By Nina Somera (Third World Network)
November 4, 2013
IN a tiny space under an old bridge in Manila, lives Maita, 36 years old and mother of eight children aged from two to 19 years from two men. She broke off with her first partner after enduring violent abuse. While she has found a friend in her current partner, Romy, life has been tough. Despite his recurring asthma, Romy takes jobs at the nearest warehouse, unloading and loading boxes of sardines and other canned good from trailers and into smaller trucks for distribution. The best dinner out of the meager income is a set of instant noodles, two food fares from the carinderia, the local food store, and enough amounts of the least expensive NFA[i] rice. At the height of the food crisis in 2008, the common fare was rice with drops of soy sauce and oil for taste and texture. With this lifestyle, it is not hard to imagine her children’s poor nutrition, stunted growth and underperformance in school.
However, some technologists are promising a quick fix to this situation that has resulted from the historical and horrendous combination of poverty, limited education, hunger, malnutrition and gender-based violence. Golden Rice is a genetically engineered rice variety that is said to be fortified with betacarotene in a bid to cure Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) which often leads to loss of vision among children. Indeed as early as 2000, Time magazine’s cover dubbed it as the rice that “could save a million kids a year.”[ii]
As Golden Rice is clothed with this humanitarian veneer, it is not unlikely that it will be given away even in times of disaster when people require more energy and nutrients. But a trail of questions emerges: Will it be safe? What are the interests at stake? Who really benefits? In the end, will the poor be given a choice to consume Golden Rice or not?
The Beginnings of Golden Rice
Golden Rice was initially a project of Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of Germany’s University of Freiburg. Back in the mid-1980s, the first version of Golden Rice (called Golden Rice 1) primarily tapped the genes of bacterium and daffodils.[iii] GR1 was supposed to produce lycopene (as in tomatoes) and so be bright red; instead, it produced betacarotene due to an unexpected metabolic pathway, thus the yellow/golden colour of GR. So in a way, one could say that GR1 was an “accident.” By 2000, following an agreement with Syngenta and with more donors pitching in, scientists used the genes of maize, which made the second version of Golden Rice (GR 2) more prominently yellow and supposedly, richer in Vitamin A.
At the outset, the promise of this long-term experiment appears exciting, but there remain serious questions regarding the efficacy and risks of Golden Rice, which have not been highlighted nor addressed by its creators and proponents. While cross-breeding has been practiced by the planet’s early communities thousands of years ago, resulting in crops which give more yield, require less water and are resistant to certain pests, Golden Rice is a product of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering (GE) involves the insertion of genetic material from one organism to another, a process which would not occur naturally. In the case of Golden Rice, the process forces a cross between rice and corn. Golden Rice thus alters the natural constitution of Oryza sativa, the genus of rice commonly eaten in Asia.
For years, biotech companies and independent scientists have been at odds over the safety of GE crops and food for humans and other species as well as to biodiversity and ecological services.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), said to be the most independent and multi-stakeholder scientific assessment, was notably muted in relation to the claimed benefits of GE crops, highlighting instead the lingering doubts and uncertainties surrounding them.[iv] In particular, the report concluded that for poor farmers, GE crops are unlikely to play a substantial role in addressing their needs. In any case, longer-term assessments of the environmental and health risks of, and regulatory frameworks for GE crops are needed.
A Panacea for Blindness?
The selling point of Golden Rice is its potential to express Vitamin A, one of the key micronutrients which are essential in a person’s formative years. Inadequate Vitamin A can result in poor vision, if not blindness, at a young age as well as vulnerability to infections such as those related to measles and diarrhea.[v] Yet Vitamin A can only be produced when betacarotene is processed in fat. This means that for Golden Rice to be effective, one’s diet must also include fat which is not always accessible for the poor.
