As the Philippine Senate grapples with the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine, a new type of rice never before consumed by humans is already set for testing and eventual release in our country, if approved.
“Golden rice” is genetically modified to force the rice plant to express beta carotene in its grains. Hailed as an answer to Vitamin A deficiency, an application to field and feed test the GM grain is now lodged under the Bureau of Plant Industry, an agency tasked to regulate GM applications.
The Golden Rice Project is hauntingly similar to Dengvaxia as the target sectors are our children. Its proponents, Philippine Rice Research Institute and International Rice Research Institute, have applied a permit under Direct Use, wherein target populations will be fed with golden rice to test if the genetically modified rice is effective in providing Vitamin A. Most likely, the target sector of the Golden Rice Project are children aged 0-5 years old and pregnant and lactating mothers, the sectors where Vitamin A deficiency has been observed.
The Golden Rice Project, however, is fraught with problems. The application for Direct Use will subject unknowing populations, most likely children, to golden rice feeding tests whose potential risks are unknown. In a public dialogue held by the National Anti-Poverty Commission last August, medical doctors warned that there are not enough data presented to establish safety of golden rice to human health thus warranting the disapproval of human feed trials. They are saying that more information is needed as the risks of eating golden rice are not yet known. Civil society organizations, including the Resist Agrochemical TNCs network, have also pointed out that the protocols, risk management plans and guidelines to ensure the protection of the public against the possible risks of golden rice remain wanting.
In China, the public was outraged when grade school children were subjected to golden rice feed studies. Three Chinese officials were sacked for allowing the said feeding trials without informed consent among the parents or schoolteachers. The project did not even state that the rice the kids were consuming is genetically modified, nor did it state uncertainty around the potential risks of ingesting genetically modified rice.
Apart from an application for Direct Use, the proponents have renewed an application to open field test of golden rice in the municipalities of San Mateo in Isabela and Muñoz in Nueva Ecija. In a recent study, scientists from India showed that the derived lines of golden rice produced phenotypic abnormality and poor yield performance making it unfit for commercial cultivation. Farmers are worried that the trait can transfer to other rice varieties or weedy relatives through cross-contamination once the open field testing is approved.
Interestingly, while golden rice is planned to be distributed among farmers royalty-free, its patents are still owned by agrochem giant Syngenta, a Switzerland-based company whose products include genetically modified crops and pesticides. Syngenta was recently bought off by ChemChina, one of the largest chemical corporations in China. Golden rice is said to be a Trojan Horse that will further open our agricultural sector to seeds and inputs owned by huge agrochemical transnational corporations, including Syngenta and ChemChina.
The problems surrounding Dengvaxia are no different from golden rice. However, Dengvaxia’s effect can be minimized once the vaccination program is terminated or regulated. Golden rice differs because, once in the market, it will be very difficult to monitor its effects given that rice is a staple food consumed by most Filipinos. Golden rice is also a living organism that, if released in the environment, has the possibility to increase exponentially due to cross-contamination of other rice varieties. As rice is a staple of Filipinos eaten three times a day, the extent and coverage of golden rice will be far reaching than Dengvaxia. Liability and redress will also be difficult to establish. Such are the problems of the parents whose children have become victims of this Dengvaxia fiasco.
Many times the golden rice proponents, and even government regulators, have assured the public of the safety and efficacy of the genetically modified crop and putting paramount importance to Filipino’s health and the environment. However, if not for the vigilance of the public, golden rice would have been approved as early as 2015. We should learn our lessons from the current Dengvaxia controversy, where the health of the people has been put at risk because the proper safety processes were not observed by the very authorities who should have been safeguarding our health. We implore our regulatory bodies to not commit the same mistake that might result to even graver harm to the people.