News Spotlight

The unsettling issues of Golden Rice

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


Settling the debate would entail invalidating loads of contradicting research, which were meticulously done by both pro-GR and anti-GR parties.

Known for its distinct yellow color, Golden Rice is a genetically modified organism (GMO) that aims to serve as an additional means of combating Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). The Golden Rice project had been pioneered by several scientists based from “First World Countries,” such as that of Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer being based in Switzerland, along with most of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board being from the United Kingdom and the United States.

Discussions on nutrition, safety, and acceptability of Golden Rice now led to “GR2E,” the specific variety of Golden Rice that will be used in the Philippines

As such, proponents from both sides have been interviewed separately to further delve into the unresolved key points of the GR debate. 

Pro-Golden Rice proponent Dr. Reynante Ordonio explained as to why such data clashes occur with the anti-GR party, saying, “It’s a research kasi, syempre we produce data, we interpret data, sometimes mayroong misinterpretation na nangyayari.” Dr. Ordonio then added that in interpreting data, all must be guided.

Along with DA-PhilRice’s Dr. Ronan G. Zagado, Dr. Ordonio expressed his disbelief and awe at the anti-GR party in being persistent to prevent the commercialization of Golden Rice.

Dr. Ordonio said, “Resistant sila [anti-GR] masyado sa mga scientific data, ‘yan yung something na na-amaze ako, kasi despite the scientific proof na ipinapakita namin, paulit-ulit ang kanilang mga statements.”

He also speculated that the anti-GR camp are appealing more to emotions, specifically through fear.

“They [anti-GR] try to reach the emotions of the public, nag-s-spread sila ng fear, hindi don sa Science. Rather than spreading fear based on some unfounded claims and allegations, mas maganda na Science ang basis ng mga statements mo,” Dr. Ordonio asserted.

Likewise, Dr. Chito Medina and Cris Panerio of MASIPAG were both disbelieving in Dr. Ordonio’s statements. 

Emphasizing that they are unafraid to delve into technical and scientific terminologies of GR2E, Dr. Medina said, “Kasi yung sa technical [terms] importante yun kasi ‘yun ang basehan na sinasabi na hindi natin kailangan ng Golden Rice.”

He also clarified that due to a lack of answers, conversations would circle back to already treaded territory.

Hindi lang naman sila ang marunong ng science at mag-interpret ng data. We are willing to put into rest the issues if the data provided [is] satisfactory. Pero umiikot dahil they [pro-GR] refuse to acknowledge the need for more scientific data or information,” Dr. Medina said.

Photo from TIME Magazine

Is Golden Rice accepted by the community?

The Golden Rice project hails itself as having “the potential to save millions of lives in the Third World.” Decked with worldwide acclaim and different milestones, such as being on the cover of Time magazine in 2000, Project Management Institute’s “Most Influential Projects of the Last 50 years,” and even gaining the blessing of Pope Francis himself, the project’s branding outstandingly echoes as a lifesaving promise to the marginalized.

While both Dr. Zagado and Dr. Ordonio agree that the project has been through great lengths to cater to the humanitarian aspect, such as the development of a Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and market research, Dr. Medina and Panerio believe that these milestones are simply “marketing strategies” for the acceptability of their product.

When the anti-GR party pointed out that the project can be concerning for developing countries such as the Philippines, due to huge differences in demographic, economic capability, and resource management, as it is deeply rooted in Western influence, the pro-GR proponents insisted that there is still high acceptability within the Filipino community.

Dr. Ordonio added, “when I was a kid, I always associate[d] yellow rice – like ‘Star Margarine rice’ – to healthy rice. That’s how I was exposed to [GR], so right now Golden Rice will have an edge in that sense because we Filipinos have that notion that yellow rice is nutritious rice.”

“For GR to be easily accepted by target farmers and consumers, what we do is capitalize on the already popular and high yielding varieties in the Philippines. By doing so, we produce another version of that popular variety that has added nutrition and that will be good and appealing to the public,” Dr. Ordonio explained.

Dr. Zagado also said that a problem that Golden Rice faces is knowing how to make the product accessible to communities.

