Golden Rice trial Vandalized

9404587235_f41067acb0_c

Golden Rice and other beta-carotene-rich plant foods,  by IRRI.

Today, about 400 Filipino activists vandalized a trial of Golden Rice in Camarines Sur in the Philippines. Golden Rice is a variety of rice that has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. The rice is being trialled by the International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines Department of Agriculture, and The Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), to better understand its potential use to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency, which is rampant in many developing countries.

According to the Business Mirror, a farmer group called Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bikol (Peasant Movement of Bicol, or KMB) and an activist group called the Sararong Inisyatiba nin Kahinwanmaan sa Wasakon ang Agrokemikals na Lasong-GMO (Sikwal-GMO) both claimed responsibility for the incident. 30 police officers responded to the vandalism, but were unable to prevent its destruction. A spokesperson claimed that they believed it was dangerous, citing objections by “concerned scientists and peasant leaders.”

The new genes added to the plant, however, alter the composition of the rice grain in a manner similar to how the orange color was bred into carrots. The golden-yellow color of the rice and the orange color of carrots are caused by the same pro-vitamin, beta-carotene. Several studies have shown that Golden Rice can provide adequate pro-vitamin A for deficient children and pregnant women, and have not raised safety concerns. The field trials are a necessary step to further study the engineered trait before releasing varieties of Golden Rice to Filipino farmers.

The IRRI has issued a statement and a short video explaining what has happened and emphasizing that research on Golden Rice will continue. The Biofortified Blog is currently arranging an interview with the IRRI and may soon have more details about the incident.

Malnutrition fight not over, Golden Rice research continues

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) – Philippines Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) are continuing to fight malnutrition in the Philippines, and continuing Golden Rice research as a potential way to reduce vitamin A deficiency.

“Golden Rice field trials are part of our work to see if Golden Rice can be a safe and effective way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines – to reduce malnutrition,” said Dr. Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general of communications and partnerships at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). “Vitamin A deficiency is horrible and unnecessary, and we want to do our part to help to reduce it,” he added.

“Our Golden Rice research is part of our humanitarian work to reduce vitamin A deficiency that mostly affects women and children – causing sickness, blindness, and even death,” Tolentino said. “Earlier today one of our Golden Rice field trials located in the Bicol region of the Philippines was vandalized. We are really disappointed that our Golden Rice field trial was vandalized, but it is just one trial and we will continue our Golden Rice research to improve human nutrition.”

In the Philippines, vitamin A deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children (15.2%) aged 6 months to 5 years. Subclinical vitamin A deficiency affects one out of every ten pregnant women.

Golden Rice is a new type of rice that contains beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A when eaten. Research so far indicates that eating about one cup a day of Golden Rice could provide half of an adult’s vitamin A needs.

IRRI is working with leading nutrition and agricultural research organizations to develop and evaluate Golden Rice as a potential new way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines, Bangladesh and other countries.

In the Philippines, all GM research and development under contained conditions are overseen by the Department of Science and Technology - National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines. The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI) strictly monitors field trials, coordinates evaluation of biosafety information, and approves GM crops if appropriate.

Golden Rice field trials are being conducted in the Philippines by PhilRice and IRRI. The field trials have been permitted by DA-BPI, the national regulatory authority in the Philippines for crop biotechnology research and development, after establishing that the trials will pose no significant risks to human health and environment.

The Golden Rice field site that was vandalized was located within the Department of Agriculture Regional Field Unit 5′s (DA-RFU5) Bicol Experiment Station in Pili, Camarines Sur. The Golden Rice trial site is less than 1,000 square metres (or 0.1 hectare). Nearly all plants have been uprooted and left on site.

“We all want to answer questions about Golden Rice,” Tolentino added. “Therefore, we need to test Golden Rice and test it according to the best and most rigorous research standards. This means continuing field trials to ensure there is adequate data and analysis that will enable informed decisions on Golden Rice.”

“At IRRI, we remain dedicated to improving nutrition for everyone in the Philippines and in other rice-eating countries,” Tolentino said. “We’re here for the long term, and Golden Rice and other healthier rice are part of our efforts to help reduce malnutrition among rice-consumers.”

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


News


Want to write for The Biofortified Blog? Click here to find out more!