There are varying calculations on Golden Rice’s potential Vitamin A content, especially when it is cooked, a process which tends to decrease if not wash away vitamins and minerals — over time with the evolution of GR 1 into GR 2. Back in 2001, Greenpeace calculated that a person would need to consume 3.7 kilos of raw or 9 kilos of cooked GR 1 in order to satisfy the daily need of Vitamin A, while pregnant women need to have double that amount.[vi]Potrykus responded to this claim, clarifying that the scientists had no data on this even as he mentioned that they were “possibly already in the 20-40 per cent range of the daily allowance.”[vii] By the time GR 2 was developed, it was claimed that the variety’s Vitamin A potential has increased. In 2011, during a seminar organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Adrian Dubock, one of the promoters of Golden Rice said that 40 grams or a petridish-full of Golden Rice was sufficient to provide 40 per cent of the estimated average requirement of Vitamin A “even without added fat in the diet.”[viii]
Such claim though has not been backed up by sufficient, much less independent studies. On the contrary, where these studies exist, the methods used are flawed and the results are inconclusive.[ix] For example the supposed positive results of an experiment in the US with healthy volunteers maybe isolated. As the 2012 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition itself explained, none of the volunteers were suffering from common health concerns including those afflicting the poor such as hypertension, gastric, intestinal, pancreatic or renal diseases.[x] The experiment also included servings such as butter, peeled cucumber, turkey meat, white bread, roasted cashews, among others.[xi] Moreover, even the more practical questions such as the presence of betacarotene after cooking or during storage (especially with farmers who tend to store part of their harvest) since betacarotene is sensitive to light and oxidation remain unanswered.
Addressing VAD in the Philippines
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that Vitamin A deficiency affects some 19 million pregnant women and 190 million pre-school-age children mostly from Africa and Southeast Asia.[xii] In the Philippines, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) said that there were 4 in every 10 children aged 6 months to 5 years and 3 to 4 in every 10 children aged 6 to 12 years who were suffering from VAD in 2003.[xiii] It added that aside from Vitamin A, iron and iodine are low among many Filipino children and women.[xiv]
Vitamin A deficiency was high on the agenda back in the mid-1990s for the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) during the administration of former Senator Juan Flavier. Among the programs he introduced was Vitamin A supplementation through the National Micronutrient Day or Araw ng Sangkap Pinoy. Young children of up to 5 years were given doses of Vitamin A. A 2002 draft paper of FNRI found the program successful based on data between 1993 and 1998: “While a VAD increase during the period may have been indicated, the proportion of 0 – 5 years old children with deficient plasma retinol decreased 2.3 percentage points from 1993 to 1998. The shift in the distribution of plasma retinol among 0 – 5 years old children in 1993 and in 1998 reflects significant improvements in the preschool-age children’s vitamin A status.”[xv]
The authors of the paper attributed the success of the program mainly to political will as reflected in the enormous budget the DOH allocated to it at PHP 834 million. After some time, the Vitamin A supplementation program and other similar programs have been passed on to the local government units (LGUs). This means that the task of monitoring and addressing deficiencies of Vitamin A, iron and iodine and other health concerns now lie in the hands of barangay or village health workers.
While there are barangay health workers who were erudite in this task, it appears that this had not been consistent, since there was no “smooth transfer of program ownership to LGUs.”[xvi] This was reflected in the low interest and support from local officials, lack of promotion and social mobilization, compared to DOH’s campaigns, low awareness of mothers and other members of the community, and the small number of volunteers, among others. Without such impasse, the Philippines could have achieved better numbers in decreasing Vitamin A deficiency. Indeed from 38 per cent Vitamin A deficiency prevalence rate among children up to 5 years in 1998, the figure jumped to 40.1 per cent in 2003.[xvii]
But with the increasing coverage of Vitamin A supplementation, Vitamin A deficiency has been significantly reduced to 15.2 per cent by 2008.[xviii] As of 2011, FNRI estimates that some 91.6 per cent of children participated in the government’s Vitamin A supplementation program.[xix]
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a dosage from 100,000 – 200,000 International Units (IU) in infants to children of 5 years every 6 months while taking into account the Vitamin A content of one’s diet and the rate of utilization by the body.[xx] It finds Vitamin A supplementation a “low-cost intervention” as each capsule costs approximately PHP1 or a yearly cost of PHP43-PHP96 per year. This means that Vitamin A supplementation is an efficient and sound alternative even for a cash-strapped public health sector. Moreover, as one study cites Dr. Samson Tsou, director of the Asian Vegetable Research Development Center, the Vitamin A daily requirement of a pre-school child can be met with just two tablespoons of yellow sweet potatoes or half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables.[xxi]
Real or Reel Philanthropy
Although the Los Banos-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the coordinator of the Golden Rice project, has not disclosed the modalities through which Golden Rice will be widely propagated and distributed, there are indications that the variety will be processed and given away for free, much like the Vitamin A supplementation program. Following IRRI’s condemnation of the uprooting of Golden Rice crops in Camarines Sur by some 400 militant farmers and their supporters in August 2013, Michael Purugganan, a Filipino plant geneticist based in the New York University has defended the Golden Rice project and its intent for the poor, “Let us make sure that those who need it most can, for once, put gold on their plates.”[xxii]
Aside from IRRI, the Golden Rice Project consists of research institutes in India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Germany and the Philippines, with the National Rice Research Institute (PhilRice). As of 2001, over USD100 million had already been spent for the development of the variety. In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation infused some USD 20 million into the project, which also counts among its donors the Rockefeller Foundation, the European Commission, Swiss Federal Funding and Syngenta Foundation. Farmers who are earning less than USD10,000 per year, will not have to pay patent royalties, mainly because these farmers are most likely located in areas where there are high incidences of VAD. Meanwhile the Philippine government through the Department of Agriculture (DA) has provided clearance for the variety to be field-tested.
