It's hard to imagine two less likely combatants. In one corner: Greenpeace. In the other: child health advocates and the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. Welcome to the strange and heated debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Philippines. A report issued on Tuesday explains why they're fighting. Well, sorta.
Golden rice, a grain that has been genetically modified to contain beta-carotene, is going to be launched in the Philippines by 2016. But the grain began with a conversation almost thirty years ago when biotechnology was still in its infancy. The field's potential inspired skepticism and utopian brainstorming alike, and the coming debate over golden rice, which philanthropists at the Rockefeller Center took to researchers at the IRRI in the Philippines to develop the idea, would reflect that. The fact that a single bowl of the rice could contain 60 percent of a child's daily supply of beta-carotene -- the lack of which causes blindness in up to half a million children worldwide and weakens immune systems -- hit home with humanitarian groups and scientists worldwide. Their efforts have resulted in a three decade-long campaign to develop the grain for commercial release, with the ultimate hope that poor people in remote villages from the Philippines to Bangladesh would get enough of the life-saving nutrient. "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," a 2000 headline shouted from the cover of Time.
But an international fight against GMOs would be stirred in the time it would take to bring the rice to market. In August, 400 protestors in the Philippines destroyed a cluster of the IRRI's test plants, bringing to a head months of debate between anti-GMO groups, like Greenpeace, and the scientists and anti-poverty groups that tout their potential. Opponent groups premise their arguments on a spate of beliefs, from the potential harm posed to consumers to concerns about compromising the integrity of the world's food supply. British Tory MP Zac Goldsmith penned an op-ed in the Guardian that pointed to the growth of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" that resulted from planting herbicide-resistant GM crops.
In response to the destruction of the IRRI plants, Dr. Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general of communications and partnerships at IRRI, vowed that the team would continue Golden Rice research "to improve human nutrition."
Underpinning much of the Philippine activists' opposition to golden rice was the idea that the humanitarian refrain from advocates -- encapsulated in Time's description of "small children consuming the golden gruel their mothers would make, knowing that it would sharpen their eyesight and strengthen their resistance to infectious diseases" -- was merely a cover for vested business interests.
"Golden Rice is a poster boy or Trojan horse for GMOs. In the guise of humanitarian objectives, it wants to make GMOs more acceptable to the general public," said Chito Medina, a scientist at an anti-GMO coalition in the Philippines, told Rappler. "Seeds are a US$32-billion business per year. You can imagine the interest behind that," Medina continued.
Perceptions of the Philippines as a "battleground" country in the wider GMO war are no doubt behind the fierce fight over golden rice. In contrast to the restrictions and bans that other countries are adopting as the debate shifts from the developed world to the developing world, the Philippines has become more liberal in its GMO policies. According to Greenpeace Southeast Asia spokesman Daniel Ocampo, no GMO application has ever been rejected in the country, despite the controversy surrounding the technology.
If the optimism of researchers is any indication, the future of golden rice in the Philippines looks favorable, which will likely have huge implications for GMOs in the country and the rest of the world. If golden rice is indeed the "last barrier" to widespread use of the technology, as anti-GMO activists see it, the future of global food could rest in the fate of this bizarrely bloodthirsty fight between environmentalists and children's health advocates -- and, of course, more than a little string-pulling behind the scenes on the part of major biotech companies.
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