29 comments to Golden Rice trial Vandalized

  • Next time someone approaches me in the street with a clipboard and wearing a GreenPeace t-shirt, I will probably punch them in the face.

  • And it was just earlier this week that the BBC had that article about “GM rice approval ‘edging closer’”. The closer this gets, the more desperate they have to become to stop it. If it works, it really does crush every claim they make about it.

    If you want to see the “farmers” who destroyed it, there’s a clip on YouTube of a local media story.

    • First Officer

      Did you notice they were attacking defenders of the trial with 2 by 4′s ?

      • It wasn’t clear to me who the green shirt guys with sticks were. What do their shirts say?

        At any rate, I’d hardly blame the farmers here. The organizers such as this Bert Autor mentioned in several articles are the responsible ones. From what little I admittedly know of the Philippines, I’d guess this is as much anti-government/anti-foreign as anti-GMO.

      • I am not sure who is who there, I’m not sure I would draw a conclusion on that.

  • Neil

    This is sad. Was that the only test plot? How much has this delayed the project?

    • Luckily it’s not the only trial location. I was really pleased to see that in a BBC story this morning:

      “This is not a major setback, because it is just one trial of a series and just one of several sites. We remain completely committed to continuing our Golden Rice research to help improve people’s nutrition,” said Dr Tolentino.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23632042

      I’d be willing to donate for additional security at the other sites though.

  • Sigh. This trial site?

    http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/regions/08/09/13/militants-wreck-gm-rice-test-farm

    “Actually we have chosen Bicol to be the pilot area on the adaptability of this variety because records show that more children here are suffering from vitamin A deficiency,” Bragas said, adding that Golden Rice is a genetically modified combination of yellow corn and rice that is rich in vitamin A.

  • Peasant

    The Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), an Asia-wide coalition of farmers in nine countries, hailed the action undertaken by the Bicolano farmers. The APC said there are better ways of relieving vitamin A deficiency, such as encouraging farmers to grow and eat other vegetables, which are cheaper.

    “The development and promotion of Golden Rice illustrates an imperialist plunder of Asian agriculture that monopolizes seeds, limits bio-diversity and lessens dietary diversification, which primarily causes malnutrition,” Soriano, also the chairwoman of the National Federation of Peasant Women (Amihan), said.

    – See more at: http://bulatlat.com/main/2013/08/09/farmers-in-bicol-uproot-golden-rice/#sthash.zajipgua.dpuf

    • This comment is completely wrong. There is no plundering going on, no profiteering, but a pure, humanitarian effort to produce a sustainable source of pro-vitamin A for impoverished subsistence farmers to grow. There are many approaches to alleviating vitamin A deficiency, however, each one has its potential upsides and downsides. Some will not reach all farmers. I’ve been to Mexico, where malnutrition is also an issue with poor farmers, but getting those farmers to just grow a vegetable garden is difficult. So I don’t agree with the argument that merely encouraging farmers to grow veggies will cut it. They have very little land and are struggling to grow enough staple foods as it is to feed their families and get incomes to climb out of poverty. I think the APC should put its money where its mouth is and help alleviate vitamin A deficiency through their own preferred methods and not encourage others to destroy other methods that will help in other ways.

      And I can tell from your IP address that you are no Peasant in Asia.

    • We have the data to show that golden rice is more cost-effective than supplementation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17033649 (You can search google scholar for the text):

      Using a refined disability-adjusted life year (DALY) framework and detailed health data, this study shows for India that under optimistic assumptions this country’s annual burden of VAD of 2.3 million DALYs lost can be reduced by 59.4% hence 1.4 million healthy life years could be saved each year if Golden Rice would be consumed widely. In a low impact scenario, where Golden Rice is consumed less frequently and produces less provitamin A, the burden of VAD could be reduced by 8.8%. However, in both scenarios the cost per DALY saved through Golden Rice (US$3.06-19.40) is lower than the cost of current supplementation efforts, and it
      outperforms international cost-effectiveness thresholds.

      But if you think pill pushing and that somehow people in slum conditions can grow a little patch of carrots, nobody is stopping that. Deliver the data on the cost and effectiveness of that so we can have a look and compare.