“We have a field trial in Nueva Ecija and Isabela and during that time we have made sure to reach out to mga farmers in the area. And we are glad to say that they are supportive of the research,” Dr. Zagado explained.

To their statement, Dr. Medina explained that a lot of the approval and acclaim on the Golden Rice project centers on the “principle of familiarity,” which is defined as a mere preference for things solely because one is familiar with them.

“Familiar ka na daw sa product kaya di na kailangan i-regulate [undergo regulatory procedures]. ‘Yun ang nangingibabaw ngayon sa mga sabi ng mga technicians, scientists or “salesman” na pumunta sa mga [farmers at consumers]:Rice naman ‘yan so familiar na yung rice [na] kinakain mo tatlong beses ng isang araw, so anong problema mo pa diyan?’”

Dr. Medina

Panerio highlighted that the pro-GR proponents had failed to mention the other farmers who rejected field trial testing, such as the protest-incident in Bicol.

Yun din yung argument nila noong binunot ng mga farmers sa Bicol yung field testing ng Golden Rice. Hindi na sila pinursue ng mga [pro-GR] proponents. Sa palagay namin hindi sila nag-pursue ng kaso kasi lalo pa sila mapapahiya kasi mga rice farmers mismo ayaw sa kanilang mga produkto,” Panerio added.

However, both parties had highlighted the important role of the consumers, especially when the country is heavily dependent on rice.

Dr. Medina said, “Lahat tayo kumakain, lahat tayo ay consumers ng rice, kaya lahat tayo ay stakeholders lahat tayo may karapatan magpahayag ng kanilang paninindigan.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Zagado explained, “Malaki ang role din ng ating consumers. May responsibility din tayo as consumers to be able to achieve yung hinati na rice security, and matulungan na rin ang ating mga farmers, so let’s buy and consume yung mga local rice.

Is Golden Rice a good source of Vitamin A?

Golden Rice contains carotenoids – fat-soluble pigments that give fruits and vegetables their distinct yellow, orange, or red color. Out of all carotenoids, beta carotene is considered to be the most important “provitamin A” carotenoid, which can turn into Vitamin A or retinol via the intestine or liver.

Thus, Golden Rice can only be considered a good source of Vitamin A if: a) the product has a high amount of carotenoids; and b) has sufficient levels of beta carotene. Yet to date, conflicting research and data shows to be still unclear whether GR2E can be truly considered as a good source of Vitamin A. 

Dr. Ordonio discussed that beta carotene concentrations are only measured when these are stabilized, meaning that researchers should wait two months after the Golden Rice is harvested, so that the amount of beta carotene present in GR2E is already stable.

Dr. Medina argued that past data shows that instead of beta carotene stabilization, beta carotene degradation occurred when storing GR2E.

To back up his claim, Dr. Medina cited studies done by Bollinedi and others (2019) and Schaub and others (2017). It showed that after six months of storage, around 80-84% of beta carotene degraded when Golden Rice were put in 25°C in plastic with air; around 68-79% degraded when GR were put in 4°C; and less than 46% degraded when GR were put in a vacuum pack.

Despite varied researches, Dr. Ordonio said that data acquired from numerous multi-locational field trials in Nueva Ecija and Isabela for GR2E beta carotene testing were desired and consistent, and was even said to be “higher in some backgrounds”.

Dr. Medina commented on the tendency of pro-GR scientists to have a “relative bias” on the product. In a letter to the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) last 2017, he wrote that when IRRI reported that the amount of beta carotene was 1.96-7.31 ug/g, pro-GR proponents had cited the maximum concentration level (7.31 ug/g) instead of the average (3.57 ug/g) when computing for the amount of beta carotene.

Dr. Medina stated that “scientific writing uses the average rather than the maximum level”, citing the bias of pro-GR proponents in their presentation, in which case, it is already a product promotion.

In relation to this, Dr. Zagado mentioned, “When we launched our applications we have given the results of our research, and ang daming tumitingin na committees, not only from the DA but also from the DENR, DOH, which means hindi lang basta-basta ang tumitingin.”