But the relationships among such power-houses go beyond cooperation over corporate social responsibility, whose implementation may not meet international standards. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are informed by three pillars: (1) That the State has the obligation to protect human rights abuses by third parties such as business enterprises through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication; (2) business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved; and (3) greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.[xxiii]
In contrast to these standards, the Philippines’ current policy framework and institutions particularly on biosafety remain quite weak to provide adequate protection to communities and the environment which will absorb any negative impact from GE crops. The Philippines does not have a law on biosafety which could have set out provisions on grievance mechanisms and redress, prosecution and punishment.[xxiv] Nor does it have advanced risk-assessment approaches and infrastructure. But instead of being more cautious, the government has given the green light to the Golden Rice project.
In 2002, the task of regulating of the entry of GE crops was transferred from the multi-sectoral National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines to the DA.[xxv] Under the DA are PhilRice, which is deeply involved in the Golden Rice Project and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), which is supposed to be independent in approving and monitoring field testing of GE crops. Despite the absence of a robust policy framework and risk-assessment tools, BPI already approved 70 GE products for food, feed, processing and propagation in the Philippines as of February 2013.[xxvi]
Such institutional weakness then becomes a perfect conduit for a so-called “humanitarian” project that seems more oriented towards advancing agri-business interests instead of human rights and the accountability that those rights entail.
Cloudy Cast of Characters
There seems to be a strong basis when feminist activist Vandana Shiva described Golden Rice as a “Trojan Horse,” reminding us of Aenid’s giant wooden horse that housed the Greeks who attacked the city of Troy.[xxvii] In the case of Golden Rice, what it offers not only comes with presumptuous promises but also complicity behind the veneer of charity.
Syngenta, one of the main sponsors of the development of Golden Rice waived its claims on patents but not its commercial rights.[xxviii] IRRI, a member of the Golden Rice Network and the coordinator of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, has been known as the incubator of the Green Revolution, that has greatly eroded the viability and sustainability of small-scale agriculture in Asia. IRRI’s top representative Gerard Barry used to be the Director of Research, Production and Technical Cooperation of Monsanto, where he worked for 20 years.[xxix] Meanwhile, in agriculture, the Rockefeller Foundation has also been known as a staunch supporter of the Green Revolution, which it continues to actively promote in Africa together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.[xxx] Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who has been protective of the current “intellectual property” regime, through his Foundation bought 500,000 shares in Monsanto, valued at USD 23 million in 2010.[xxxi]
Combining the strength of these powerhouses with the weakness of supposedly independent institutions and policy processes leaves the public the challenge of critically separating the kernel from chaff amid the media hype around Golden Rice. Lessons can be learned from Mexico where the Gates Foundation has recently infused some USD25 million into biotechnology laboratories.[xxxii]
Not too long ago Mexico’s native corn varieties were nearly wiped out due to contamination from GE corn which was distributed as food aid by the country’s Secretariat for Social Development program Disconsa and private institutions.[xxxiii] Despite the vigilance of indigenous peoples, farmers and activists, Mexico’s Agriculture Secretariat granted permits for GE corn experiments in as many as 28 municipalities. As Victor Quintana, human rights activist and coordinator of Estatal Chihuahua Morena noted, “On the urgent food aid, Monsanto, Syngenta and others are making hunger their public relations campaign to improve their image while introducing transgenic corn into the ‘assisted’ areas.”[xxxiv] On his 2011 visit to Mexico, Olivier de Shutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, wrote, “….the cultivation of transgenic maize in Mexico poses acute risks to the diversity of native maize landraces, …The combination of natural gene flow and human seed exchange practices mean that it would be close to impossible to maintain the coexistence of native landraces of maize with transgenic maize being planted.”[xxxv]
Alternatives to Golden Rice
As rice is the quintessential staple food in Southeast Asia, it is not surprising that alarm bells are going off when rice is targeted by the biotech industry. As early as 2001, Potrykus indicated how GR would pave the way for other such GE crops, saying that “the Golden Rice approach is not restricted to rice, but will also be applied to wheat, cassava, sweet potato, banana, and further basic food security crops. It also includes already measures against iron deficiency, and hopefully soon, also against deficiencies in essential amino acids.”