  • Well put, Karl. This is one of Greenpeaces arguments as well and, out of their 150 million a year budget, not one stuiver has ever went to actual VAD alleviation that i know of. I believe they know that such efforts don’t work as well as we would hope.

  • Needed someplace longer than twitter to make this statement:

    Supplementation (pill form, bought from some supplement maker, twice a year visits) is better than nothing for Vitamin A deficiency, of course. But these programs need to be staffed, funded, and can have difficulty getting to the people who need it the most. It also requires compliance from pill-takers. I’m sure NGOs love to staff the programs, though, and you can see why they’d prefer that to farmers offering golden rice. Here’s a study to give you an idea of the challenges and strategy on supplementation: Coverage of the vitamin A supplementation programme for child survival in Nepal: success and challenges.. And the “let them eat spinach cake” strategy may not always be the best strategy either: Lack of improvement in vitamin A status with increased consumption of dark-green leafy vegetables.

    If leafy greens and backyard gardens are such a cheap and effective solution, why isn’t it resolved already? But fine–nobody is stopping NGOs from funding studies on this. Show me the data that this is better and more cost-effective and sustainable than Golden Rice.

    Having local farmers grow a shelf-stable crop could be better for the local farmers with rice-growing expertise and their communities. It could consistently–daily–deliver access to the vitamin with a culturally important food already in their diet. It could deliver very high compliance and broad reach. We know it can deliver nutrition: Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A.

    But if you are so sure it will fail on its own–why not let it happen and show how terrible it is? If you are so sure it will be dreadful it would be a great data point to make your case.

    • I would also like to add a couple crucial differences between a biofortification solution versus dietary supplementation with Vitamin A pills.
      The first key difference is that the Vitamin A pills use the Retinol form of Vitamin A, which is the form that is potentially toxic in high doses. The beta-carotene in Golden Rice is non-toxic, and even if you took tons of beta-carotene in your diet, your skin would turn orange before any possible toxic effects would be noticed. Golden Rice is therefore less risky than Retinol-based pills.
      The second key difference is that incorporating Golden Rice into your diet provides a constant source of pro-vitamin A, whereas Vitamin A pill programs give mega-doses only twice a year, when they can even get to the individual in need. So their bodies get a big spike in vitamin A, which then slowly trails off to nothing again. Getting a constant source like from golden rice (or any dietary modification that provides a constant supply) will prevent this boom-and-bust cycle, which nutrition experts have said is not healthy.
      Since Golden Rice is also shelf-stable, this means that they can portion the rice out throughout the year.

    • AS

      What is also interesting is the opposition to Golden Rice as a Trojan horse of big biotech (for which there is no indication whatsoever), whereas the alternative – supplementation with vitamin A – seems to be a more tangible example of the market power of big pharma/chemicals: In the 1990s there was a global vitamin cartel [1] and companies producing vitamin A were charged for collusion and price fixing in several countries [2,3]. And even thereafter e.g. India’’s major producer of vitamin A was dependent on a very limited number of companies as suppliers of intermediate inputs [4]. Activists who destroy Golden Rice trials therefore do NOT hurt big biotech (as Golden Rice is a public and humanitarian project), they DO hurt poor and malnourished people (a few years down the road), and the actually HELP big pharma/chemicals, which – I guess – is nothing they want to do…

      [1] http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijindorg.2007.07.001
      [2] http://www.theguardian.com/money/2001/nov/21/personalfinancenews.europeanunion
      [3] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-01-1625_en.htm
      [4] http://www.domain-b.com/companies/companies_n/nicholas_piramal/19991110nicholas_piramal_vitamins.html

  • For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, there’s an online petition here (http://www.change.org/petitions/global-scientific-community-condemns-the-recent-destruction-of-field-trials-of-golden-rice-in-the-philippines) condemning the recent destruction of the golden rice trials in the Philippines that you may want to sign.

