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[CEBU, PHILIPPINES] Scientists researching genetically modified (GM) rice in the Philippines have insisted that field trials will go ahead in December, despite the new agriculture secretary, Proceso Alcala, making strong anti-GM statements since taking office two months ago.

In particular, Alcala told SciDev.Net that he will not permit the production of GM rice unless it is proved safe for human consumption.

Researchers at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) are developing a version of 'golden rice', which is engineered to produce beta-carotene, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), also based in the Philippines. No GM rice is yet grown commercially anywhere.

The body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A, a deficiency in which is a leading cause of blindness in children.

Alcala, a former legislator, is pushing for organic agriculture and has co-authored a recent law that promotes organic farming — although it does not prevent the use of chemical fertiliser.

But PhilRice executive director, Ronilo Beronio, told SciDev.Net that the organic farming law has not interfered with his institute's GM research.

"We have a regulatory system in place. The administrative order that allows field trials and commercialisation of GM crops, as well as the AFMA [Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act], which encourages biotechnology, have not been revoked. I don't think the organic law amended or superseded these."

PhilRice expects approval from the Bureau of Plant Industry, which oversees field trials, Beronio said. The National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines, which oversees genetic engineering activities, had already permitted confined trials, which precede field trials, both at PhilRice and IRRI.

The December field tests will be conducted at a single location and last for the four-month cropping season, project leader Antonio Alfonso said. Multi-location trials for at least two cropping seasons will follow, with the aim of commercialising the rice by 2012 or early 2013.

Beronio said that Alcala, who chairs PhilRice's board of trustees, will be informed of the developments at a forthcoming meeting and it will argued that field trials are necessary for a thorough scientific evaluation of the crop's safety.

If commercialised, the Philippines — the world's largest rice importer — would again lead the developing world in bringing a GM crop to the market. In 2002, the country was the first in Asia to commercialise a transgenic crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, for feed and food.

Meanwhile the Institute of Plant Breeding at the University of the Philippines aims to release a Bt eggplant to the market next year with trials being conducted at the moment.

"The developing world is watching," said Bruce Chassy, a food science professor who has served on international committees that have developed safety standards for GM foods.

"The Philippines has been a model for the developing world. The country has good scientists working with professional regulators who move slowly and carefully to good decisions."

Jean Lugasip, policy officer for Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), which is campaigning heavily against the sale of Bt eggplant, said it was considering launching a campaign against the rice.

"We're studying whether this (pro-Vitamin A rice) is really GM or marker-assisted technology [in which genes are not transferred from one species to another]. But if it's GM, we will definitely do something about it."

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