A half-century ago, the International Rice Research Institute, based in Los Banõs in the Philippines, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in Hyderabad entered into a partnership that ultimately would forestall an apocalyptic famine in which millions would almost certainly have died. The organizations are now celebrating 50 years of cooperation and the effect they have had on hundreds of millions of peoples’ lives.
One of the answers was famously semi-dwarf rice, developed by IRRI with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The methodology behind dwarf rice was simple. Shorter, sturdier stems kept the rice from falling over and becoming waterlogged during heavy rain. Later extensive developments would lead to continually improved yields that would become known as the Green Revolution. SVS Shastry, a distinguished breeder and geneticist, was coordinator and project leader of the All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project, which was instrumental in the project.
“The bread and butter of crop improvement is genetic enhancement and crop husbandry,” Shastry was quoted as saying in IRRI’s house publication. “The genotypes must be matched with the biological and physical environment in which the crop is grown. IRRI and AICRIP met this challenge guided by the competence and vision of the scientists at both institutions.”
Fifty years of genetically improved rice varieties, like the rest of GMO foods, nonetheless remain hugely controversial. In August of 2013, 300 farmers and militants whipped into a frenzy over fears of genetically modified foods stormed a Philippine Department of Agriculture regional office in Bicol and stomped out a 1,000 square meter experimental rice field being developed with cooperation of IRRI. In doing so, they destroyed part of a project designed ultimately to protect up to 200 million people from irreversible blindness because of Vitamin A deficiency. The project was being developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the billionaire Microsoft founder.
Robert Ziegler, IRRI’s director general, mounted an angry and impassioned defense of genetically modified foods following the vandalism, saying that “as an intellectual direct descendant of the architects of the Green Revolution, it is heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor.”
Genetically modified experiments have been destroyed in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Australia and Oregon in the United States, among many others, a tragedy at a time when the world is seeking to find new ways to feed itself.
Mark Lyman, a onetime opponent of GMO foods, writing on April 24 in the New York Times, pointed out that the environmental movement’s war has led to a perception on the part of 63 percent of the American public that the foods are unsafe to eat and bad for the environment. That is despite the fact that decades of testing and practical experience have never turned up problems with genetically modified foods. Ten studies purporting to show damage to DNA and other health issues have been thoroughly debunked. There is no Frankenfood.