  • Bob Phelps

    Leading research group, HarvestPlus, tries to ‘biofortify’ staple crops – bananas, cassava, sweet potato, as well as rice with Vitamin A – but these foods are not a solution to the impacts of diets that consist of over 90% low-nutrient staples. As Harvestplus admits: “Fruits, vegetables and animal products are rich in micronutrients, but these foods are often not available to the poor. Their daily diet consists mostly of a few inexpensive staple foods, such as rice or cassava, which have few micronutrients. The consequences … can result in blindness, stunting, disease, and even death.” http://www.harvestplus.org/content/about-harvestplus

    So, malnutrition and starvation are problems of poverty, inequity and social injustice which cannot be solved by a technology that adds just one nutrient to an unbalanced diet. Like other polished rice, Golden Rice is deficient not only in Vitamin A but also in many other micronutrients such as iron and zinc essential for good health. A good-quality, balanced, diet is the way to solve nutrient deficiencies, starvation, malnutrition, ill-health and social justice challenges. Making a diverse diet of good food affordable and by empowering people with their own seeds and land would be a durable solution to nutrient deficiency. Golden Rice would further embed inequity and not solve malnutrition. Supplementation programs (like those in Australia which add iodine to salt and folate to bread) would be a better interim solution.

  • Bob Phelps

    Woops, corrected.

    Leading research group, HarvestPlus, tries to ‘biofortify’ staple crops – bananas, cassava, sweet potato, as well as rice with Vitamin A – but these foods are not a solution to the impacts of diets that consist of over 90% low-nutrient staples. As Harvestplus admits: “Fruits, vegetables and animal products are rich in micronutrients, but these foods are often not available to the poor. Their daily diet consists mostly of a few inexpensive staple foods, such as rice or cassava, which have few micronutrients. The consequences … can result in blindness, stunting, disease, and even death.” http://www.harvestplus.org/content/about-harvestplus

    So, malnutrition and starvation are problems of poverty, inequity and social injustice which cannot be solved by a technology that adds just one nutrient to an unbalanced diet. Like other polished rice, Golden Rice is also deficient in many other micronutrients such as iron and zinc essential for good health. A good-quality, balanced, diet is the way to solve nutrient deficiencies, starvation, malnutrition, ill-health and social justice challenges. Making a diverse diet of good food affordable and by empowering people with their own seeds and land would be a durable solution to nutrient deficiency. Golden Rice would further embed inequity and not solve malnutrition. Supplementation programs (like those in Australia which add iodine to salt and folate to bread) would be a better interim solution.

  • AS

    @Bob: Malnutrition is a multi-faceted problem that – unfortunately – cannot be solved quickly and neither by any one approach on its own. Of course the ideal solution is to eradicate poverty and educate and empower and enlighten people so they have the means, the knowledge and the insight to eat a good-quality, balanced diet. However, achieving this will take some time, i.e. until we manage to realize such a dream world, perhaps we should think about what we can do here and over the coming years to tackle some of the problems as good as we can.

    You seem to agree so far, because you approve of supplementation programs – which you seem to confuse with fortification efforts, though: Supplementation consists of distributing micronutrients in the form of pills etc. that are taken in addition to normal food, whereas fortification consists of adding micronutrients to the food people eat already, i.e. iodized salt or folate-enriched bread represents examples of fortification. And as you approve of fortification, where is the difference between fortifying a staple food in Australia (bread) and fortifying a staple food in Asia (rice)? Why is it OK to add folate to bread but not to add provitamins to rice? Why does fortification in one case embed inequity but offer a good interim solution in the other?

    You suggest that rice is not only deficient in one nutrient but also in many other micronutrients, but that’s also the case with salt and bread, which are also fortified with only one micronutrient. I fail to see how this can be OK in one case but a reason to reject (bio-) fortification in another. In Australia iodine and folate were probably identified as deficiencies that needed to be addressed with the greatest urgency. Similarly, addressing vitamin A deficiency is of particular urgency in rice-eating populations. In both cases this does not mean that more targeted approaches are or should not be undertaken to address remaining and more focused nutrition problems.

    On the one hand you argue in favor of diversity, but on the other hand you seem to want a silver bullet that solves all the problems with one intervention. Why shouldn’t it be possible to promote iodized salt along Golden Rice and along iron supplementation? For different micronutrients different foods represent better vehicles than others, and depending on the prevalence of a deficiency and on the target group, different interventions can represent the preferred option.

