What’s so golden about Golden Rice?
Toward the end of 2020, I tuned in to a webinar on so-called Golden Rice, the beta carotene-enriched rice touted by the government as the solution to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) among Filipino children. Led by the Department of Agriculture’s Philippine Rice Research Institute, the project appears to have the backing of the entire agriculture bureaucracy, not to mention the International Rice Research Institute and Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta, owned by ChemChina.
Far less enthusiastic were the farmers, it seemed. The contentious rice tariffication law was signed just a year earlier, wiping out some P80 billion in income for rice producers after palay prices plummeted. Already one of the perennially poorest, most marginalized sectors in the country, our farmers were contending with a market flooded with imported rice when the pandemic hit. The push to put Golden Rice into our soil and markets thus struck me as misguided at best and opportunistic at worst.
Zen Soriano, national chair of the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women, traced the problem of malnutrition to more fundamental issues, like poverty and landlessness. “Kulang na kulang nga naman iyong bitamina na kinakailangan sa pagkain at nandyan naman sa ating paligid iyong mayayaman sa bitamina na kailangan natin, pero ang nagiging problema lang ng mga maralita ay wala naman silang access sa lupa” (It’s true that we don’t get enough vitamins from the food we eat and food that are rich in vitamins are all around us, but the problem for the poor is not having access to land), she said.
The poor, who don’t have the privilege of choice and are prone to Vitamin A deficiency, are of course among the target consumers of Golden Rice.
As hunger hit record numbers during the pandemic, the push for it continued despite seemingly more pressing matters. In another webinar this month, lawyer Joya Doctor, a former policy officer for the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowermen, said the revised Joint Department Circular 2021 that lays down the rules and regulations on the release of GMOs into the Philippine environment unfathomably shortened the period for the public to comment on any such planned release from 60 days to a measly 10.
This is inadequate, she said, especially for indigenous peoples and local farmers in far-flung areas whose lives are most threatened by such a development. “Hindi naman sila nagfa-farm sa siyudad na pwede silang mag-internet parati (They don’t farm in the city where they can always go online). They are in the provinces, sometimes with no internet. How do you expect them to comment if you are giving them 10 days only?”
The “trojanistic” JDC, Doctor added, also doesn’t provide for traceability in terms of contamination, nothing on liability and redress or penalties, nothing on labeling that will help consumers make informed choices, and, most critically, no stipulation regarding an independent risk assessment. Indeed, there have been no independent, long-term, and meaningful safety tests, allergenicity assessments, and toxicity tests on Golden Rice.
Even its claimed efficacy against VAD, its raison d’être, is riddled with doubt. Per the computation of Dr. Chito Medina, national coordinator of farmer-scientist group Magsasaka at Siyentpiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura, the amount of beta carotene in Golden Rice degrades so much during storage and cooking that near-negligible quantities will ultimately be absorbed by the body.
This means that a child has to eat 4.4 kilos of cooked rice to get the recommended amount of Vitamin A from Golden Rice (double for adults). Otherwise, it can provide only 18 percent of someone’s daily requirement, which they can readily get, without the uncertainty and risks, from familiar sources such as carrots, kamote, malunggay, and many others.
With so many objections left unanswered, there is a jarring disconnect between the smug celebratory tone of Golden Rice proponents about the push for its commercialization—the Philippines in July this year became the first country in the world to approve its commercial cultivation—and the continuous but unheeded demand by farmers and other stakeholders for more transparency and rigor in the process.
The least that proponents can do is to be open and transparent about something that may pose a very real threat to our food systems, our food sovereignty, and the lives of our farmers and consumers—which is to say every single person who eats the staple without which no Filipino meal is complete.
Glenn Diaz is a writer, teacher, and graduate student based in Quezon City.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.