22 May 2011, Penang: "On this International Day for Biological Diversity, at a time when the world is plagued with the climate crisis and growing hunger, we are reminded of the most precious asset we are losing through human greed and lack of accountability: biodiversity. We want to send out a strong message to all those supporting the promotion of Golden Rice, especially donor organizations, that their money and efforts would be better spent on restoring natural and agricultural biodiversity rather than destroying it by promoting monoculture plantations and genetically engineered (GE) food crops. Golden Rice will not only fail to alleviate VAD, but like other GE crops, will present undue threat to human health and the environment, the adverse consequences of which will be suffered yet again by the most marginalised sectors of society," says Sarojeni V. Rengam, Executive Director of Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP).
News agencies have announced that Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given USD10.3 million to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and USD 9.8 million to the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute to develop strains of GE "Golden Rice" for small-scale farmers to grow. It has also been announced that IRRI and the same national rice research institutes in Bangladesh and the Philippines have joined with Helen Keller International (HKI) to further develop Golden Rice. The aim, it is said, is to use this GE rice as a tool to reduce the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) which is one of the causes of night blindness. Golden Rice is genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, which is converted by the body into Vitamin A.
To produce rice with beta-carotene may be considered a breakthrough by zealous scientists, but to claim that it can address multiple nutritional deficiencies and prevent blindness is unscientific and misleading. Having a strong stake in Golden Rice is Syngenta, one of the world’s top three agrochemical and seed corporations. Syngenta is the main actor in patents and licensing agreements involving Golden Rice. “Golden Rice is really a ‘Trojan horse’; a public relations stunt pulled by the agri-business corporations and pro-corporate scientists to garner acceptance of GE crops and food. The whole idea of GE seeds is to make money,” says Rengam.
First of all, it has to be emphasized that fat intake is the basic prerequisite for the absorption and utilization of beta carotene which, like Vitamin A, is fat but not water soluble, while proteins and Vitamin D enhance absorption of it. Unfortunately, the diets of families in communities where vitamin A deficiency is endemic have low fat content—mainly because they are poor and do not have access to a sufficient amount as well as a diverse enough range of food. “This is the key cause of the high incidence of VAD among poor families in most of Asia. VAD is just one among a range of complex nutritional deficiencies, together with protein calorie malnutrition, iron deficiency anaemia, and iodine, vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies, which are commonly suffered by the poor. Golden Rice simply cannot address the biological, cultural, and dietary factors which are the underlying causes of Vitamin A deficiency,” says Dr. Charito Medina, National Coordinator of MASIPAG (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development), Philippines.
Plant sources of beta carotene include dark green leafy vegetables, yellow tubers such as carrots and sweet potato, and yellow fruits like papaya, mango, and melon. Vitamin A is also high in animal products like eggs, meat, milk, cheese, liver, and fish oil. In a biodiverse farm, a family would have easy access to all these. But the mono-cropping agricultural technology, promoted through IRRI’s Green Revolution, has to a large extent, destroyed dietary biodiversity in rural Asia, which is the main cause of malnutrition. This has seriously aggravated VAD. In fact, the Green Revolution has caused the loss of thousands of diverse local rice varieties which were replaced first by IRRI’s so-called ‘high yielding varieties’ and then by hybrid varieties. Many of these local varieties had special nutritional value. Golden Rice perpetuates the industrial model of agriculture and so instead of reducing VAD, it will actually contribute to worsening its rate of occurrence.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) reported in 2008 that large-scale monocultures of GE crops have had a negative impact including drastically reducing natural and agricultural biodiversity. “It is ironic that the theme for this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity is Biodiversity and Forests when hundreds of thousands of hectares of tropical rainforests have been felled for huge plantations and GE farms, removing one of the richest sources of dietary diversity for millions of small rural communities and indigenous peoples ” adds Rengam.
Golden Rice is not without other risks as well. “High dosages of beta carotene can cause acute and chronic health effects and even fatality. In genetic engineering, pleiotropic (unintended and unwanted) effects are common because the gene transformation process is random in that there could be more than one site of insertion of the foreign genes. The foreign genes are also likely to rearrange or may be subjected to deletions or repetitions. All these can produce new kinds of protein products that are not within the evolutionary history of humans, hence the risks of reduced nutrient levels, or enhanced levels of anti-nutrients, toxins or allergens,” warns Medina.
Contamination of local rice varieties can also happen through seed mixing or in the field from volunteer plants (plants that grow on their own from seeds carried in the wind, left in the field from the last harvest, etc.) that are mixed during harvest. The contamination of local long grain rice by GE herbicide-resistant rice (Liberty Link or LL 601) from the U.S. in 2006 as well as the LL601’s contamination of food products in over 30 countries is proof enough of the real risk of contamination happening. It must be pointed out that field contamination is irrevocable and cannot be contained. “There is no valid reason to support the propagation of Golden Rice and all development on it should cease immediately,” stresses Rengam.
Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) is one of the five regional centres of PAN, a global network dedicated to eliminating the harm caused to humans and the environment by pesticides, and promoting biodiversity-based ecological agriculture.
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