Fearing GMO, Filipino Radicals Attack Rice

When more than 300 farmers and militants whipped into a frenzy over fears of genetically modified foods stormed a Philippines Department of Agriculture regional office in Bicol and stomped out a 1,000 square meter experimental rice field, they destroyed part of a project designed ultimately to protect up to 200 million people from irreversible blindness.

The field contained so-called Golden Rice, one of a half-dozen genetically modified rice strains being developed with the cooperation of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to adapt plants in a bid to cure vitamin A deficiency, which afflicts tens of millions of people across the world. The Golden Rice strain is being developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created by the billionaire Microsoft founder.

Up to half a million malnourished children go blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, with about half dying within a year of going blind, according to the United Nations Special Session on Children. It also diminishes the ability to fight infections such as measles and may increase risk of developing infections, cut growth, slow bone development and cause other health problems.

Although the Swiss agri-business giant Syngenta produced the original Golden Rice, it was passed to the International Rice Research Institute for free, without royalties. Anti-GMO protesters point to multinationals like Monsanto, which requires farmers to buy new seeds every year for genetically modified products including corn and cotton. In countries like India, that has produced an unequal situation in which farmers who can afford the seeds outstrip in production those who can't. Thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide.

IRRI was established in 1960 with funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations of the US and the Philippine government to produce open-source rice strains. It became famous in the late 1960s and 1970s for its role in the so-called Green Revolution in Asia via the breeding of dwarf varieties of rice that because of the length of their stems were less prone to falling over during inclement weather. It has been given credit for keeping millions of people from starvation.

Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's Deputy Director General, said the trials are being conducted at five different sites in the Philippines as well as on sites in Indonesia and Bangladesh and that while this plot has been ruined, research is moving ahead at the others.

The attack on the experimental plot was staged by a group led by Wilfredo Marbella and Bert Auter of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, which calls itself a "militant genuine peasant movement." The group says it supports agricultural reform and national industrialization as the foundation for economic development. The group is affiliated with a number of above-ground leftist NGOs in the country.

"We reached out to them, our doors were open, on the day this incident took place, our team was available at the site, sitting in a conference room, waiting to discuss their concerns," Tolentino said in a telephone interview. "But they rushed into the site, overwhelmed the police, tore down the fence, they weren't interested in any discussions. That is really disappointing."

The IRRI project is a far cry from the GMO crops being developed by commercial seed companies, particularly in the United States, Tolentino said. The project is designed to add three genes found in squash, carrots and melons to allow the rice plants to manufacture vitamin A. In the process, it turns the rice yellow, hence the name Golden Rice.

"There is nothing unnatural about the process — scientists just figured out how to take a gene from one species and add it to another's DNA," wrote Michael Purugganan, a Filipino plant geneticist attached to New York University. "Plants do this in the wild all the time. It is called horizontal gene transfer, and plants, animals and bacteria have been shown to get many genes from each other as they evolve. Breeders actually do much more radical things to the rice genome and the rice plant by traditional breeding methods, and with much less information about what exactly they are doing to the rice plant's genes."

"There is the idea that Golden Rice is being developed to be sold by big biotechnology companies to profit from poor Filipino farmers," Puruguganan wrote. "Let us be clear here: Golden Rice is a public project."

Golden Rice, according to IRRI, is being developed in conjunction with the Philippine Rice Research Institute and other plant breeders across the world. The varieties that are developed will be turned over to government agricultural agencies in developing countries, who will then determine how to distribute it to farmers in their countries. IRRI is not selling Golden Rice, and no big biotech company will make money from it, Tolentino said.

IRRI has continued to develop new strains of rice, almost all of them through traditional plant propagation methods. In 2005, it was estimated that 60 percent of the world's rice area was planted to IRRI-bred rice varieties or their progenies, according to a study by GS Kush and PS Virk of IRRI.

While there have long been concerns that GMO products are unsafe, the Golden Rice project involves a relatively simple genetic splicing of the same kind that created a frost-free potato in 1983, allowing the tubers to endure temperatures eight to 14 degrees F colder than normal strains, saving farmers millions of dollars from crop loss.