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/ 12:07 AM August 30, 2014

“Talk does not cook rice.” That proverb does not refer to Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is twisting in the wind for the overpriced Makati parking building. It is tailor-fit for Sen. Cynthia Villar, who chairs the committee on agriculture.

Villar groused, in an address at the International Rice Research Institute (Irri) in Los Baños, that action is overdue on “Golden Rice.” The staple grain often flicks open a window of vulnerability to Vitamin A shortfalls.

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Golden Rice shows promise that it can curb deficits that afflict 1.7 million of malnourished preschool kids. That is compounded by one of every five lactating mothers. About 19 million pregnant women are affected, and so are the kids gestating in their wombs. Those who survive often have hobbled IQs. “Their elevators will never reach top floor.”

Sure, Villar was preaching to the choir. The Irri is a codeveloper of Golden Rice, along with the government-run Philippine Rice Research Institute. But her assertion is valid.

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In Asia, “it is rice or nothing. And if there are problems with rice, there are problems with everything,” including riots. Demand for rice is rising due to population growth. Rice yields are rising, too—but at barely half that pace.

The Golden Rice project tries to genetically lace additional Vitamin A into the grain. It was started in 1993 by researchers with funding from Rockefeller Foundation. Food and environment safety procedures are overseen by the government, including the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines and the Bureau of Plant Industry.

Five trial plots of Golden Rice in Bicol were vandalized by 400 protesters in 2013, reports BBC environment correspondent Matt McGrath. The crop was “weeks away from being submitted for a safety evaluation.” The attackers were members of a group called Sikwal-GMO.

The alliance between rice breeders and nutritionists may seem odd, writes Robert Zeigler of the Irri. As a rice breeder in Colombia with Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s, Peter Jennings knew that Vitamin A deficiency was a scourge.

“[Jennings] found that a yellow rice grain would most likely carry beta carotene. A yellow plant pigment that humans convert into Vitamin A  in their food.” Jennings never tracked the pigment in global collections of rice. Mutating millions of plants failed.

“The only path to getting yellow rice, later dubbed ‘Golden Rice,’ was to engineer it using genetic modification.” The teamwork of Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer eventually created, in 1999, the prototype of a genetically modified Golden Rice.

Vitamin A deficiency is the No. 1 cause of preventable blindness among children in developing countries. As many as 350,000 go blind every year. And it is most prevalent among young children and pregnant and nursing women. Vitamin A deficiency can impair vision and cause other sight problems. “It can also be killing you.”

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Golden Rice today packs beta carotene as additional source of Vitamin A in the diet of rice consumers worldwide. Research has shown that just one cup of Golden Rice a day can be enough to provide adults with half their daily needs of Vitamin A. “So it could make a big difference to people’s nutrition—and their sight.”

Anti-GM “activists” vehemently oppose Golden Rice being approved for production by farmers. They claim it is a “Trojan Horse” technology that would open the doors to the release of other genetically modified crops.

If Golden Rice effectively reduces blindness, disease and death caused by Vitamin A deficiency in millions of rice consumers, will it pave the way for other GM food crops that may be healthier for people and good for the environment? Therefore, must we stop Golden Rice before it is too late?  “The cynicism astounds even a crusty old bird like me,” adds Zeigler.

The surviving mainstream argument against GM crops has boiled down to concerns over corporate control of agriculture and seed supply. “This is a legitimate [issue] and worthy of debate and action.”

But Golden Rice was developed by public-sector scientists using public funds. Private entities that hold patents on technologies used to develop Golden Rice have made these available freely for this purpose.

“Please explain to me why ‘activists’ should block a technology developed by the public sector. Why should they hold the world’s poor hostage over a fight about private control of agriculture in rich countries?”

There is not enough information to decide if these crops are safe, they claim. Yet they destroy the trials designed to provide the very answers they are demanding. “Could it be that they do not want to see the answers?”

“There’s so much misinformation floating around taken as fact by people,” said Michael D. Purugganan, dean of science at New York University. “The genes they inserted to make the vitamin are not some weird manufactured material, but are also found in squash, carrots and melons.” Raised in a middle-class family in Manila, Purugganan felt compelled to weigh in on Golden Rice. “A lot of the criticism of GMOs in the Western world suffers from a lack of understanding of how really dire the situation is in developing countries.”

Golden Rice appeared on Time magazine’s cover in 2000, “before it was quite ready for prime time,” noted the New York Times (Aug. 24, 2013). It is not owned by any company but is being developed by the nonprofit Irri. At stake in this controversy “is not just the future of bio-fortified rice but also a rational means to evaluate a technology whose potential to improve nutrition … may otherwise go unrealized.”

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Cynthia Villar, GMOs, Golden Rice
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