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GMO debate grows over golden rice in the Philippines

September 17, 2014 at 6:37 PM EDT
Vitamin A deficiency is a deadly threat to kids and pregnant mothers in the Third World. In the Philippines, the best nutrient sources are rarely part of the daily diet, so researchers have tried adding vitamin A to rice, a staple food. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien investigates the debate that’s grown up over the development of golden rice, a genetically modified crop.

GWEN IFILL: Researchers believe they have found a way to add critical nutrients to rice, a dietary staple in countries like the Philippines.  But those changes tap directly into concerns over genetically modified food.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has a look at the high stakes in this fight.

One note for eagle-eyed viewers:  Miles shot this story earlier this year, before he lost his left arm in an accident.

MILES O’BRIEN: He may not be happy about it, but this megadose of vitamin A might save his vision or maybe his life.  Vitamin A deficiency is a pervasive and silent killer of malnourished children and pregnant mothers in the Third World.

Each year, at least a half-million children and a few hundred thousand women go blind or die for lack of this crucial micronutrient.  The best sources of vitamin A, meats and leafy vegetable, expensive and often unavailable, are rarely part of the daily diet here.

That’s why people here in the Philippines are working to add vitamin A to the daily staple, rice.  But the rice they’re meticulously breeding has become the gold standard for a heated debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

BRUCE TOLENTINO, International Rice Research Institute: So this is the greenhouse, the control trial greenhouse where we’re breeding golden rice.

MILES O’BRIEN: What’s an economist doing here?

Bruce Tolentino is deputy director general for communication and partnerships at the nonprofit International Rice Research Institute, or IRRI.  Forty miles south of Manila, the fields here are filled with various strains of rice that increase yield, are flood-tolerant or insect-resistant, all derived through conventional breeding techniques, but golden rice stands apart, literally and figuratively.

BRUCE TOLENTINO: We’re taking some aspects from the corn plant, which has beta-carotene, and transferring those traits into rice, so that we will develop a rice variety that contains beta-carotene.

MILES O’BRIEN: Which turns the rice yellow, hence the name.  The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, an essential micronutrient.  The scientists here are spicing corn and a microorganism in soil with rice genes.  This DNA tinkering goes against the grain for many environmental activists.

In August of 2013, hundreds of them stormed a Philippines government test field planted with golden rice.  They uprooted and destroyed all the plants.

Daniel Ocampo is a sustainable agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace in the Philippines, which opposes GMOs primarily out of fear they will contaminate other crops.

DANIEL OCAMPO, Greenpeace Southeast Asia: If this happens, there’s no way that you could actually have a recall of genetically modified organisms once they spread uncontrollably.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ocampo denies Greenpeace was involved in the rice raid, but he says he respects what the protesters did.

DANIEL OCAMPO: We’re not afraid of the science, but we’re concerned about the long-term impacts on the environment and human health, because there’s no proof that they’re safe.

MILES O’BRIEN: Antonio Alfonso is in charge of finding the proof that GMO opponents seek.  He is leader of the golden rice project at the Philippines Department of Agriculture Rice Research Institute, more commonly known as PhilRice.

The agency is testing golden rice to see if it is indeed safe for the environment and human consumption.  The plot that was destroyed was one of 15 spread throughout the Philippines.  So researchers are convinced they can recover scientifically.  But they worry that it was a big psychological and political blow to the golden rice project.

ANTONIO ALFONSO, Golden Rice Project Leader: I was sad.  And this thing happened.  It’s just heartbreaking.

MILES O’BRIEN: Alfonso sees no real difference between conventional breeding techniques employed by agriculture for thousands of years and genetic modification.

ANTONIO ALFONSO: So, if people say that this is bad, why is it bad?  They are concerned about safety?  There are science-based, you know, well-established techniques, methods for establishing safety.

MILES O’BRIEN: When golden rice was first created in the late 1990s, the giant agribusiness corporation Syngenta funded research and development, but since it’s inbred, generating seeds that farmers can replant, the company saw no moneymaking potential and turned the project over to the nonprofit world.

BRUCE TOLENTINO: There is no profit motivation.  Our motivations are purely for the good of mankind.

MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. Alfred Sommer is a professor of epidemiology with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.  In the 1970s, he led the team that discovered the vitamin A deficiency is much more serious than previously thought and that even a mild deficiency of the micronutrient increases childhood mortality rates.

DR. ALFRED SOMMER, Johns Hopkins University: You can die of a vitamin A deficiency.  And the reason you die of vitamin A deficiency in most instances is because your resistance to infections is reduced.

You’re not as immune-competent, so if you get diarrhea or you get measles in particular, it’s much more severe than it would be if you had a normal vitamin A status.

MILES O’BRIEN: Studies show humans can efficiently convert to vitamin A the beta-carotene in the latest version of golden rice.  The science suggests a cup of rice a day would make a dramatic difference.  But if golden rice were available now, would farmers here plant it?

Farmer Rolando Nicolas was overseeing a crew of workers planting rice when I met him.

“First and foremost,” he told me, “the amount of yield and how much we would earn is what counts.”

And in fact, that’s the main stumbling block that scientists now face.  At IRRI, they’re trying to modify the most popular, high-yielding rice varieties, but so far the golden rice they have created doesn’t measure up on output.  And what about consumer demand?  Will people accept a different colored rice that is genetically modified?

“People won’t be afraid of it,” Rolando told me.  “It’s still rice that you plant in the ground.  It will grow in the ground.  And how you take care of it is the same as regular rice, so why should you be afraid of it?”

But GMO skeptics say there is plenty to be afraid of.

CHITO MEDINA, Farmer Scientist Partnership For Development: It’s a trick, the way we look at it.  It’s a trick to push more GMOs.

MILES O’BRIEN: This environmental scientist Chito Medina is with a group called the Farmer Scientist Partnership For Development.  The Filipino acronym is MASIPAG.

CHITO MEDINA: GMOs is just something, like, if you will pardon my word, something like you are raping the species, because you are using the gene without its consent and without its normal biology.

MILES O’BRIEN: Medina believes golden rice is not need.  Poor people can get small amount of vitamin A from this black rice that MASIPAG has developed with conventional breeding or much more from mangoes or sweet potatoes.  But what poor people eat here and now is rice.  At IRRI, they remain determined to make it more nutritious.

BRUCE TOLENTINO: We want to make sure that the experiments go on, that the research continues.  We want to make sure that the data is available, not only to researchers, but to everybody who wants to examine the data.

MILES O’BRIEN: In destroying that test field, GMO opponents only made it harder to get answers.  The irony is those answers could save thousands of lives, but also might undermine the case against genetic engineering in the future.

GWEN IFILL: On our Science page, learn more about why vitamin A is so crucial to your diet and how to get more of it on your plate.