Approval in the Philippines is a threat to all other rice-producing countries
EXCERPT: Though the commercialisation of Golden Rice has been hastily pushed in Philippines, there are still several questions which have not been answered by the agencies involved in the regulatory process.
Hurried approval raises questions
Farida Akhter and Afsar Jafri
New Age, 29 Jul 2021
The controversial genetically modified Golden rice, has surfaced again with the Philippines Rice Research Institute rushing through the commercial clearance despite popular opposition to GR not only in the Philippines but also in Bangladesh, Indonesia and India. In the Philippines, the Bureau of Plant Industry, Department of Agriculture, issued the Biosafety permit for commercial propagation of the genetically engineered golden rice on 21 July 2021.
The farmers, consumers, scientists and sectoral organisations from the Philippines and the regional forum, the Stop Golden Rice! Network, have questioned the decision of the Bureau of Plant Industry and have raised regulatory concerns while approving GR for commercial propagation.
Surprisingly, in Bangladesh, such a controversial decision by the Philippines authorities is seen by some as a step to be followed by the Bangladeshi regulatory authorities, who have not approved it for the last for years (‘Philippines becomes first country to approve Golden Rice for planting’, Reaz Ahmad, Dhaka Tribune, July 23, 2021). Yet, over the last 20 years, there have been many protests against the Golden Rice worldwide, particularly in the Philippines and Bangladesh amidst concerns about its safety and efficacy.
Dr Matthew Morell, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute, which developed this rice, visited Bangladesh in 2019 and made misleading statements regarding the approval from regulatory agencies in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to import the rice. These statements were meant to pressure the National Committee of Bio-safety of Bangladesh to clear the rice for commercialisation, even though it had not gone through environmental assessment. This showed that the IRRI was desperate to get clearance in Bangladesh for commercial cultivation. They did not care about the potential risks it poses to the country and its major staple food crop rice. It is also a threat to all other rice-producing countries.
It is good that the Bangladesh National Biosafety Committee is taking time to assess Golden Rice when so much scientific information is available about its potential risks and the real alternatives that exist. The Bangladesh National Biosafety Committee made the mistake in 2013 of hastily approving Bt Brinjal (the genetically modified aubergine). UBINIG field research and intensive survey of Bt Brinjal planting confirmed that this GM vegetable crop was a big failure in the farmers’ field. More importantly, while approving Bt Brinjal, the seven approval conditions by the National Biosafety Committee were not met. The Department of Agricultural Extension found it difficult to monitor the farmers for compliance with the conditions. One such condition was to label the Bt brinjal before it is marketed was not met at all. The farmers receiving Bt brinjal seeds never knew it was a genetically modified crop that requires biosafety measures. It was given as a ‘new brinjal variety’ that did not require pesticide spraying. There is no authority now to look at the impact on the environment and health after Bt brinjal is widely distributed to the farmers.
The clearance of Golden Rice is the first authorisation for a genetically engineered rice in South and Southeast Asia, a region where rice is one of the key staple crops. Hundred of thousands of indigenous rice varieties have been developed by farmers in this region, and many of them continue to sustain the food security and dietary and cultural needs of the people. The threat of contamination of these local varieties by genetically modified types is now imminent.
Local groups in the Philippines, such as MASIPAG, have questioned the decision of the Bureau of Plant Industry and highlighted the lack of transparency, lack of public consultation and lack of independent and comprehensive risk and impact assessments during the approval process for commercial pla[n]ting of GR. Time and again, civil society groups, farmers organisations and concerned citizens of Philippines have raised the concerns for health risks that the GM Golden Rice might bring in since rice is a popular staple food for millions of Filipinos. Despite those concerns, the BPI has imposed this decision on people demonstrating procedural flaws during its commercial release such as lack of substantial public participation in the decision-making process, conflict of interests, problematic process for appeals and basis for biosafety decision such as using the ‘substantial equivalence’ principle. The commercial propagation will also put into question the issue on consumers’ and farmers’ choice due to the risk of cross contamination.
When the BPI and the government of Philippines, issued its approval order, it stipulated five biosafety permit conditions, suggesting a high level of risk exists. One of the conditions is that (a) the director of BPI shall be informed immediately upon discovery, not exceeding 24 hours, of any event if the regulated article (golden rice) could pose greater risks to biodiversity, human and animal health, (b) in writing as soon as possible, but not to exceed three working days, if the regulated article or associated host organisms is found to have characteristics substantially different from those listed in the application or suffer from any unusual occurrence (excessive mortality or morbidity, unanticipated effects on non-target organisms).
Another condition is, in the event new information becomes available indicating that the regulated article could pose greater risks to biodiversity, human and animal health than its conventional counterparts, the applicant shall on its own immediately take measures necessary to protect human health and the environment.
Though the commercialisation of Golden Rice has been hastily pushed in Philippines, there are still several questions which have not been answered by the agencies involved in the regulatory process. Firstly, it is still not clear what quantity of daily consumption of golden rice would be required to improve the vitamin A level in children who are vitamin A deficient? Secondly, Vitamin A is a fat-soluble enzyme and children who are deficient in vitamin A are from poor families that don’t take fats in their diet regularly. In this situation, will the beta-carotene absorption will be effective for those children whose diet is extremely low in lipid? The promoters and regulators are also silent on the issue of deteriorating level of beta-carotene when the golden rice is stored after harvest. By the time Golden Rice gets to those children who need it most, its beta-carotene level may be very low.
It is quite unfortunate that the IRRI and the Philippines Department of Agriculture keep on repeating the lies that the new variety has already received food safety approvals. The truth is that the clearance given by Food Standards Australia New Zealand is not for commercialisation and use in Australia or New Zealand. It is to prevent trade disruption because it is possible that once released, the rice could inadvertently enter other countries’ food supply via Australia or New Zealand. Similarly, the clearance given by the United States Food and Drug Administration states that the Golden Rice is not intended for cultivation, marketing or human or animal food use in the US and such marketing would need to meet legal requirements. In the case of Canada, the so-called ‘clearance by the regulatory agency’ is just an opinion from Health Canada on the food use of Golden Rice given that raw commodity or food products derived from the golden rice may unintentionally enter Canada. The technical summary of the case points out that if IRRI, in future, has an interest in marketing Golden Rice in Canada, compliance with the Food and Drug Regulations regarding the addition of vitamins to foods would be required.
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and Afsar Jafri is Asia programme staff at GRAIN.