Golden Rice Harvest: Philippines Breakthrough 🥣

Golden Rice Harvest: Philippines Breakthrough 🥣
Rice farm, in the style of 8bit art v 6.0 --ar 16:9 --v 6.0, Midjourney


One of the best events of the year unfolded quietly in 17 rice fields in the Philippines this October. "For the first time, farmers in the Philippines have cultivated Golden Rice on a larger scale and harvested almost 70 tonnes"

"This autumn will probably go down in agrarian history. In October, farmers in the Philippine Province of Antique harvested a substantial amount of beta-​carotene-enriched Golden Rice for the first time – namely a total of 67 tonnes from 17 fields."

While it is certainly not the largest harvest of the year, it might well be one of the most important.

The Challenge:

Over the last century, a deficiency of vitamine A, particularly among children, has taken the lives of millions and has been a powerful driver of blindness; with Africa and Asia being the regions most impacted. vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is most prevalent in low and middle-income countries whose peoples consume a diet of which a significant portion consists of standard rice and other carbohydrate-rich, micronutrient-poor foodstuffs. Traditional rice, the type that has been cultivated for thousands of years, contains no β-carotene (provitamin A). 

Young children are at the greatest risk of suffering micronutrient deficiencies, and VAD is no exception. VAD initially impacts eyesight while simultaneously impairing the immune system, greatly increasing the risk and susceptibility to disease. A significant and prolonged deficiency of vitamin A can result in blindness and death. In 2009 the WHO "estimated 250 000–500 000 children who are vitamin A-deficient become blind every year, and half of them die within 12 months of losing their sight."

"For individuals in developing countries, however, vitamin A is a matter of life or death. Lack of it is believed to be responsible for killing more children than HIV, tuberculosis or malaria – around 2,000 deaths a day." — Block on GM rice ‘has cost millions of lives and led to child blindness’  Robin McKie, The Guardian, c10/2019

Golden Rice Has Entered the Chat:

Work on a genetically modified rice that would produce β-carotene (Golden Rice) began thirty years ago by German plant scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, later in partnership with the Swiss agrichemical company Syngenta. The team was able to develop a safe and productive rice utilizing the beta-carotene genes normally found in maize, and in doing so, created a rice that could, when consumed regularly, provide the much-needed vitamin A micronutrient lacking in the diets of millions. 

Note: The history of the development of golden rice is quite literally a book in itself; for a deep dive, see "Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood," Ed Regis, c2019.

The successful development of Golden Rice heralded a breakthrough that briefly captured the world's attention. A rice that was safe, effective, and agriculturally viable had been developed that could save millions of children from death and blindness.

The cover of the July 31, 2000, edition of Time magazine pictured a serious-looking bearded man surrounded by a wall of greenery: the stems, leaves, and stalks of rice plants. The caption, in large block lettering, read, “This rice could save a million kids a year.” — The True Story of the Genetically Modified Superfood That Almost Saved Millions, Ed Regis for Foreign Policy, c10/2019

The breakthrough would, however, be short-lived, as the project faced considerable and unrelenting regulatory and cultural roadblocks and backlash.

 Opposition (Abridged):

From the onset, the work undertaken to research, develop Golden Rice, and secure regulatory approval faced unrelenting red tape and non-governmental organization (NGO) opposition. Greenpeace ran, and indeed continues to run,  a campaign to block, obstruct and destroy the abomination that is "so-called ‘Golden’ rice." 

The backlash reached a fevered pitch through the early 2010s when activates groups attacked research facilities, and governments staunchly and irrationally blocked forward progress toward getting Golden Rice into the fields and mouths of people in Asia. 

In the midst of the turmoil toward the end of 2016, a group of more than a hundred Nobel laureates petitioned Greenpeace to end its poorly founded and unproductive opposition to genetically modified crops, including Golden Rice. However, despite the life-saving potential of Golden Rice, Greenpeace remains to this day in opposition.

The resulting anti-GMO advocacy of NGOs applied pressure on many governments to uphold approval blocks or continue to delay or impede the ongoing research, development, and use of Golden Rice outside the limited scope of agricultural research.

Opposition Surmounted: (At least in the Philippines, and for now)

By the end of 2019, GR2E Golden Rice had received approval in the Philippines for "direct use as food and feed, or for processing," and by 2021, the biosecurity authorities of the country had green-lit large scale cultivation, the first country in the world to do so. By October 2022, farmers in the Philippines were harvesting the first crop of Golden Rice, a modest contribution to the market but a significant cultural and regulatory breakthrough that will hopefully help to encourage other countries to consider approving the crop for commercial cultivation. 

"22 years have passed between its development and large-​scale cultivation. Now almost 89 years old, Potrykus is delighted that Golden Rice has finally been planted on a large scale: “I’m very relieved to finally see cultivation commence after so many years of production delays,” — The seeds have germinated, Peter Ruegg for ETH Zurich, 11/22

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