'Golden Rice' research continues despite militants' attack

Posted at 08/10/2013 6:07 PM | Updated as of 08/10/2013 6:07 PM

MANILA - Research work on an experimental rice variety will continue despite an attack by militants who destroyed a test farm in Camarines Sur Thursday, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) said Saturday.

IRRI said on Twitter that although the test farm in Pili town was vandalized, it has completed several field trials of the "Golden Rice" and others are still ongoing.

The institute, an international independent research and training organization with headquarters in Los Baños, Laguna, has developed various rice varieties and crop management techniques since 1960 to help farmers and consumers.

Militants belonging to the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and other leftist groups opposing genetically-modified (GM) crops raided the farm and uprooted Golden Rice plants on Thursday, agriculture officials said.

IRRI, in a statement, denounced the attack.

"We are all disappointed and saddened by the action as many people in the Department of Agriculture, the Philippine Rice Research Institute, IRRI and our other partners locally, nationally, and internationally have been working hard on the field trials to help us continue our research to improve nutrition," the institute said.

Dr. Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's deputy director general for communications and partnership, also posted a video statement to announce that scientists' work on the rice variety will continue.

"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," he said.

"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,” Tolentino said. "Vitamin A deficiency is horrible and unnecessary, and we want to do our part to help to reduce it."

The project is being undertaken through a partnership between the IRRI, the Department of Agriculture, and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).

According to IRRI, vitamin A deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children (or 15.2%) aged 6 months to 5 years in the Philippines.

It added that subclinical vitamin A deficiency affects one out of every 10 pregnant women in the country.

Golden Rice grains compared to white rice. -- Photo courtesy of IRRI

Rice with beta carotene

IRRI said the "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," it added.

The new rice variety, whose grains are golden in color, was developed through genetic modification techniques using genes from maize and a common microorganism.

It was invented by Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany.

IRRI is developing various varieties of the Golden Rice on a non-profit basis through royalry-free access from Swiss firm Syngenta AG.

The IRRI's research work and tests on the new rice variety are overseen by the Department of Science and Technology's National Committee on Biosafety.

The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry is also strictly monitoring field trials.

Militants, however, believe that Golden Rice is not the solution to nutritional deficiencies, especially among the poor.

Greenpeace Philippines, in a briefing paper on the project, claimed that the new rice variety diverts attention and resources away the real cause of vitamin A deficiency, which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a more diverse diet.

It said money spent on the project should instead be used to promote home gardening and Vitamin A pills.

It claimed that the rice is ecologically dangerous as it may "contaminate" traditional rice varieties, and other rice relatives.

Greenpeace also said Golden Rice may even worsen malnutrition because people may eat only the rice instead of other vitamin-rich food plants.

"Despite all the hype about Golden Rice, it still remains unproven whether daily consumption of [it] would actually improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient," the environmental organization said.

IRRI, however, has allayed Greenpeace's concerns.

The institute, which has helped develop 60% of current rice varieties being planted worldwide, said "Golden Rice" will only be released to farmers for cultivation after national regulators have determined that it is safe for the environment.

"Based on six years of study so far, the genetic trait that produces beta carotene in the rice grain does not appear to make Golden Rice plants stronger than other rice varieties. Therefore Golden Rice is unlikely to harm biodiversity by becoming a weed," the IRRI said.

"Golden Rice is also unlikely to impact biodiversity by endangering wild rice through cross-pollination (outcrossing, or gene flow) for reasons that apply to all cultivated rice," it added.

IRRI also cited peer-reviewed studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stating that Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A for adults and children.