Anti-GMO activists convene to target Golden Rice

By Mark Lynas

April 4, 2018

More than two dozen anti-GMO groups are meeting in the Philippines in a last-ditch attempt to stop the deployment of Golden Rice, long proposed as a way to combat potentially life-threatening vitamin A deficiency among young children in developing Asian nations, such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Gathering for a three-day conference at the luxury Madison 101 Hotel and Tower in Manila – advertised on the Internet as an “upscale hotel with a sleek contemporary vibe” and rooms offering flat-screen TVs and whirlpool tubs – about 100 members of the various NGOs comprising the Stop Golden Rice! Network held a protest yesterday outside the Philippines Department of Agriculture. More activities were planned today.

Many of the groups involved receive funding from official European overseas aid sources to promote “peasant-based” and “ecological” agriculture. However, much of their activity seems to be opposing genetic engineering specifically and also trying to prevent a more general modernization of farming that could allow higher crop productivity, increased food security and decreased use of chemicals.

One of the key organizers is the Filipino network MASIPAG, which was strongly criticized by the scientific community in 2013 for supporting the destruction of a Golden Rice field trial in the Philippines by masked activists. Despite an open letter from Swedish scientists back in 2013, the Swedish government has continued to fund MASIPAG, pouring over 5 million krona ($600,000) into the group’s coffers in recent years, some of which is expressly earmarked for “government influencing” activities.

Having been delayed for several years by technical challenges, Golden Rice is now on the brink of deployment in Bangladesh, and was recently approved for consumption by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. The Canadian government also last month that ruled the rice is safe for human consumption. Although it is not intended for consumers in developed countries, approval was sought to prevent trade disruption should Golden Rice be inadvertently present in internationally traded milled rice.

Persistent vitamin A-deficiency is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness in developing countries, and increases the risk of death from common childhood infections.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

Despite the concerns of the international medical community about the harms done to millions of children by vitamin A deficiency, and the worldwide scientific consensus about the safety of genetically engineered crops, MASIPAG and other groups in the Stop Golden Rice! Network continue to spread unfounded fears over the safety of Golden Rice in an effort to prevent its introduction.

In a recent statement, MASIPAG claimed that IRRI and “corporate proponents” were “ignoring crucial scientific data on the perils of GMOs to human health.” A publicity poster produced by the Stop Golden Rice! Network shows yellow rice grains with a skull and crossbones, and falsely states that “GMOs are clouded with uncertainties and threats to health.”

Instead of accepting numerous published peer-reviewed scientific papers on both the safety and efficacy of Golden Rice, MASIPAG has instead promoted contrary “evidence” gathered by a single “independent researcher” it names as Madeleine Love, an Australia-based anti-GMO activist.

Many of the Golden Rice opponents subscribe to a conspiracy theory that it is part of a plot by corporations and banks to seize control of a nation’s seeds and farming.

In reality, although Syngenta was an early research partner in the mid-2000s, Golden Rice currently is being developed in the public sector by the International Rice Research Institute and a network of partner government and academic institutions. It will be provided patent- and royalty-free to poorer farmers on a non-profit basis. Funding is provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other international and philanthropic donors.

Notably absent from the latest list of campaigners against Golden Rice is the international environmental group Greenpeace, which in the past has attracted severe criticism for its opposition to the project. Although a current membership list has not been publicized, according to a 2017 statement by the Stop Golden Rice! Network, its members were then the following:

RESIST! Agri-TNCs Network- Philippines,

MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura),

KMP (Kilusang Mangbubukid ng Pilipinas),

PNSFP (Philippine Network for Food Security Programs),

SIBAT (Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya),

HEAD (Health Action for Democracy),

PAN Phils (Pesticide Action Network-Phils),

TFIP (Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples Rights),

CENDI (Community Entrepreneur Development Institute),

SRD (Center for Sustainable Rural Development) Vietnam,

SPFT (Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand),

AGRA (Alliance of Agrarian Reform Movement),

SERUNI National Women’s Alliance, Indonesia,

NWFA (National Women Farmers and Workers Association),

BAFLF (Bangladesh Agricultural Farm Labour Federation),

SHISUK (Shikha Shastha Unnayan Karzakram) Bangladesh,

APVUU (Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union),

ORRISSA (Organization for Rural Reconstruction and Integrated Social Services Activities), CREATE, India,

THANAL, India,

Save Our Rice Network, India,

PAN-INDIA (Pesticide Action Network-India), 

GRAIN,

PAN-AP (Pesticide Action Network-Asia Pacific),

APC (Asian Peasants Coalition),

Consumers Union of Japan,

Women’s Development Federation WELIGEPOLA, Sri Lanka, and

MONLAR (Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform), Sri Lanka.