Jan 03 2020

Golden Rice Approved in Philippines

This is a quick follow up in the golden rice story (golden rice is a GM rice with added beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A). I have written about it here, here, and most recently here. The news is that the Philippines have just approved golden rice as safe for human and animal consumption. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have already approved golden rice, but these approvals were symbolic and none of those countries would actually need to grow it. The Philippines is the first nation that both consumes large amounts of rice and suffers from large numbers of vitamin A deficiency to approve this GM crop, meaning that they intend to actually grow and eat it. There is still one more step before the rice will be grown:

“The Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute will now carry out taste tests as they seek approval for farmers to grow specific strains commercially.”

This is good news, the approval of golden rice is grinding forward despite dedicated opposition from anti-GMO groups. As I discuss in more detail in the earlier articles, both the opposition and approval are partly because golden rice breaks all the typical anti-GMO propaganda tropes. The rice was developed as a humanitarian project, it’s sole purpose is to improve nutrition for the world’s poorest children, it will be made available patent and royalty free and without restriction, and it does not involve the use of any pesticides. There is no issue here of farmer sovereignty, corporate profits, or any of the usual nonsense.

The only threat that golden rice poses is to anti-GMO propaganda. So that has become part of the propaganda itself-with some activists arguing that golden rice is a GMO Trojan Horse. So yeah, scientists are going to save millions of poor children from blindness and death all as part of an evil plot to increase acceptance of GMOs. It just shows that once you are stuck in a conspiracy narrative, it can be very hard to get out.

The story of the Philippines also breaks some of the last remaining strained objections to golden rice. One is that we would be better off just giving people with vitamin A deficiency supplements. But the fact is, there are already huge programs to do so. There is still massive vitamin A deficiency despite these programs. The programs are helping, but the problem with this approach is that the benefits are short term – you have to continuously provide supplements, and it’s hard to penetrate to the poorest regions of the world. Only 62% of targeted children were reached in 2017, for example. The benefit of golden rice is that once it’s in the food supply, the solution is self-sustaining.

Perhaps the last objection is that golden rice doesn’t work – it does not provide enough beta carotene to make a difference. This is simply wrong, however, which I address here. However, research is one thing, real world impact is another. It seems that the real fear of the anti-GMO crowd is that golden rice will work. Vitamin A deficiency and consequences are carefully tracked by the WHO. If golden rice is widely adopted in the Philippines and vitamin A deficiency plummets, they know the game is over. They are actually in the position of rooting for golden rice to fail – for children to go blind and die from vitamin A deficiency just to score a point. But I think they know they are going to lose that point, so they don’t want golden rice to be tested at all. They want to sacrifice poor children at the altar of their anti-GMO propaganda.

Greenpeace has been at the center of this particular controversy. True to their form, they have opposed this decision by the Philippines:

Greenpeace, which has long campaigned against golden rice, has asked the agriculture department to overturn its decision. According to The Philippine Star, Greenpeace has said the approval is unwarranted due to incomplete data and a lack of transparency. These claims are rejected by Dubock.

This will prove to be an enduring stain on the reputation of Greenpeace, marking them as a fringe extreme group.

The fact is, anti-GMO propaganda has collapsed, however much of the public has not yet received the memo. This is still the issue where the disconnect between public and scientific opinion is the greatest. There is a strong scientific consensus that GMOs currently available are all safe, and that there is nothing inherently risk about the various technologies considered GM, compared to other technologies used to create new cultivars. Some distinctions are downright silly, like considering mutation farming just fine, while demonizing recombinant technology.

We need to do two things in terms of science communication. One is to close that gap between scientists and the public. But also, we need to make sure that policy makers are hearing the correct scientific information. GM technology is a powerful and necessary tool that the world needs to address our growing food requirements, climate change, and the short fall in global nutrition. Taking this tool off the table is unnecessary and self-destructive.

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