    I also have difficulties accepting such a sweeping statement like the one that supplementation programs would be a better interim solution – would they be? In all cases? For all micronutrient deficiencies? In all countries? To reach all target groups? There is a reason why Golden Rice is being developed: To complement the weaknesses of existing micronutrient interventions, which have already been tried, including fortification and supplementation…

    Fortification works fine with iodine and salt and perhaps with folate and bread, but what if salt is more difficult to fortify with provitamins, or what if the target group doesn’t eat bread but rice? It’s easier to mix something into flour for bread than to mix something into rice. (There are trials going on with mixing artifical, micronutrient-rich rice kernels into bags with normal rice, but as far as I know that has not yet been met with success.) Then there is also the problem of monitoring. In Australia it is probably easy to mandate and enforce the enrichment of bread, but how do you make sure staple foods in developing countries are indeed fortified? (Those selling the food have a clear incentive to save on the fortificant.)

    Similarly, supplementation has had certain success, but not all population groups are reached regularly by the public health system, i.e. some target groups are not covered by supplementation programs. (Think of urban populations vs. people living in remote rural areas – the former may be reached by supplementation, the latter are perhaps easier to reach with biofortified crops because that’s what they do, growing crops.)

    Then there is the issue of money: Both supplementation and fortification requires continuous and recurrent funding – think of reaching all pre-school children in India twice a year with a dosis of vitamin A. Even if each vitamin A pill costs only a few cents (and even if you ignore distribution costs etc.), there are millions and millions of kids and if they have to receive these pills year after year, you quickly run up costs in the millions (if not billions).

    It’s similar with fortification where, as I suggested already, the fortificant in the food is a clear cost driver. Compare this to biofortification: For sure, there are initial R&D costs, then the micronutrient-rich trait has to be bred into local crop varieties, etc., but overall very strong economies of scale can be realized if these crops are disseminated and consumed across space and time as then the initial costs are quickly split and split again until the relative costs per beneficiary fall to almost nothing.

    So, in short, you are of course right that malnutrition is an intricate problem, and also proponents of biofortified crops (HarvestPlus) acknowledge that the best long-term solution is a balanced diet, but meanwhile it may be a bit ambitious to declare that there is only one best interim solution and that Golden Rice is useless.

    Many smart people in the countries and at the international level work since years on micronutrient malnutrition, they implement and assess interventions and programs, they learn from mistakes and come up with new ideas, and in some cases one intervention may work best, in other cases a different intervention may have its advantages. They are well aware of the true nature of malnutrition and of the challenges they face to eradicate it. Taking away one of their tools (or preventing the development of a new tool) is probably not the right way to help those people who currently are malnourished.

    Finally, you call for empowering people with their own seeds as a durable solution to nutrient deficiency. I wonder how many people in Australia have their own seeds and land – probably not that many, but yet malnutrition is not such a big problem in Australia. But what you seem to ignore is that Golden Rice will do exactly what you call for: the provitamin-rich trait will be bred into locally adapted varieties, into varieties people like and actually (want to) cultivate. Otherwise Golden Rice would be doomed from the outset.

    And because Golden Rice is developed with a humanitarian mandate, there will be no extra cost for these nutritionally improved but otherwise local seeds. In fact, farmers can decide themselves which rice variety they want to plant, whether they want to grow Golden Rice or not. If they grow Golden Rice, they assume responsibility for their own nutrition and for the health and well-being of their children. In my understanding, this means they will be empowered. (On the other hand, if fortification of bread is mandated in Australia, Australians have little choice but to eat the fortified bread. While I don’t think this is bad, it is more paternalistic than explaining the benefits of Golden Rice to farmers and then giving them the choice to do what they prefer.

    Much more could be said and written, but this post is already getting far too long (I shouldn’t have enabled automatic notifications for this thread, then I wouldn’t be tempted to respond). Hopefully it became clear that the situation is a bit more complex than finding that malnutrition is a social problem, that Golden Rice is no panacea, but that there are other best solutions. If it was so easy, all the hundreds of people who work on malnutrition worldwide (whether in academia or in the field) would have solved it long time ago. What they need are more constructive tools to slowly nudge more people towards nutrient sufficiency, not destructive activists who vandalize fields where promising work is done.

  • Keith Hayes

    Apparently, this vandalism was only on one of many field trials and the researchers were able to complete their testing!

    http://phys.org/news/2013-11-gmo-rice-philippines.html

Leave a Reply