Why do environmentalists oppose genetically modified ‘golden rice’?

Backers say rice variety is a cheap way to fix vitamin A deficiency, but a Philippine court ruling could delay sowing in Bangladesh.

In a move aimed at fighting child malnutrition, the Philippine Agriculture Ministry approved in 2021 the commercial propagation of the GMO variety and started distributing seeds to farmers in some parts of the Southeast Asian country. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

A court in the Philippines has sided with green campaigners and banned a genetically modified (GMO) rice variety that the government hoped would help fight vitamin A deficiency - the leading cause of childhood blindness in poorer countries.

Three years ago, the rice-dependent nation became the first to approve commercial cultivation of so-called Golden Rice, which unlike conventional rice varieties produces beta-carotene in the grain. The body uses beta-carotene to make vitamin A.

But the government approval was challenged by small-scale farmers and environmentalists, and an appeals court ruled on April 17 to revoke the rice variety’s biosafety permit, meaning it can no longer be cultivated commercially.

The ruling - which was based on a writ of nature, essentially the constitutional right to a healthy environment - could increase resistance to Golden Rice in Bangladesh, where anti-GMO activists are protesting plans by the government to grant approval to the variety’s use. 

Here’s what you need to know:

What is Golden Rice?

In a move aimed at fighting child malnutrition, the Philippine Agriculture Ministry approved in 2021 the commercial propagation of the GMO variety and started distributing seeds to farmers in some parts of the Southeast Asian country.

Due to its content of beta-carotene, a yellow-orange plant pigment, Golden Rice can double the vitamin A intake of children in the poorest 40 per cent of the country’s population and other low-income nations, according to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), an agricultural research body based in the Philippines.

According to the World Bank, nearly 17 per cent of Filipino children aged between 6 months and 5 years suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which is linked to numerous health problems besides childhood blindness including decreased growth rates and ability to fight infection.

The IRRI and the government’s rice research arm, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), led the nation’s push for Golden Rice, which takes its name from the colour caused by the beta-carotene - also found in carrots and other orange fruit and vegetables.

Which other countries grow Golden Rice?

Research to develop Golden Rice started in the 1980s as part of a Rockefeller Foundation initiative involving scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg.

In the early 2000s, its creators donated a version of the GMO variety to poorer countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, where regulatory approval has lagged amid strong opposition from environmental groups.

In Bangladesh, vitamin A deficiency affects one in five children aged 6 months to 5 years old and about a quarter of pregnant women, and rice scientists in the country say the GMO variety provides a cost-effective option for families that cannot afford beta carotene-rich foods.

“Let us not take away the opportunity (to reduce vitamin A deficiency) that we failed to provide thus far,” said Uttam Deb, an agricultural economist and an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in the United States.

Golden Rice has also secured food safety approvals in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, and Deb said research showed it “is unlikely to negatively affect human health, the environment, and the agricultural ecosystem”.    

Who opposes Golden Rice?

In 2022, Filipino farmers who support organic agriculture and environmentalists filed a Supreme Court petition against the government over Golden Rice, which they said posed “dangers of irreversible damage or risks to the environment, (rice) biodiversity … and human health”.

The complaint was led by Masipag, a network of farmers and agroecology advocates, and environmental group Greenpeace Southeast Asia. 

The petitioners said the government had approved the biosafety permit of the crops without conducting proper impact and risk assessments. They also argued that introducing GMO crops could cause farmers to lose organic farming certificates. 

Golden Rice proponents have said previously that the rice variety would not impact organic agriculture through cross-pollination.

Asked to comment, PhilRice said only that it was still reviewing the implications of the April court ruling.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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