Dr. Zagado insisted that the concentration of beta carotene was sufficient enough in fulfilling people’s needs. He cited the latest finding of IRRI that Golden Rice can actually provide 30-50% of Vitamin A requirement for an adult.

Dr. Ordonio added, “About 80% of the total carotenoids is beta carotene in Golden Rice. And the [said] concentration is already good enough to supply Vitamin A to meet the estimated average requirement, considering we eat this three times a day.

However, in 2018, an EU Transparency Registered non-profit organization named Test Biotech compared one study from Paine and others (2005) (which supported Dr. Ordonio’s prior statement on 80% of total carotenoids being beta carotene) to that of Samia and others (2016), which concluded that during actual field trials, only 59% of the total carotenoids were classified as beta carotene.

Test Biotech also concluded that the nutritional quality of GR2E grains produced a much smaller amount of carotenoids (3.5-10.9 ug/g) compared to the original Golden Rice event, which was supposed to produce more than 30 ug/g. Thus, the proportion of beta-carotene in the grains was reduced as well, resulting in smaller amounts of Vitamin A potential.

But this would be countered a year later. An opposing study published by Adrian Dubok, Executive Secretary of Golden Rice Humanitarian board, stated that per 1/2 cup of uncooked GR2E rice, about 11.4 ug/g of beta carotene is present. This is claimed to be sufficient enough in meeting the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR), even if rice would have been the sole source of Vitamin A in the diet.

Another concern that had been brought up is that since beta carotene is fat-soluble, the said carotenoid would require about 2.4 to 5 grams per meal for optimal absorption and conversion to retinol.

Anti-Golden Rice Proponent Dr. Medina explained, “Kung ito [Golden Rice] ay kinain mo at walang fats, walang langis walang ma-absorb kasi ang beta carotene ay fat soluble. So kung ma-absorb ng katawan ay wala rin [epekto ng] dahil mahirap sila, dahil walang pambili ng karne o langis.

He strongly asserted that Vitamin A deficient communities living in remote areas be given access to healthy and varied food.

With GR2E’s average beta carotene content being 3.57 ug/g (from 1.96-7.31 ug/g), vegetables such as malunggay, saluyot, alugbati, and kangkong have over ten times higher beta carotene concentrations than GR2E, when eaten in one sitting.

To add to the controversy, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated in a letter to IRRI that, “Although the concentration of beta carotene in GR2E rice is too low to warrant a nutrient content claim, the beta carotene in GR2E rice results in grain that is yellow-golden in color.”

Panerio acknowledged FDA’s statement, saying, “Yung US FDA, reprimand mga proponents ng GR. Kasi nagke-claim [ang pro-GR] na may nutritional value, and they claim ‘Golden Rice’ as ‘Vitamin A rice.’ The nutritive value is very low kaya dapat ‘di sila mag-claim ng ganun.”

Meanwhile, pro-GR proponent Dr. Ordonio stated that in order to see Golden Rice’s nutritional value and its “elevated” or “improved” data, one needs to eat a lot of the said rice.

Dr. Ordonio pushed on the relevance of being “guided on the basis of FDA’s data,” saying, “Yung basis nila [FDA] ay American diet, since hindi naman sila rice consuming country.”

Photo from IRRI

Is Golden Rice safe?

It is in Dr. Ordonio’s statement on the American diet where the GR2E discussion moves from the matter of nutrition to the issue of safety.

One can see that another layer of the debate unfolds, when the anti-GR party probed: If the pro-GR party agrees that the US is not a rice consuming country, why use America’s, along with other agencies from countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as the ultimate basis for biosafety assessments? 

Dr. Ordonio explained, “Our research has been monitored, overseen by different regulators and followed strict national and international standards. We never left any stones unturned in terms of proving that GR is safe.”

He then mentioned that the applications and testings in proving that GR is safe included confined tests, field trials, and approved FPP or Food Processing permits from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada and US.

Dr. Ordonio said, “Part of the assessment done on GR was checking for allergens and toxins, actual GR grains were sent to the US during our confined test in 2015, 2016. So compositionally they check what are the differences in composition with [GR compared] to ordinary rice. They found out that everything is the same except for the beta carotene content that is in GR.

