Growing up in gold-rich Compostela Valley was an adventure filled childhood. We used to play in the rivers, collecting and inspecting stones to look for gold, mimicking old people looking for fortune. One very popular mineral back then that we were so fascinated was pyrite. It has the appearance of a polished gold, more of a fancy jewelry with all its luster. However, pyrite is known as fool’s gold.
Earlier this month I received an invitation from the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) calling for a consultation through a dialogue about Golden Rice between the proponents and various civil society organizations. It was an honor to take part in the consultation last July 11, 2017 as this is very important for me as a rice eater and as a development worker working in agricultural and remote communities. It was also interesting to be reunited with friends from the university and in the mass-movement.
The initiative of NAPC calling for this consultation was commendable. A breakthrough: the very first time that the issue on Golden Rice as a genetically modified crop will be open to public scrutiny, which for the longest time the proponents did not offer such venue.
According to the presentation by one of its proponents Dr. Roel Suralta from the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), Golden Rice can contribute in addressing malnutrition, in particular the Vitamin-A Deficiency (VAD), as it contains Beta-Carotene which is a precursor of Vitamin A. The prevalence of VAD in the Philippines and in global scale poses a great threat to people especially children and lactating mothers.
There are several points I wish to share from that consultation. First is the need to have an equal understanding on basic concepts of consultation. We had enough of the “SOPs” that mere information dissemination can be equated as a genuine consultation. Moreover, assertions like “we already satisfied the Public Information Sheet (PIS)” and “we already posted in our website…” were kind of reasoning in the context of public participation as a lazy man’s way of engaging the public on issues that concern every Filipino. This is a clear departure on the basic principle of what our government is telling us about participatory governance. Anyway, that’s just an opinion from me as a rice-eater.
One of the important stakeholders of this issue are the indigenous peoples (IP) and the poor farmers in the countryside. After we received the invitation, we took time to conduct three consultations in Mindanao: for the farmers, farm-workers, and for the Lumads (IP of Mindanao). We did our homework.
When we asked them if they are familiar about golden rice, none of them have knowledge about it. After all, most of the Lumads and poor farmers do not have access to any of the government’s websites, as they are occupied to look for means in order to survive in this savage capitalist world.
Why is it really important to involve them? They are not “experts” as the reductionists assert. A brief revisit of history in agriculture might be needed here. The last time these “experts” and reductionists promoted some HYVs (high yielding varities) and GMOs the poor farmers and Lumads lost their heirloom seeds, and even lost their lands due to debts to the landlords and compradors.
Another dimension worth discussing is the scientific soundness of this technology. Until now, there’s a very loose categorization and very confusing point whether Golden Rice is a drug or a food as it claims to be a solution for Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). Dr. Gene Nisperos from the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD) and UP Manila College of Medicine pointed out that the claim of the proponents that GR being safe were not backed by in vivo or outside laboratory experiments and cannot pass the rigors of science. Some of the studies being presented were based only in literatures of individual protein characters.
Talking about amino acids or proteins, elementary knowledge on pleiotropy and proteomics suggest that we cannot simply claim that these proteins are “safe” without any solid scientific experiment on the interactions of these proteins in vivo. The proponents failed to present studies of toxicity in vivo.
Now let us be more scientific about the problem of VAD in the Philippines. According to the data presented by the National Nutrition Council, there was a significant decrease in VAD cases between 2003- 2008. NNC noted that incidence of VAD on children ages 6 months to 5 years old dropped from 40.1% in 2003 to 15.2% in 2008. For pregnant women from 17.5% to 9.5% and for lactating mothers from 20.1% to 6.4%. The decline occured without Golden Rice. Thus, the question on the necessity of Golden Rice as a solution or VAD becomes irrelevant.
Moreover, Golden Rice only contains 3,670 mg/100g b-carotene, and there are vegetables that are better sources of b-carotene. These include malunggay (Moringa oleifera) at 6,780 mg/100g b-carotene, squash (Cucurbita maxima) at 4,680 mg/100g of b-carotene, carrots (Daucus carota) at 10,023 mg/100g of b-carotene. And of course, orange camote, one the Lumads’ staple food, containing 20,000 mg/100g of b-carotene. Far golden than Golden Rice.
Also, b-carotene is fat-soluble, so the absence of fat or oil in diet will still result to a low absorption rate of b-carotene. Therefore, Golden Rice is not the solution to VAD. It is only through diverse diet.
But then again, VAD as a social problem that stems from hunger cannot be solved in vitro or inside laboratories. It is timely now for various agencies like the Department of Agriculture, PhilRice, and Bureau of Plant Industry among other government agencies to depart from compartmentalized and fragmented solutions to complex social problem.
If the proponents are serious enough to address hunger and malnutrition, it is imperative for them to come up with a resolution to put a moratorium on the expansion of big agri-business plantations that for the longest time way back during the hacienda system are responsible in the decrease of the diverse diet of poor Filipinos.
This perceived “hi-tech” solutions of GM crops are similar to that of pyrite: Golden Rice is nothing but a fool’s gold in agriculture. Let us remind ourselves and these “experts”, not all that glitters is gold.