Asia must reject ‘golden rice’, say activists

Asia-based agricultural activists say that the so-called ‘golden rice’ (rice seeds genetically fortified with a precursor of Vitamin A) will not help to reduce malnutrition and the lack of Vitamin A and is not a sustainable solution to the problem of food security.

Kelvin Ng

UNDER a 16 May agreement, the UK-based agro-technology giant Zeneca Agrochemicals and Germany-based Greenovation acquired exclusive rights to a new strain of genetically engineered vitamin A rice. Swiss and German scientists had engineered the rice to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. This gives the rice a golden hue.

Zeneca will license and distribute the seed free to poor farmers but agriculture activists do not want the product used in South-East Asia. More than 90% of rice is produced and consumed in Asia, where it is a staple. The region is also home to the world’s largest rice exporters, including Thailand and Vietnam.

However, testing of the ‘golden rice’ is still in progress and it is unlikely to end up on dinner plates before 2003, Zeneca says.

‘The motive of these TNCs (transnational corporations) is not really to help humanity,’ Withoon Lianchamroon, coordinator for BIOTHAI, a biodiversity and farmers’ rights group, said in an interview. ‘Their goal is profit. We can’t hand over the future of our farmers to them like that.’

‘Small farmers can’t achieve security when transnational corporations control these technologies and give away GE (genetically engineered) seeds like others give out food aid. It doesn’t work,’ BIOTHAI said in a statement issued earlier in June.

Proponents call the rice friendly to developing countries because poor farmers will be given free access to it, while it will be sold commercially in the developed world. Likewise, fortification with vitamin A is designed to address concerns in poorer countries about malnutrition in micronutrients, including vitamin A, iron and iodine.

Adequate Vitamin A intake would help reduce infant mortality by about a third in developing countries, and prevent some 500,000 cases of deficiency-caused blindness from occurring each year.

Clouding the real issues

In a 16 May statement, Zeneca quoted the Swiss co-inventor of the ‘golden rice’, Professor Ingo Potrykus, as saying the giving of commercial rights to the firm ‘will help us to deliver Golden Rice more speedily to those that need it most’.

But three Asia-based groups of campaigners, in a 2 June statement, said moves like Zeneca’s ‘are clouding the real issues of poverty and control over resources’.

The three are BIOTHAI, the Philippine-based Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP or Peasant Movement of the Philippines) and Philippine-based MASIPAG or Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development.

‘Malnutrition is a problem of poverty, not technology,’ Day-cha Siripat of Thailand’s Alternative Agriculture Network was quoted as saying in the statement.

Indeed, UN reports say a good amount of the answer to malnutrition lies in food diversification. Green leafy vegetables, oranges and red palm oil are good sources of vitamin A. The reintroduction of vegetables rich in micronutrients has also worked in countries like Thailand and Bangladesh.

‘Farmers’ own experiences of diversification show that there are many ways to address Vitamin A deficiency in Asia without isolating the problem from socio-political realities,’ the three Asian NGOs pointed out.

Lack of understanding

Critics say the development of the vitamin A rice reveals a lack of understanding of the socio-economic roots of poverty, a desire by big companies to gain ‘fast-track acceptance’ of GE crops in developing countries, and their intent to control key aspects of agriculture.

In recent years, biotechnology companies have been researching gene modification that will increase the resistance of crop plants to pests, herbicides and pesticides. The Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has conducted its first field test of GE rice developed to be resistant to bacterial blight.

The US global seed giant Monsanto was researching a self- sterilising seed that will force farmers to buy its seeds for replanting, but vehement protests last year halted research.

While genetically modified products have been hailed by supporters as a means to fight global hunger, attempts to push them have met various forms of resistance among sustainable agriculture experts and consumers not only in Asia but also in Europe and North America.

Fields planted to GE produce have been burned in India, and groups in the Philippines recently tried to stop trials of genetically modified items by going to court.

Europe and other parts of the world saw vehement protests against GE food last year, with British tabloids labelling them ‘frankenfood’. US politicians also crossed party lines to pass legislation that will require labelling of all food containing genetically modified material.

Companies that successfully get many farmers in a major rice-producing region like Asia to use a transgenic rice variety they patented stand to reap huge profits and gain control of food security-related technology, activists in the region argue.

‘What is most incredible about the Vitamin A deal is that in the name of ‘helping the poor’, Zeneca has acquired exclusive commercial control over a technology that was developed through public funding,’ three Asian groups said.

The European Union and the Swiss government funded the vitamin A project with the Rockefeller Foundation. ‘Why is this money being used to push expensive genetic engineering solutions, rather than support sustainable alternatives to deal with malnutrition in developing countries?’ the NGOs’ statement asked.

Dr Gary Toenniessen, director for food security of the Rockefeller Foundation, says the accord with Zeneca is ‘a possible model for other public-private partnerships designed to benefit poor people in developing countries’. NGO critics, however, call Zeneca’s move a ‘public-private rip-off’.

Companies that patent their gene transplantation technology say they are protecting their intellectual property rights. For instance, Zeneca now holds exclusive commercial rights to the vitamin A gene patent, which covers not just rice but also future crops that carry this gene.

However, critics fear the control of food sources by monopolistic profit-oriented firms. As of mid-1998, 13 companies held half the world’s biotechnology patents on rice, according to the Spain-based NGO Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN).

Witoon adds that Thai farmers are edgy over the introduction of the ‘golden rice’ because they are still not convinced that the consumption and cultivation of genetically modified seed is risk-free.

Besides worries about genetically altered rice cross-pollinating with indigenous rice, Thai farmers, who produce 36% of global rice exports, do not want ‘problems in exporting GE rice’ especially given consumers’ uproar in the developed world about labelling GE products as such, he says. - IPS