Dr. Zagado said, “After makuha namin ang commercial propagation permit, the GR will still have to undergo varietal registration, meaning that it has to go through multi location trials. Kapag na-test naman na hindi pala siya okay, then it will not be recommended for a variety.”

He mentioned that a biosafety assessment permit was approved by the BPI last 2019, which immediately classified GR2E as safe for commercialization.

Both Dr. Zagado and Dr. Ordonio insisted that GR2E need not undergo any further investigation, as sufficient data has been gathered in proving that GR2E is safe.

“I think naman na we have a fair system in the Philippines at yung ating regulatory procedure is consistent with international standards,” Dr. Zagado added.

Criticizing their regulatory procedure, Dr. Medina had replied, “I feel very strongly against that system. Mayroong Health Impact Assessment Report, kung saan structured yung questions ng DOH. [Sa] 46 questions, apat lang yung may sagot. Yung [iba] 40, 42 or so, [ang sagot diyan ay] not applicable, and then the immediate decision [of the DOH] is ‘it is safe.’” 

The immediate decision of the DOH has then left the anti-GR proponents unsatisfied with the GR project’s safety protocols, as they emphasize that the said project should not push through if DOH fails to answer all the questions stated in the Health Impact Assessment Report.

Anti-GR proponents argue that their concerns have “fallen into deaf ears,” since most of the sectors involved are pro-GMO anyway. “Sa ngayon, ang nag-dedecide lang kung safe or not ay yung scientific technical advisory committee nila, pero pro-GMO sila. Sila mismo nagdedecide kung ano ang basis kung sinasabi nila na sapat na ang ebidensya na safe siya,” Dr. Medina said.

Dr. Medina added, “Meron akong 12 or 13 na comments sa Bureau of Plant Rice Industry noong 2017, bago sila magbigay ng approval sa direct use ng food, feed, and processing. Pero everything has fallen into deaf ears, kasi nga pro-GMO sila lahat, talagang dead-end na yung situation.”

Though to this, Dr. Ordonio then contended, “We’ve already been eating for a long time and wala naman tayong nakikitang untoward results about it. It’s the same beta-carotene found in other Vitamin A sources like carrots, green leafy vegetables, so why be afraid of it?”

Dr. Zagado then explained, “Recently yung mga nag-susurface ng mga concerns ng mga Filipinos is yung safety, and what we can assure to the public is that we have followed stringent regulatory procedures and it takes a long time but we make sure to go through every step of the way to ensure na talagang assured ang safety.” 

He then lightly added, “We ourselves have tasted Golden Rice and so far, okay naman kami ngayon, so there’s really nothing to worry [about].

When it came to Dr. Zagado’s response where strikingly, Medina and Panerio had the same playful reaction. Expressing that the “we ourselves have tasted it,” narrative was already familiar, they said that based on their past debates, pro-GMO people in general have the tendency to “brand themselves into salesmen instead of scientists.”

One of these past debates centered on BT Corn, another Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), wherein despite approval, cases of pesticide contamination effects and health concerns had been raised. BT Corn contains a gene from the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, a toxin that makes this transgenic crop produce its own insecticide to beat off the infamous pest corn borer.

Dr. Medina shared, “Nakakatuwa yung debate namin ng mga pro-GMO Bt Corn sa South Sepaka, kasi kumuha sila ng limang bunga, kumain ng isa sa harap ng tao, napanganga mga tao dahil ‘safe pala siya.’ Pero sabi ko eating just once is not enough to push the data, may protocols, procedures in studying safety or toxicology effects. Dahil ang toxicity hindi lang naman isang beses nag pagkain, acute toxicity takes about 45-90 days.

However, the light banter had transitioned into a heavier discussion when Medina talked about his past experiences with communities who dealt with health-related and legal issues in relation to Genetically Modified (GM) corn commercialization. 