Over 50 years ago, rice became the target of the Green Revolution. While it increased yields for a time, this trend eventually stagnated and even decreased in many places. It also turned out to be a source of disempowerment and loss of livelihood for small farmers, with its demands for costly chemical inputs which badly affected the soil and the environment. This experience has led to the Philippine Government’s recent orientation towards organic agriculture. In 2010, it issued the Organic Agriculture Act that provides for a certification process for organic products, budget for LGUs with initiatives around organic agriculture and the declaration of organic agriculture zones, among others.[xxxvi] Hence the continuing entry of GMOs and the potential release of Golden Rice by 2014, if not by the end of this year, actually undermine the integrity of this law.[xxxvii]
Beyond this, there is a need to rethink quick techno-fixes that sidestep the more deep-seated and structural concerns such as poverty, gender inequality, landlessness and limited social protection. The IAASTD itself recognizes the enduring harmful impact of the Green Revolution and instead calls for a re-orientation towards agroecology, a system that not only restores and diversifies ecological relationships and services but also ensures food sovereignty, centers on the farmers’ meaningful participation and strengthens movement-building.[xxxviii]
In terms of nutrition, the country has an abundant resource of green and leafy vegetables whose consumption must be promoted more. These are also the least expensive alternatives for low-income sectors, including the working poor in cities, where there are no agricultural lands. Arugaan, a day care center operating in partnership with the union of the Philippine Information Agency, has managed to run its program based on breast-feeding and vegetable-based diets for children under the age of 3 years at a cost of PHP 6,000 (USD 135) per month for 10 hours a day. Such practices are currently being promoted through community-based initiatives. Meanwhile, Vitamin A supplementation is not bad on its own. Its weak implementation lies in the uneven sense of ownership among LGUs, something which can be fairly easily addressed with political will.
Moreover, Vitamin A deficiency is just the tip of the iceberg. What appears to be more crucial are stunting, iron and iodine deficiencies.[xxxix] And what is equally needed is still the basic consumption of healthy and diverse food sources. According to FNRI, as of 2011, only one out of five children meet the minimum dietary diversity score which indicates consumption of food from the seven food groups.[xl]
Beyond Golden Rice
Furthermore child nutrition and health cannot be divorced from the quality of life of the mothers, whose sexual and reproductive health and well-being are among the structural problems Golden Rice glaringly evades. The Philippines has a high maternal mortality rate with 11 mothers dying each day due to pregnancy complications, which include unsafe abortion. As the country’s UN Population Fund representative Ugochi Daniels pointed out, “I think we’ve gone from 11 (maternal deaths) a day to between 14 and 15 a day now. And unfortunately, most of these are poor women.”[xli] It has taken 16 years for the Philippine government to approve the Reproductive Health Law, which as of this writing, is still being seriously challenged mostly by the Catholic hierarchy and its supporters.
An equally thorny structural issue that quick fixes such as “Golden Rice” conveniently sidestep is land reform which could hardly progress as elected officials are themselves deeply entrenched in the country’s cacique politics. When small farmers obtain control over their lands and seeds, gain access to sustainable extension services and fair markets, benefit from social protection and assured of environmental integrity, there is a brighter chance for healthy and nutritious food to be widely accessible.
In the end, having the best alternative to Golden Rice means looking into our own experience rather than looking out for the most advanced technologies with massive funding. A closer engagement with our own context – histories, struggles and resources – shows how vitamin A deficiency can be addressed more effectively and sustainably with political will, strategic approaches, and stakeholding within communities. Such engagement can also protect whatever political and practical gains in agriculture and health any unnecessary risks much like what was experienced during the Green Revolution.
As the Philippines has been making progress in the fight against Vitamin A deficiency despite the government’s own failures and limitations, there is no need for Golden Rice. As such, the question then is, whose benefit is it really for?