respected.

Although there is no commercially grown GM rice anywhere in the world, there are well documented examples of widespread contamination of conventional rice by untested experimental GM rice in both the US and China.

We should also not forget that GM corn has already contaminated traditional and conventional varieties in the Philippines. In addition, communities have specific preferences (e.g., Bohol province has a strong preference for red rice) and have conserved specific rice varieties for different uses and management practices.

GM contamination will impact such preferences and knowledge systems, which are embedded in local traditions and culture.

Whose decision is it anyway?

Finally, the decision on whether to plant Golden Rice is for the farming communities themselves to make - not powerful, remote corporations, foundations and institutes, no matter how benign their motivation. And the threat of contamination is an important reason why Filipino farmers are opposing Golden Rice.

The voice of the other supposed beneficiaries - consumers - must also be heard. Currently, populations in the Philippines affected by VAD are expressing concerns about using Golden Rice as a solution to their problem. GM crops should not be imposed on people who do not want them.

Both farmers and consumers are also concerned about safety issues. And there is as yet no scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops. This is particularly relevant to rice, due to the crop's unparalleled importance across Asia as the staple food of billions of people.

If indeed this is a humanitarian project, then its promoters should all the more heed to the voices of the communities and supposed beneficiaries of Golden Rice, who ought to have the last say on whether they would embrace this GM technology.

There are already established, proven ways to address vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines, and the government and other agencies should shift those resources currently being wasted on GM crop development to support the real solutions.

In the end, it is Filipino farmers and consumers who will be the ones to deal with the risks. Our wishes must be respected.


See further articles on The Ecologist about 'Golden rice'.

Daniel Ocampo is the Sustainable Agriculture and Genetic Engineering Campaigner with Greenpeace Southeast Asia. He is based in the Philippines, where he has participated in anti-Golden Rice protests and actions.