He shared, “Noong na commercialize ang GM Corn noong 2001 o 2002, may nalason doon sa Mindanao, sa South Sepaka, Sultan Kudarat, malapit sa South Cotabato. Nag-pahearing ang barangay captain. Nandoon ang mga nalason: nagkasipon, nagka-sore eyes, nasagipan, nahihirapan mga huminga, dahil nalanghap yung pollen ng GM corn. Nandoon din ang ‘salesman.’ [the person responsible for introducing the GM crop].”

Two years later, in 2004, another related sickness case with speculation to the pollen of BT Corn had also emerged in the Kalyong village, South Cotabato, which is just a 2-3 hour drive away from Sepaka. The said outbreak had caused over a hundred villagers to fall mysteriously ill, coincidentally right when the maize plants had started flowering. 

Continuing the case in South Sepaka, Dr. Medina added, “Nag-aassert [ang mga apektado] na dahil sa corn yung dahilan ng pagsagip nila. Ang sinasabi ng salesman na hindi niyo masasagot yan na galing yan sa BT Corn, so kailangan na naman ng technical na pag-aaral ‘yan, hanggang sa maubos ang pera ng mahihirap.

Ang mga capital ng  BT Corporations naman, they can hire the best lawyers to delay and delay the justice so that, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.”

Dr. Medina finished by asserting, “So even if you say na mananagot ang sino man, kung humabol ka sa legal na paraan wala din mangyayari dahil walang batayan. Yun ang problema natin, mamamayan pa rin ang talo dito.”

Though in an environmental context, Dr. Medina argued that uncertainties such as contamination with other rice varieties are possible due to gene editing, which Dr. Ordonio had said to be his field of interest. He explained that compared to nuclear or chemical contamination, biological contamination quantifies instead of decreases over time. 

Dr. Medina said, “Sa biological contamination, dahil genes yun or lahi, dumadami over time. Di mo mapipigilan, ‘di mo marereduce sa environment any time. There’s no technology that is available, and we can never stop contamination when that happens. Genetic contamination ng other existing varieties.”

With over 20 years of debates and experience, these anti-GR proponents claimed that safety issues with Golden Rice could go down on a similar route, if no clear policies were made to demand accountability for such health and environmental cases.

Panerio asserted, “‘Yan ang problema sa batas natin. Dapat accountable ang kumita, ang kumpanya. Dapat social responsibility nila ‘yan. Kagaya ng mga doktor, ‘pag pumalpak ang doktor o nagkamali sa pagbigay ng reseta sa kanilang, liable ang mga doctor. Pero yung mga proponents ng GMO, maraming namamatay dahil sa contamination ng glyphosate na associated sa GMO Corn, pero sino ang kakasuhan natin?

Medina added, “Wala dapat aprubahan na GMO hanggang may batas tayo na liability sa mga ganito, kasi kung may mapinsala walang batayan ang batas kung sino mananagot. Kung kumain ka ng Golden Rice, sino ang mananagot?”

One way of holding such GMO developers accountable, Panerio said, was to require mandatory labels for food products containing ingredients that had been genetically modified.

He explained, “Kami bilang mga organic agriculture advocates, gusto naming mga products namin i-label as organic. Pero sila, ayaw nilang ipa-label yung kanilang produkto bilang GM products. ‘Yun ang isang indikasyon na sila mismo hindi sigurado sa kanilang produkto, ‘yun lang pinupush lang nila para sa advancements ng kanilang career.”

To this concern Dr. Ordonio replied, “Ang gusto natin ay maging freely available siya sa mga farmers and breeders. No strings attached talaga ang project na ito, dapat mafulfill ang aming mission na makatulong ang Golden Rice.”

Photo from GRAIN.org

‘Crime Against Humanity’

There is an unprecedented “call-out culture” among scientists, researchers, and members of the agricultural sector that attempt to convince the masses in proving the destined morality of Golden Rice. 

Allow Golden Rice Movement and over 100 Nobel Laureates have accused that Greenpeace’s position against Golden Rice is a “crime against humanity.” They stated in their letter, “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”

Dr. Medina contended this, saying that biotech companies are more culpable, committing crime against humanity for four main reasons: 1) for contaminating and eroding biodiversity; 2) for making a staple food into “unnecessary” food without any safety and reliability testing; 3) for selling seeds and food without correct safety testing; and 4) for sabotaging the distribution of agricultural and natural resources.

