Why Bangladesh sees golden rice as a threat

Following announcement by agriculture minister on cultivating golden rice within 3 months, farmers and environment groups call take out country-wide protests

By Jitendra
Published: Friday 22 February 2019
Representational Photo: Getty Images

Bangladesh farmers and environment groups are angry over the government’s decision to allow commercial cultivation of the controversial genetically modified (GM) rice, popularly called as the golden rice. They organised country-wide protests on February 13, 2019, after Bangladesh Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzak announced in early February that cultivation of golden rice may start in the country within three months.

Bangladesh completed the confined field testing of golden rice at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), Gazipur, in early 2017. It has already allowed commercial production of BT Brinjal in the country.

Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN) — a network of farmers across Asian countries and farmer organisations of Bangladesh — organised a rally against the decision to introduce golden rice which will impact their traditional agriculture system.

In 1999, a group of European scientists led by Dr Ingo Potrykus tried to change traditional rice by developing genetically-engineered rice that contains beta-carotene — by inserting bacteria and daffodil and maize genes into it. This is the golden rice, called so because of the golden colour of its grains.

The golden rice was introduced in 2000 and argued to be the panacea for world’s malnutrition problem. It was claimed that the rice is bio-fortified, and is supposedly high in Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc.

It was considered as a significant breakthrough in biotechnology, with its first field trials conducted by the agriculture centre of Louisiana State University in 2004. Later, it has been claimed that field trials were conducted in the Philippines, Taiwan and Bangladesh.

However, all these field trials were marred with controversy over the lack of transparency and credible independent safety studies. 

“Even claims made after field trial concerns remain as on the lack of credible and independent safety studies, transparency and public participation. Regulatory processes are flawed and appear to lean on accommodating and facilitating the approvals of golden rice rather than serving to ensure safety of the public and the environment,” says Cris Panerio, lead convenor, SGRN.

USA’s Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) has concluded in its report that beta carotene levels were too low in golden rice to counter Vitamin-A deficiency. In comparison to golden rice, sweet potato has more than 50 times more beta-carotene level. Further, sweet potatoes can be grown on even non-arable land in Bangladesh.

Activists fear that commercial cultivation would lead to the loss of Bangladesh’s rich bio-diversity. “This could further push for public acceptance of genetically-modified crops and erode our food diversity and our local and traditional seeds, as well as increase corporate control on our agriculture system,” says Kartini Samon, researcher at GRAIN, a Spain-based non-profit.

GRAIN has come out with a detailed study on how agri-business giants are pushing the golden rice in Asian countries in the name of countering malnutrition. About 90 per cent of the global production and consumption of rice is in Asia.

The region also accounts for a significant population suffering from Vitamin A deficiency. The study says that rice does lack micronutrients like Vitamin A or its precursor, beta-carotene. Hence, it is traditionally eaten with a side dish, like vegetables or meat-based proteins to complement the lack of micronutrients in rice-rich diets.

However, the use of golden rice has not reduced the prevalence of Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) — it remains prevalent in poor and developed countries as well. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 250 million pre-school children are vitamin-A deficient.

Poverty and lack of purchasing power are identified as major causes of malnutrition, including VAD. These issues cannot be addressed by golden rice. Further, fortification makes food costly and less accessible for the poor.

Dr Gene Nisperos, from Philippines’ Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD) and UP Manila College of Medicine, says the claim that golden rice is safe is not backed by any evidence or outside laboratory experiments.

“It cannot pass the rigors of science. Some of the studies being presented were based only on literature of individual protein characters,” says Nisperos.

“It is a business strategy which will wipe out the farmers’ seeds and replace it with commercial ones that are still untested and have the potential to produce long-term problems in agriculture. The golden rice trojan horse must be stopped at all costs,” adds Panerio.

Labour Resource Center (LRC), Bangladesh, along with Bangladesh Krishok Federation, Bangladesh Bhumihin Samity, Bangladesh Kishani Sabha and Bangladesh Adivasi Samity, formed a human chain to demonstrate against the plan in capital Dhaka.

“There are plenty of vegetables and fruits in our country which are rich in Vitamin A, especially yellow and green vegetables and fruits. There is no need for Golden Rice,” says Shibli Anowar, from the LRC.

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