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Grains of truth: Why the war on Golden Rice is far from over

NOTE: This is the first part of an in-depth piece.
Click here for the second part.

A gold mine for some, a glittering lie for others; here is an in-depth analysis on the agricultural communities’ most pressing controversy: Golden Rice (GR).

The agricultural community is no exemption to heated debates and controversial issues. Be it political or religious, the same “divided” narrative towards societal change can be seen in the agricultural sector, especially that with the ongoing Golden Rice saga.

At first glance, the Golden Rice (GR) tug of war can be seen as a potential solution to Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). For GR supporters, VAD is the heart of the problem. Side effects such as “gradual blindness,” “premature death,” and “stunting of growth” were amplified by the pro-GR party to highlight VAD’s urgency and the need for more interventions.  

Promised to be a public good that is freely available to farmers and breeders, the Golden Rice commercialization project ensures that growers and consumers will have affordable and readily available access to “extra nutrition.” Golden Rice brands itself as an eye-catching, golden ticket for Filipino families, especially to children and lactating women, who are most at risk of VAD and solely dependent on rice as their main food source.

To support this initiative, an ongoing petition to approve Golden Rice for commercial propagation was released to the public by the UP Genetic Researchers and Agricultural Innovators Society (UP GRAINS) and UP League of Agricultural Biotechnology Students (UP LABS). 

UP GRAINS is known to focus more on promoting agricultural biotechnology through research education, while UP LABS aims in unifying all students taking up BS Agricultural Biotechnology in UPLB. 

With a goal of 5,000 signatures, the said petition was actively endorsed by the Department of Agriculture-Philrice (DA-PhilRice) and pro-genetically modified organism (GMO) farmer groups such as the Asian Farmer’s Regional Network (ASFARNET). As of writing, the petition has reached over 3,000 signatories.

While a lot of Filipinos immediately joined in the Golden Rice excitement, others reluctantly braced for the knifelike aspect of the said technology. Biotechnological innovations such as Golden Rice, they say, are a “double-edged sword” to the marginalized. Should Golden Rice have any error or lapses, these people would be the first to fall victim to the cutting, detrimental effects on their safety, health, and environment.

So when mere remarks on the study had developed into heated debates, and these dialogues had formed into protests and nation-wide movements, the agricultural community was ultimately divided into two: the pro-Golden Rice and the anti-Golden Rice parties. Both these groups have attempted to dominate the field, continuing to persist in gaining public favor. 

For instance, a multinational mass movement named Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN) was formed by the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) Organization and 30 other anti-GR farmer-activist organizations. Now in its seventh year, the said network actively advocates against the commercialization of Golden Rice through week-long protests, backed-up research journals, and campaign collaborations.

(RELATED STORIES: ‘Golden Rice, FailRice!’: Rice farmers call to halt Golden Rice in DA protest and MASIPAG, SGRN sets week-long protest vs MNCs, Golden Rice)

With farmers, scientists, researchers, and activists coming from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, SGRN strives against corporate control in food and agriculture.

Both pro-GR and anti-GR proponents agree that rice is an important Filipino food staple and that food security is the ultimate priority, thus demonstrating a silver lining of compromise. But when scientists start arguing with other scientists, and farmers start arguing with fellow farmers, an essential facet of the Golden Rice debate is found: Agricultural issues are more diverse than people often assume it to be.

Reaping what we sow

The Golden Rice conversation is crucial to consumers and producers alike given that rice is a food staple to almost every Filipino household. Thus, the stakes with pursuing the Golden Rice project are high enough to benefit — or cost — the lives of many rice-eating communities.

Pro- and anti-GR proponents agreed that education and awareness are keys in truly assessing the success of the Golden Rice project. 

Dr. Ronan G. Zagado of DA-PhilRice expressed, “It’s a matter of raising awareness to these people. The reason why they judge a product is because they lack the appreciation and understanding about the product.

Dr. Zagado also shared his recent experience with concerned extension workers, where after much consultation, they began appreciating the product. Having faith on the utmost importance of public education regarding the benefits of biotechnology, Dr. Zagado claimed to have made several efforts to reach out to various community sectors, up to policy makers themselves.

Meanwhile, in response to Dr. Zagado’s claims in a different interview, Dr. Chito Medina of MASIPAG contended that the pro-GR proponents are only “miseducating” people by only explaining the benefits of GR and not the complexities of farming and food systems that “sustain life on Earth.”

Ang gusto nila may education sa sarili nilang pananaw, para lang tanggapin ng tao, kawawa naman ang tao,” Dr. Medina claimed.

Giving relevance to the interconnectedness of science and political economy, Dr. Medina elaborated that in the perspective of the latter, the “actors” and “power relations between actors” are put into focus.

Matatanong natin sino may control ng GMO na yan, ito ba’y may libre sa kanila[ng mga magsasaka]? Wala bang susunod sa mga GMO na ibebenta sa kanila? At ito ba ay hindi maco-contaminate ang iba nilang mga varieties, ibang mga halaman, hindi ba masama epekto sa katawan? Ito’y hindi napapag-usapan. Sabi lang nila, maganda.”

Dr. Medina then concluded that educating people on “the selective benefits of biotechnology” is “one of the highest levels of salesmanship.” 

The Vitamins A vs. L problem

Uncovering layer upon layer of the Golden Rice debate, one can see that the pro-GR and anti-GR parties are reflective of their own principles and perspectives on agricultural development.

Golden Rice is a GMO product that aims to serve as an additional means of combating Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). This type of rice contains a “golden yellow” plant pigment called beta carotene, a provitamin A carotenoid, which can turn into Vitamin A or retinol via the intestine or liver. Products with high beta carotene levels include green leafy and yellow-colored vegetables, vitamin supplements and food ingredients, which are then good sources of vitamin A.

DA-PhilRice claims that the current approaches such as Vitamin A supplementation, food fortification, diet diversification, and promotion of optimal breastfeeding are not enough to combat VAD. Thus, the pro-Golden Rice proponents conclude that Golden Rice is a “unique opportunity” for meeting the nutritional needs of populations who are Vitamin A deficient.

With a “clear humanitarian purpose” of preventing millions of deaths and alleviating the suffering of children, Golden Rice posits as a helping hand to those in need of cheaper and accessible sources of Vitamin A. 

DA-PhilRice mentioned, “Golden Rice is the product of numerous patented technologies owned by several persons and institutions, all of whom have licensed the technologies for the humanitarian purpose of Golden Rice.”

From these alone, the pro-GR party sees a bright agri-industrial future for the commercialization of more GMO-related products. 

“Rice is a very important staple. I don’t think na yung government natin ay ite-take for granted lang siya. If you actually notice now, even our policy makers have come up with policies to ensure that we achieve rice self-sufficiency to feed every Filipino. DA makes sure that we have enough rice for every Filipino. We’re glad that our government has really provided support.”

Dr. Ronan G. Zagado, DA-Phil Rice

He also mentioned current government programs that had been implemented for the Filipino farmers, such as the Rice Resiliency Program (the free distribution of seeds and fertilizer back in 2020’s wet season with a budget of P8.5-billion) and the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Program (RCEF) (which aims to increase farmer competitiveness through the provision of equipment and credit assistance for rice farmers among others).

However, it has been reported that the RCEF does not directly provide the equipment to the farmers. Rather, the said program subsidizes equipment, seed and chemicals that have already been “peddled to rice farmers by private-sector money makers, in partnership with the government.”

Along with this, other initiatives such as the controversial Rice Tariffication Law (RTL), which was heavily criticized by farmers, analysts, and researchers for failing to help agricultural workers transition from the lower rice prices due to the increased amount of rice imports.

Fellow pro-GR proponent Dr. Reynante Ordonio of DA-PhilRice then painted an eerie picture of hardship.

Just imagine kung mahirap ka, ang ma-afford mo ay rice lang na kulang sa nutrients. ‘Di ka makabili ng other products, so magsusuffer din ang health mo, so sana maiisip nila na: Give science a chance and give GR a chance. It’s time for GR. Atin ‘to, Kailangan natin ‘to, and ligtas ‘to,” Dr. Ordonio said, hoping that in later days, more modern biotech crops would be produced, highlighting that “gene-edited crops” are the trends today.

While VAD can be seen as the ultimate problem at first glance, the anti-GR party argues that it is merely “the tip of the iceberg” of malnutrition. They challenge that the real and inevitable avalanche of all these health crises is poverty and the lack of “Vitamin L: Vitamin Land.”

Photo from Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific

Golden geese, or golden lies?

On the government support stance of the pro-GR proponents, Dr. Medina from MASIPAG replied, “Yung Rice Resiliency, marami rin magbibigay ng chemical fertilizers, at kung magbigay ng urea. Ang urea naman ay nag-eemit ng nitrous oxide, bilang greenhouse gas.”

He added that it was the national government who approved the controversial Rice Tariffication Law that made way for unregulated amounts of imported rice to reach the Philippines. This led to rice farmers struggling due to grain prices becoming cheaper and cheaper.

“Ang government performance na ito lacks anchoring into the real life of small-scale farmers; of the poor farmers. Ang kanila kasing nakikita, yung productivity, yung products. Ang mahirap na magsasaka [kailangan ng], equity, sustainability, and justice.”

Dr. Chito Medina, MASIPAG

Given the current agricultural situation in the Philippines, the anti-GR party acknowledges the worsening land-grabbing and land conversion cases, liberalization of agricultural commodities and increasing control of corporations over agriculture and food. 

(RELATED STORIES: Still no justice for Hacienda Luisita victims, attacks on farmers remain rampant and Lupang Aguinaldo farmers assert right to land in Peasants’ month)

These intertwining factors create a kaleidoscope of different scientific, economic, and socio-political angles. Acknowledging all of these facets, the anti-GR proponents then challenge the pro-GR party to “view the bigger picture” when proposing solutions on agricultural issues.

Emphasizing on the need to look beyond the scientific framework Dr. Medina shared, “Sa pananaw na ‘punto de vista’ ng political economy, tinitignan yung actors and power relations between actors. So we are just looking in the broader context and framework [with Golden Rice].”

Moreover, MASIPAG has long opposed such biotechnological solutions, as the “adverse effects of in control, biotech companies” can be seen in IRRI’s Green Revolution, wherein many farmers across Asia have become bound to the expensive inputs and seeds peddled by huge agrochemical transnational corporations (TNCs) who promote a single-crop diet.

Thus, the anti-GR party asserts that constant exposure to stagnant facts and data detaches the pro-GR community from seeing the political and economic aspect to their proposed solutions. They remind of the numerous social injustices that small-holder, low income farmers face on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Medina explained, “Kung sasabihin nila, agrarian reform na, eh wala naman nang kinaugnay sa Golden Rice. Pero in broad[er sense], kasama pa rin diyan, kasi we are acknowledging things that contribute to addressing poverty in order to address vitamin and mineral deficiencies.”

Dr. Medina then proceeded to compare the perspective of the pro-GR party, to the perspective of the anti-GR party using two conceptual frameworks: Information Deficit Framing and Democracy Deficit Framing.

“[Sa tingin ng mga pro-GR] sa’min mga anti-GR o anti-GMO ay Information Deficit Framing, [kung saan akala nila na] against kami dahil kulang ang kaalaman o education namin. Sa amin naman, ang framing naman namin ay Democracy Deficit Framing: [kung saan] kulang ng espasyo at kapangyarihan para pumili ang mga mamamayan, ang consumer, ng nakakabuti para sa kanilang mga sarili, except of course given the limitations of poverty,” Dr. Medina continued.

He added that the question will revolve around GR’s safeness, believing that the data at hand is still inadequate to prove the product’s safety. Dr. Medina says that the problem is the inherent character of the GMO product itself.

Dr. Medina then concluded with one clear point in mind: “There are more effective alternatives that are cheaper, safer, and readily available.” [P]

Photos from, IRRI, Pesticide Action Network
Collage by Justine Fuentes

7 comments on “Grains of truth: Why the war on Golden Rice is far from over

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