Another science magazine, Leaps.org, claimed in an article that activists merely “rely on suspicion and precaution”, despite scientific groups releasing comprehensive studies on GR.  

Both Dr. Ordonio and Dr. Zagado agreed on the said criticisms, saying that anti-GR proponents “are always afraid of something”, lacking the courage to try and explore.

Dr. Zagado claimed,They really think that there’s a multinational behind this project. But one assurance is that Golden Rice is a public good, that it is an inbred rice. Unlike hybrid rice na every time bibilhin mo yung mga binhi, if it’s an inbred rice, once na dineploy mo na yan sa field, hindi mo na maco-control ‘yan.”

Dr. Ordonio said that he hopes that more modern biotechnology crops will be released in the future, saying that we are lagging behind the scientific trend.

Dr. Medina and Panerio questioned: What’s in it for the farmers in the long run, should such a trend be followed? Panerio further sees GR as a “Trojan Horse” that would pioneer the gradual acceptance of genetically-modified crops and modern biotechnology. 

He remarked, “Ang tingin namin na sa likod ng mga proyekto ay hindi naman para magsilbi sa problema ng lipunan, kundi makapagmataas lang ng napakalaking profit sa binhi at agrikultura.

Dr. Medina added that GR only strengthens corporate control, with more profits earned by companies involved in biotechnology, agro-medicine, as well as fertilizer and pesticide production. He asserted that in time, due to the commercialization of GMOs, people would just resort to solving all problems with “GMO-corporate products”.

Dr. Zagado contended, saying that the said issue is just a matter of raising awareness for anti-GR proponents. He said, “Kung tutuusin mo actually ‘di naman bago itong biotech na ito. we have been consuming some of the products like soy sauce for instance, at hindi lang nila alam. So it’s really just a matter of raising awareness na hindi naman problem itong GMO, and that we have been consuming many products of biotechnology.”

Addressing this notion, Panerio clarified that modern biotechnology must not be equated with ordinary biotechnology. He said that MASIPAG farmers themselves also employ biotechnology through fermentation. He marked the difference between this and transgenic modern biotechnology.

Dr. Medina mentioned, “Dito sa amin, we are looking for freedom, safety, sustainability, and equity through Food Sovereignty. Ang MASIPAG ay klarong alternative at ‘yun pa rin ang pinanghahawakan namin na viable, abot-kamay sa mga magsasaka ang teknolohiya, na hindi nakakasira ng kalikasan.

He added that MASIPAG’s agricultural approach ensures that farmers produce nutritious foods that are safe from poisonous chemicals, which he said are unlike the products sold by agrochemical companies.

With key differences remaining unresolved, the Golden Rice debate leaves almost little to no room for any areas of compromise for the pro-GR and anti-GR parties. A relevant factor is the willingness of both parties to use their opposers as the driving force to continue improving on their respective movements and projects.

Dr. Ordonio shared, “[anti-GR proponents] make us strive better, and do more in making our products better. Even in our regulations, iniisip ko kung anong iniisip ng mga anti-GR, paano sila masa-satisfy sa regulatory policies na ginagawa.

Panerio then likened their campaign against GR to that against GM corn, saying that they have a concrete and viable alternative that is more economically-beneficial for both farmers and consumers, while also keeping in mind environmental welfare.

He then concluded, “Our campaign continues even if Golden Rice is commercialized.” [P]

Graphics by Jermaine Valerio

4 comments on “The unsettling issues of Golden Rice

  1. Pingback: Grains of truth: Why the war on Golden Rice is far from over – UPLB Perspective

  2. Pingback: ‘Golden Rice, FailRice!’: Rice farmers call to halt Golden Rice in DA protest – UPLB Perspective

  3. Pingback: MASIPAG, SGRN sets week-long protest vs MNCs, Golden Rice – UPLB Perspective

  4. Pingback: Planting rice and lies: IRRI’s six-decade history – UPLB Perspective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: