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Farmers are not ‘day-blind’: They can see the harmful effects of Golden Rice

by Farida Akhter & Farhad Mazhar

The BBC Bangla news on 18 January, 2005 (as well as found in BBC website titled “Bangladesh 'endorses' GM rice”) reported on the possible allowing of research of GM rice in the country. This news came as a shock to the environmental activists who have been resisting the introduction of GMOs. It was also a puzzle to those who have been debating on the GMO issues on scientific grounds including bio-safety and other regulatory matters. Bangladesh does not have the capacity to contain GMOs and legal and regulatory regimes are absent to deal with transgenic products. The decision of the Ministry of Agriculture amounts to knowingly polluting biodiversity of Bangladesh, particularly agrobiodiversity and opening the door for the destruction of biodiversity-based farming systems of Bangladesh. Biodiversity-based production system of Bangladesh is unique both historically and scientifically and recent interests in the private sectors to market ecologically produced safe food clearly demonstrates tremendous economic potential for organic and ecological product both domestically and internationally. In that case introduction of GMO rice is a clear economic threat to this nascent sector as well. Geographically Bangladesh belongs to the origin of diversity areas of the world. Government failed to clarify the reasons to take such decision of endorsing GMOs that poses threat to human health, environment and to the farming communities. The genetically engineered rice variety that is going to be introduced has for long been criticised by scientists, farmers and activist as a gimmick and have no agronomic value[1].

According to the BBC report the Ministry of Agriculture of government of Bangladesh says it hopes to release a type of genetically modified rice to farmers if on-going research is successful. The Authorities claim “the new rice may help feed Bangladesh's growing population as well as tackle certain common ailments associated with malnutrition”. The chief of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Dr Mahidul Haque, said a locally developed rice variety known as BRRI 29 has been transformed into a genetically modified rice.

He said beta carotene - which the body develops into Vitamin A - had been taken from daffodils and added to the rice. This made it useful in fighting conditions such as poor sight and blindness.

The Agriculture Minister Mr. M K Anwar says the government does not object to GM technology, which may prove beneficial. Research into the crop is being carried out at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute. However, he acknowledged that GM foods are controversial worldwide, but his government will not take any stand against the technology.

"We'll introduce GM rice in Bangladesh after proper testing and going through the national and international rules and regulations," he told the BBC. Officials expect the research on GM rice to be completed shortly, but no time-frame has been given.

The BBC also reported that the environmentalists and health experts have already warned the government against introducing any GM rice and food in Bangladesh without testing. They fear that any GM food without proper testing could create severe health problems in a poor country like Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh the introduction of GM rice has couple of strategic corporate interest. First is to ensure the entry of GMOs in the rice cultures of Asia. Secondly, it aims to enhance the profile of GMO in general in the face of the protests in the North, by introducing it in a country well known for its wealth in biodiversity. Thirdly, it is also integral part of the overall strategy of destroying the existing seed systems of sharing and exchange of seed by the farming communities. The patents that are associated with the proposed seed variety will create condition for the market of patented rice varieties. All these moves are inimical to the farming communities that constitutes majority of the Bangladeshi people.

The move is also clearly against the farming communities of Bangladesh who demonstrated, without any government support that biodiversity-based ecological agriculture is more productive, and there are enough local varieties that could produce more than 6 tons per hectare, if eco-systemic approach is undertaken and historical knowledge of farmers of this Gangetic delta is taken into account to manage the farming systems. Researchers, who favour modern varieties with genuine concerns for increased food production, also did find in the comparative studies that ecological farming is at least equal in productivity compared to modern varieties[2], therefore making no sense in taking environmental and ecological risks where other methods of cultivation is already proved successful, and widely accepted in any part of Bangladesh. There are many villages and unions known as ecological villages in Bangladesh.

Inspired by their own research, farmers of Nayakrishi Andolon, the New Agricultural Movement, cultivated 1561 varieties of rice in the past Aman season in the year 2004. They altogether cultivated nearly 2000 varieties of rice and many of those varieties, particularly red and semi-red rice is very rich in nutrition, in addition to the higher return of productivity. Despite the documentation available and the research data placed in the national seminars in presence of the scientists and policy makers, government did not undertake any collaborative research with the ecological farmers to disseminate the techniques of enhanced rice production by the ecological farmers, instead, introducing GMO rice. It is important to note that except Nayakrishi Andolon, there is no systematic study on the productivity of the local varieties, and the farmer’s seed systems. The decision of the government shows that it lacks scientific objectivity and intentionally remaining blind to the available research and analysis. It is clearly manipulated by the Corporations eager to introduce GMOs in Bangladesh. There is absolutely no need of introducing a genetically modified rice seed which will only pollute the environment and will not solve the problem of food availability.

We know through various international and regional networks such as Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), Grain, Third World Network, SANFEC that rice has become a very attractive business interest for the corporations. According to ISIS, several major transnational seed corporations – Aventis, Dupont, Monsanto, Syngenta – now have rice programmes[3]. Rice is self-pollinated, making hybrid rice seed production costly and difficult, and nearly all rice in Asia is still grown with farmer-saved seed. The seed industry believes that the combination of genetic engineering and patents can overcome this hurdle. "Through patents and contractual agreements, seed companies will seek to prohibit farmers from sharing or saving seed, control what pesticides are used and even assert ownership rights over the harvest."

Golden rice is produced by splicing three foreign genes – two from the daffodil and one from a bacterium – into japonica rice, a variety adapted for temperate climates. The developers anticipate at least five more years will be required to breed the Vitamin A trait into rice varieties adapted to local climates in developing countries. The experts believe that such anticipation is overly optimistic, given the unprecedented difficulties presented by engineering a complex three-gene trait (all current GE crops are spliced with single-gene constructs), and the need for safety and environmental testing before field introduction.

The main argument that Golden Rice is needed in a country like Bangladesh is totally baseless. Greenpeace calculated, based on the product developers’ own figures that an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 g rice to get the daily recommended amount of pro-vitamin A. An adult would have to eat at least 3.7 kg dry weight of rice, i.e. around 9 kg of cooked rice, to satisfy their daily need of vitamin A from Golden rice. In other words, a normal daily intake of 300 g of rice would at best provide 8% of the vitamin A needed daily. A breast feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kg in dry weight, converting to nearly 18 kg of cooked rice per day. Whereas, a poor family in a village cooks only 2 kg of rice for four persons for two/three meals a day. Why should they spend extra money to cook nearly 4 kg of golden rice per person? Also people do not eat rice only, they have to eat vegetables, fish etc. with rice. Isn’t it an expensive proposition for the Bangladeshi poors? Therefore it is clear that, the Ministry of Agriculture is not helping the poor but only helping the multinational companies.

Already the governments since sixties of the last century have caused enormous loss of diverse crops that the Bangladeshi people grew in the country. Through green revolution monoculture crops of rice and wheat were introduced resulting in decrease in pulses, oil seeds, and through the use of pesticides there was a steep decline in fish production. So the nutritional deficiencies were not caused by lack of necessary food crops, but because of introduction of technologies in monoculture rice production. The decline in soil fertility has also resulted in the decline in productivity with increasing costs of production. After the failure of high yielding variety rice to meet the problem of hunger, the government introduced Hybrid rice in the late eighties and nineties with the promises of higher yields. Even those were not successful. On the other hand, the increased use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers caused further deterioration of environment, particularly loss of many green, leafy vegetables that had been important sources of Vitamin A. It is a well recognised fact in Bangladesh even documented by national institutes of nutrition that many leafy green known as saks, vegetables and fruits can supplement vitamin A in food. The Institute of Food and Nutrition in Bangladesh listed leafy greens, vegetables and fruits with different nutrients, such as iron, sugar, calcium, carotene, vit. B1, vit-B2, vit. –C etc. It showed that rice husked in mills do not contain carotene, but rice husked in wooden dheki contains carotene. The carotene content of various widely available saks are very high. These are Katanotey(Amaranthus spinosus), kochu sak (Calocasia Arum), sajna pata (Moringa Obifera), pudina pata (Menthea piperita), khesari sak, kolmi sak (Ipomoea aquatica), sweet potato leaves (Ipomoea batatas), thankuni( Hydrocotyle Asiatica) palong (spinach), raddish leaves and many others. Most of these greens are not even cultivated. They grow as partners to mixed cultivated crops or as uncultivated plants on the road side, open fields etc. There are many vegetables which contain carotene. They are carrot, sweet gourd, red bean, banana shoot, green chili, bitter gourd, okra, egg plant, amaranthus, union buds, pulse etc. The fruits are ripe mango, ripe papaya, pineapple, ripe fig, yellow melons etc. With such wide variety of possibilities for vitamin A sources, why does Bangladesh need Golden rice to prevent and cure night blindness?

There is a worldwide resistance against field testing of GM crops because GM pollen and seeds contaminate normal crops. For example, in 2000, nearly 25,000 acres of European rapeseed (canola) and maize were discovered to be contaminated with unapproved GM varieties. There are many other examples of contaminations. In terms of health, according to Plant Journal 27(6) in the article on Assessment the food safety issues related to genetically modified crops, “ all GM crops are subject to potentially hazardous unintended effects that are impossible to predict and extremely difficult to test for. However, according to the USDA database of GM crop field trials, some of these crops are intended to produce substances that raise human health concerns such as allergenicity, nutritional deficits etc. Tomatoes, potatoes, rice, grapes, wheat and barley have been engineered to produce anti-fungal compounds from the class of pathogenesis-related (PR) proteins, which is “widely regarded as a rich source of allergens.” An expert in this field warns that such GM plants could cause food allergies. Corn and soybeans are being genetically manipulated for radical alterations in oil, protein and starch content for use as animal feed in factory-farm livestock operations.

The farmers in Bangladesh have seen the effects of Green Revolution in which HYV seeds were used along with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, ground water for irrigation, they are experiencing the harmful effects of hybrid seeds. The new technologies have always promised them with more productivity, but those promises were never fulfilled. The scientists never felt the responsibility to admit publicly that they were wrong in proposing those technologies. Although they do admit in scientific papers. By believing in the false promises the farmers have already lost thousands of varieties rice, they needed as staple food, for specific nutritional needs, cultural, religious, spiritual needs. So new promises would not work, particularly the technologies which are already controversial, and which have the potential effects on farmers seed saving. Farmers are not blind, they cannot be fooled with promises of curing or preventing night blindness with the so called Vit. A rice or the Golden Rice. If the rice which is supposed to cure a disease and at the same time is responsible for other health hazards, environmental pollution and loss of control over seeds by farmers, is itself contradictory and therefore cannot be acceptable.


[1] See Grains of delusion: Golden rice seen from the ground, a GRAIN Briefing, by Biothai (Thailand), CEDAC (Cambodia), DRCSC (India), GRAIN, MASIPAG (Philippines), PAN-Indonesia and UBINIG (Bangladesh) http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=18 ; “Mirage” of GM’s Golden promise, by Alex Kirby, BBC News Online environment correspondent, February 2004. http://www.biotech-info.net/mirage_of_promise.html; "Genetically Engineered 'Golden Rice' is Fool's Gold" Greenpeace Statement, February 9, 2001

[2] Golam Rasul and Gopal B. Thapa, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand; Sustainability Analysis of Ecological and Conventional Agricultural Systems in Bangladesh; World Development Vol.31. No. 10 pp1721-1741.2003

[3] see “Rice War” http://www.i-sis.org.uk/

©heal toxics, 2003
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