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GM rice protest

The true story behind the GM golden rice protests

Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay, writes Mark Lynas, renowned-notorious GM activist-turned-proponent.

The nature of the attack was widely misreported, from the New York Times to New Scientist to BBC News, based on false claims by the activists. But then anti-GMO activists often lie. In support of the vandals, Greenpeace has claimed that there are health concerns about the genetically modified rice. In fact there is no evidence of risk, and the destruction of this field trial could lead to needless deaths.

The rice is genetically enhanced to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, giving it a golden colour. This vital nutrient is missing from the diets of millions of rice-dependent people in poor countries, where vitamin A deficiency leads to preventable blindness and death on a massive scale.

The golden rice trial was being conducted by the government’s Philippine Rice Research Institute, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and other public sector partners—contrary to the activists’ accusations, there is no private corporate involvement.

In an exclusive interview at IRRI in Los Baños, I spoke to the golden rice project senior manager Raul Boncodin, who personally witnessed the attack on the morning of Aug. 8. IRRI also provided photos of the attack; this is the first time they have been seen outside of the Philippines.

Boncodin had traveled to the field site because the researchers had been expecting a rally and a dialogue with activists, he told me. A band of more than 50 split away from the main group of 300 to 400 protestors and broke down the fence around the golden rice plot. They trampled and uprooted the young rice plants across the entire plot.

“You could see they were angry—it was a mob,” Boncodin said. The local police were outnumbered and did not intervene.

So who were these attackers? Did they look like farmers? “No,” replied Boncodin. “Maybe two or three of them were farmers, but the rest of them were not real farmers. I could see that this was the first time they had stepped in mud or been to a farm. They were city boys, city girls. Two of them were even sporting dyed hair. … Would you consider a farmer having dyed hair?”

There is additional evidence beyond the physical appearance of the activists. “Real farmers will not trash a living rice plant,” said Boncodin, who is a native of the region where the vandalism took place. “They have this culture that it is unlucky to kill a living rice plant,” even if plants are diseased and threaten to infect the rest of the crop.

This taboo on destroying green rice plants is widespread and even has a name: Bosung. Boncodin insists that the real farmers “stayed by the side, and didn’t directly participate in the trashing of the trial site.” When local people were informed, their reaction, he said, was that “no sane farmer would do that to a living rice plant.”

When the news of the attack was related to local farmer leaders, they were aghast. According to Boncodin, one of them, a 50-year-old man, burst into tears at the thought that so many young rice plants had been destroyed.

The local office of the Department of Agriculture backs up this version of events. Their press statement also names names: “The surprise attack was staged by the group led by Wilfredo Marbella, deputy secretary of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and Bert Auter, secretary general of KMP Bicol. Also identified were members of Anakpawis Partylist and MASIPAG.”

So who are these groups? MASIPAG describes itself as a “farmer-led network of people’s organizations”. It has long been a mainstay of the anti-GMO scene in the Philippines and recently joined with Greenpeace in securing a court injunction against a genetically modified eggplant designed to reduce insecticide use.

KMP is an extreme-left organization that promotes a conspiracy theory that golden rice is being produced to facilitate a multinational takeover of the Filipino rice market. In reality, golden rice is being produced by public sector organizations and would be handed out free to farmers, who would be encouraged to save and replant seeds year after year with no technology fees or royalties. Such widespread, free distribution is central to the project’s plans for achieving its humanitarian goals.

The attack was rapidly condemned worldwide. A petition on the website change.org, written by a team of internationally renowned scientists, quickly gathered thousands of signatures. (You can add your name here.) Most of the signatories expressed moral outrage that the ideologues of the anti-GMO movement, including behemoths like Greenpeace, demonize golden rice despite its potential to prevent millions of premature deaths from vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.

Although some anti-GMO activists dismiss the public health problem of vitamin A deficiency to bolster their case, the medical community agrees that it is a major killer, comparable in scale to malaria, HIV/AIDS, or tuberculosis. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind each year because of a lack of vitamin A in their diets, and half of them die within 12 months.

Vitamin A deficiency also depresses the immune system, raising overall mortality from other causes such as diarrhea, measles, and pneumonia. For these diseases the additional toll is estimated at 1 million preventable deaths a year, or around 2,700 per day, mostly among children younger than 5.

Greenpeace, with its $335 million annual revenue, has nearly four times more funding than the entire International Rice Research Institute (most of whose work involves conventional plant breeding). Greenpeace has waged a decade-long campaign against golden rice because it involves transgenic technology. The scientists at IRRI insist that there was no other way to get genes for beta-carotene into rice.

Greenpeace’s scaremongering includes the regular production of glossy reports spreading unscientific myths about golden rice. In China last year it successfully created a fake media scandal which landed some of the key Chinese project scientists in jail. Greenpeace Southeast Asia spokespeople took to the media to speak in support of the destruction of the golden rice trial in the Philippines…..

Slate: Read the full article here

More reading:

Golden riceFrom Lynas to Pollan, Agreement that Golden Rice Trials Should Proceed

Mark Lynas has done the world a service in providing on-the-ground reporting from the Philippines, digging in on some vital questions related to the destruction of field trials of non-commercial, genetically modified, vitamin-fortified Golden Rice there in early August.

The same is true for Amy Harmon, who wrote an incisive analysis of the research vandalism that ran in The Times on Sunday. The two pieces powerfully strip away distortions and myths surrounding the latest instance of anti-biotechnology violence and the grain that was the focus of the assault….

New York Times: Read the full article

In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods

There’s a kind of rice growing in some test plots in the Philippines that’s unlike any rice ever seen before. It’s yellow. Its call it “.” It’s been genetically modified so that it contains beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A.

Millions of people in Asia and Africa don’t get enough of this vital nutrient, so this rice has become the symbol of an idea: that genetically engineered crops can be a tool to improve the lives of the poor.

It’s a statement that rouses emotions and sets off fierce arguments. There’s a raging, global debate about such crops.

But before we get to that debate, and the role that golden rice plays in it, let’s travel back in time to golden rice’s origins.

It began with a conversation in 1984…..

NPR.org: Read the full article

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