Earlier this month, activists in the Philippines destroyed a field trial of golden rice which was nearly ready to submit fortified rice to national regulators for safety approvals. The trial was from the Philippines Department of Agriculture.
Golden rice is fortified with Beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, and has been developed to try and tackle vitamin A deficiency. I remember reading about it in my school text book, but a decade on it is still in the development phase, partly as a result of activism.
The protestors, from Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP) and SIKWAL-GMO, believed that the trial was a danger to human health and biodiversity. A KMP spokesperson said malnutrition is caused by poverty and should to be addressed by support services, not genetically-modified crops.
A petition has since been started to speak out against the activists, and I have signed it. I am very interested in any problems associated with using golden rice to tackle vitamin A deficiency, but do not see destroying field trials as a productive way of dealing with these issues.
Vitamin A deficiency is considered a health problem in over half of the world’s countries, causing disruption to the immune system and increasing the severity of childhood diseases such as measles. It is essential for the retina, so deficiency can lead to blindness. Vitamin A is naturally found in leafy vegetables and a major cause of vitamin A deficiency is over-reliance on white rice.
Impressively, the Philippines has reduced vitamin A deficiency from 40% of the population in 2003 to 15% in 2008 through fortification of flour and products such as instant noodles. With 2 million people worldwide dying annually from vitamin A deficiency, we still haven’t solved the problem.
Challenges involve the expense of maintaining a continuous supply of supplements, and the health risks from an overdose of supplements. Being able to grow a crop which provides vitamin A year after year is therefore an attractive prospect.
A barrier which the scientists faced early on is that many of the techniques they used had been patented, but the businesses involved (including Syngenta) have agreed that the technology should be available free of charge to the world’s poorest farmers.
This is a story I’m sure I will be writing about, and I would be interested to hear from anyone who has specific points about challenges associated with golden rice – so much of it seems to be vague ‘agribusinesses are involved’ or ‘we have other ways of dealing with it’.