Asia–Pacific Analysis: Myth-busting the opposition to GM crops

Copyright: Flickr/IRRI

Speed read

  • Golden rice is a major advance in fortifying a staple food with vitamin A
  • The Philippines, as a regional GM leader, is a target for anti-GM lobbyists
  • Supporters need to stress exhaustive safety testing and the science of GM

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After the recent attack on a GM rice trial in the Philippines, Crispin Maslog says the science must win out.
In the late 1990s, scientists in Europe announced a major breakthrough when they genetically modified rice to produce beta-carotene, giving it a rich yellow colour. Golden rice was born.
It was seen as an ingenious way to increase intake of much-needed vitamin A. The WHO says that 1.7 million children in Asia aged from six months to five years suffer from vitamin A deficiency, particularly in Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Most people associate vitamin A with eyesight. But the WHO adds that deficiency compromises the immune system, greatly increasing the risk of severe illnesses from common childhood infections.
Bruce Tolentino, spokesperson for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, says that adding nutrients to staple crops such as rice is one of the best ways to avoid micronutrient deficiency.
But as golden rice is a genetically modified (GM) crop, it alerted the anti-GM groups, which claim it will harm both human and environmental health despite studies showing otherwise and years of safe use of other crops such as GM corn and soybean.
Opposition in the Philippines
Early this month (9 August) about 400 militant farmers and environmental activists uprooted golden rice being tested on a farm in the Philippine province of Camarines Norte.
The last time research on GM rice had a major setback was in 2007 when a Philippine court halted the import of a herbicide tolerant GM rice into the country, pending a study of its possible health and environmental effects.
The court ordered the Department of Agriculture to refuse an application from Bayer Crop Science to bring in the rice variety for food, animal feed and the manufacture of other products.
And in 2011 authorities in the Philippines suspended the field trials of a GM eggplant, which environmentalists again say is harmful to humans and the environment. The trials were conducted by the University of the Philippines Los Baños and various government and private agencies in many parts of the country.
This year, the Philippines Court of Appeals upheld a suspension on GM eggplant following a petition from Greenpeace in 2012.
Investment continues in agri-biotech
Mark Lynas, a former Greenpeace activist, said at a recent biotechnology forum in Manila (August 23) that it is hard to argue with green groups whose agenda is simply to oppose. [1]
In the same forum, pioneering Filipino plant breeder, Emil Javier, added that by using the courts, green lobby groups hit the research community where they are most vulnerable. He said that scientists can never say with certainty that any research is safe. But courts generally like to hear a yes or no.
Despite these setbacks, the Philippines continues to lead in the development and approval of GM crops in South-East Asia. By 2008, it had the highest number of GM crops under development (seven) compared with its neighbours, and four (all corn varieties) were approved for planting or cultivation. [2] It was followed by Singapore with three and Thailand with two, for soybean and corn.
Debunking the GM myths
I have to agree with the arguments GM rice is the best way to meet the needs of a rapidly growing, but with large number of malnourished South-East Asian population. We have assurances from IRRI and scientists working on golden rice that it will only be made available to farmers and consumers if it pass stringent testing standards, is approved by national regulators and shown to reduce vitamin A deficiency in community conditions.  
Michael Purugganan, a Filipino plant geneticist and dean of science at New York University, recently debunked myths about GM rice.
He says that it is a myth to say that golden rice is unnatural. "The truth is that geneticists have inserted only three genes into rice DNA to allow it to make vitamin A… three genes out of the more than 30,000 genes present in a rice plant."
He adds that it is also a myth to say that "GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are unsafe, cause cancer or other major health risks, or pose serious environmental problems. The safety issue has been studied and discussed by scientists around the world and there is no evidence that GMOs are inherently unsafe." [3]
We respect the right of environmental activists to protest, but they should learn to listen and give scientists the benefit of the doubt. Scientists should be allowed to continue testing GM crops in peace, without having to deal with distraction from radicals. In the end though it is the consumers who will decide whether they would prefer golden rice over the traditional rice they have been accustomed to.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific


[1] Meeting the challenges of food security with biotechnology. Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture.
[2] Sabater, R. RP leads in dev't of GM crops in Southeast Asia. Manila Bulletin 5 November (2008)
[3] Purugganan, M. Debunking golden rice myths: a geneticist's perspective. GMA News 12 August (2013)