Farmers stand firm vs Golden Rice: ‘Our land, our food, our rice!’

·5 min read
Attendees of the
Attendees of the "Sari-saring solusyon, Sama-samang aksyon para sa mga magsasaka: An Open Discussion on Golden Rice and Right to Food," an open discussion organized by the Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN), raise placards for a picture. Taking place at Mandala Park in Shaw Boulevard, Mandaluyong City last August 7, 2022, the event focused on the dangers of consuming and distributing Golden Rice. (Photo: Stop Golden Rice Network/Facebook)

Around 400 farmers, advocates, and their allies defied the secret Golden Rice (GR) tests in Pili, Camarines Sur in Bicol (which was operated by the Philippine Rice Research Institute [PhilRice] and the International Rice Research Institute [IRRI]) on August 8, 2013. On Monday (Aug 8), nine years after the “historic uprooting,” the call remained unchanged: block the distribution of GR in the Philippines and across the world.

“Now, we reiterate again that Golden Rice is not a solution to malnutrition, hunger and issues on agricultural productivity. Not now. Not ever. [...] Golden Rice is nothing but a failed technology marketed by profit-hungry corporations and serves as a trojan horse to gain greater control of land, food and agriculture,” Patrick dela Cueva said in his opening message in Stop Golden Rice Network’s (SGRN) online solidarity action that day.

The hotly contested GR was first developed by IRRI and the private corporation Syngenta primarily to combat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). However, critics took issue with how genetically modified products such as GR can negatively impact the environment and local farmers’ livelihoods. The latter due to possible increase in production costs from chemical inputs for cultivating GR among other factors.

In a separate statement, farmer group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) decried GR as not providing beta-carotene to combat VAD, saying “In the first place, golden rice is not even a solution to Vitamin A deficiency. It contains too little Vitamin A, one has to consume 3.75 kilos of golden rice to receive an adequate amount per day. There is more Vitamin A content in native, already prevalent, and cheaper crops such as kamote (or sweet potatoes), carrots, moringa (malunggay), squash, and tomatoes.”

Near the end of the event, SGRN said that not only does GR provide insufficient beta-carotene to address VAD, but may also hinder crop diversification (which is a problem for areas often hit by turbulent weather). They also slammed companies like Syngenta for profiting from the food crisis, with the network revealing that the latter earned around $8.9 billion within the first quarter of this year.

Though appeals and protests against GR continued even after 2013, dela Cueva, an advocacy officer for farmer-scientist group Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), said that seeds were distributed to different parts of the Philippines such as Bicol and Central Luzon. He then slammed how consumers are being treated like “lab rats in [corporations' and landlords’] profit-oriented experiments” due to a lack of safety tests.

“With its impending commercialization, the government has failed to ensure our safety and well-being and instead become subservient to the interests of these landlords and corporations, completely handing our lands and rich diversity to their control,” he continued.

The brand is (food) crisis

Fears of a global food crisis reared its head all throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and became more apparent in the months after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Due to the conflict disrupting international food trades, former agriculture secretary William Dar cautioned last June that things would only get worse for the Philippines near the end of 2022.

One such consequence was the lack of potato exports in the same month. Although there was a surplus in locally made potatoes, these were said not to be the type used for french fries and other related restaurant products. With limited stocks, this led to said products becoming more expensive.

Though SGRN maintained that no GMO can resolve a food crisis, they revealed a month later that the Department of Agriculture (DA) will push for the pilot deployment of GR. This is despite MASIPAG, alongside KMP and Southeast Asia Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) among other farmer groups, filing a petition to revoke the safety permits for both GR and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant last 2021.

Related to the network’s claims, tests for Bt Eggplants were halted in 2013 due to a lack of scientific proof that it was safe for human consumption and environmental application. Additionally, it would also be barred from being sold and distributed by the Supreme Court (SC) in December 2015 until it was reversed on July 26 in the following year.

Similarly, MASIPAG Mindanao recalled how farmers in their island had to deal with the problems brought on by the distribution of “counterfeit” GM Corn (known locally as “Sige-Sige”). According to them, this “resulted in the contamination of native corn varieties and its damage has not been fully assessed to this day.”

“You can’t recall a seed when you sow it in farming communities the same way you cant push a toothpaste back on its tube,” they said.

SGRN continued that DA’s reason for pushing through with the pilot testing was that the agency deemed the pros to outweigh the cons, much to their and their allies’ chagrin.

Nasa gitna tayo ng krisis, nagtataasan ang presyo ng pangunahing bilihin at laganap ang kawalan ng trabaho. Mataas ang inflation at unemployment rate. Dapat ituon ng gobyerno sa pagpapaunlad ng agrikultura at suporta sa mga magsasaka para sa pagpapataas ng lokal na produksyon at matugunan ang krisis sa pagkain at makalikha ng trabaho,” Cathy Estavillo, Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women secretary general and Bantay Bigas spokesperson, said.

(We’re in the middle of a crisis, prices of goods are rising, and there’s mass unemployment. Inflation and unemployment rates are also high. The government must prioritize developing agriculture and supporting farmers in the hopes of boosting production and to resolve the food and unemployment crises.)

In light of these, KMP’s chair-emeritus and former Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano said that KMP will coordinate with the progressive Makabayan bloc representatives in Congress “to look into the inconsistent and unfair final revisions of the Joint Department Circular no. 1 of 2016 that enables the entry of Golden Rice in the country. And if necessary and warranted, we will request to halt all the process concerning its implementation – be it field trials and feeding trials.”

Reuben Pio Martinez is a news writer who covers stories on various communities and scientific matters. He regularly tunes in to local happenings. The views expressed are his own.

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