Farmer-scientist group deplore secretive visit of Bill Gates to IRRI, Golden Rice commercialization possible agenda

Los Baños, Laguna – Farmer-scientist group MASIPAG expressed distrust in the recent visit of IT mogul and American billionaire Bill Gates to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) last April 8. Together with his wife Melinda and members of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the visit expectedly has something to do with the IRRI’s various research on genetically modified Golden Rice. Bill Gates has been reported as one of IRRI’s biggest private donor.

“While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a philanthropic organization, its focus is on high technological solutions like chemical farming and GMOs, thus  we believe that the projects that they are funding will only cause further trouble among the poor farmers and consumers,” said Dr. Chito Medina, National Coordinator of MASIPAG.

The BMGF has been supporting food biofortification programs, which includes fortifying staple crops such as rice and cassava.  It is also supporting the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which is suspected to repeat the same mistakes of the Green Revolution in Asia.  In 2011, the BMGF donated about US$10.3 million dollars to IRRI for the development of Golden Rice, a genetically modified rice that is touted to address Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) problems in developing countries, including the Philippines.

Golden Rice is genetically modified to express beta-carotene, the pre-cursor of Vitamin A.  Apart from the donations of BMGF, about US$100 million dollars has already been spent in the development of Golden Rice from 1991 up to 2000. The GM rice is being developed to supposedly combat VAD, a condition that has been successfully addressed in the Philippines through various fortification and supplementation programs by the national government.

Golden Rice has been met with resistance from farmers’ groups and other concerned civil society organizations as its safety to health and environment has not yet been ascertained. Farmers also claimed that Golden Rice will lead ultimately to control of seeds by huge agrochemical companies. In August 2013, more than 400 farmers and consumers uprooted the clandestine Golden Rice field trial in Pili, Camarines Sur as a show of intense protest.

Golden Rice, Tool for Corporate Control

While Bill Gates has been hailed for funding huge amounts of money on IRRI’s climate-tolerant and biofortified rice varieties, speculations about his interest in controlling food and agriculture began to surface. Gates now owns about 500,000 shares worth US$23 million dollars of Monsanto stock. Monsanto, one of the world’s largest agrochemical and lifescience company has been raking huge amounts of profits from selling chemicals and patented genetically modified seeds. It is highly likely that the approval of Golden Rice would facilitate the entry of more GMOs, which in turn would prove beneficial to agrochemical TNCs.  Golden Rice, MASIPAG says, is but a ‘Trojan horse’ that will further strengthen corporate control over agriculture.

Studies have also shown that genetically modified organisms and its accompanying chemicals may prove hazardous to health and the environment. To date, there are no studies that will prove safety of Golden Rice to health and the environment.

“We find it distasteful that one of the richest man on the planet invests millions of dollars to a project whose use and efficacy is yet unproven. While in the communities, local and natural foods that are rich in Vitamin A such as malunggay (moringa), kamoteng dilaw (yellow sweet potato), kalabasa (squash), etc. are readily available and can be easily grown. Also, Vitamin A supplementation is very effective and supported by the government and is given free among the children” added Medina.

Dr. Medina added that studies have shown that most of the VAD-affected children hail from the impoverished sectors lacking the capacity to access for a balanced and healthy diet, including safe drinking water. VAD, and the problem on hunger in general, Medina states, is rooted in socio-economic inequalities.

“Poverty and lack of access to basic resources are the main cause of VAD and other malnutrition issues. We think that Golden Rice cannot address these.”

Boosting IRRI’s image

Bill Gates’ visit to IRRI has proven to be a much needed boost in its image, which has been declining in the past decades.

“We still have not forgotten the bitter lessons from the Green Revolution and the high-yielding rice varieties (HYVs) of IRRI that failed its promise of better production and better life for poor farmers,” said Diego Dela Cruz Jr., a farmer from Agusan del Sur. “The HYVs, along with its expensive inputs have put many farmers into further poverty and indebtedness.”

IRRI, which celebrated its 55th anniversary last April 4 has introduced the so-called modern varieties of rice that promised to have better yields and higher income for the farmers. By 1970s, the HYVs started declining and various pests and diseases have developed, significantly reducing rice production in the Philippines and other neighbouring countries. The massive spread of HYVs has also resulted to the loss of traditional rice varieties that are better adapted to the local environments. The intensive application of chemical inputs has resulted to soil degradation, and the monocropping practice of HYVs has affected the biodiversity in the farm.

“After its 55 years of existence, what has IRRI done to the Filipino farmers and the country’s rice productivity? The Philippines has even become the world’s number one net rice importer! The quality of life of poor farmers became worse,” lamented Dela Cruz.

Since then, IRRI has shifted its research focus to genetically modified rice (“Gene Revolution”) that is also proving to be problematic.

“Why insist on a potentially harmful technology if there are safer means to address VAD and malnutrition?” asked Dela Cruz.

We believe that Golden Rice is being promoted to clean up and sugar-coat the image of GMOs, which have been proved by many independent studies to be harmful to health and the environment. By touting the Golden Rice as a humanitarian project, it makes GMOs more acceptable among farmers, governments and consumer” added Medina.

Alternative Measures to Malnutrition

“Poverty and hunger are the main culprits in malnutrition cases, which include Vitamin A. Therefore to address VAD, we should address the lack of resources to ensure that people have access to proper nutrition,” said Dr. Medina.

“Farmers should have their own land to till, and sufficient appropriate technology and post-harvest support to ensure better productivity,”said Dela Cruz.

MASIPAG has been pushing for agroecology and sustainable agriculture (SA) to improve food security in the communities. SA entails diversification of the farms which should also provide more safe and nutritious food for the family and community. Along with several local governments, MASIPAG has also been working on strengthening local markets so that more consumers can avail affordable organic foods and support the local producers.

“Global and international studies such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food have recognized agroecology and other farmer innovations as a means to address food security and rural development. We hope that Bill Gates and his foundation likewise recognize that providing safe and more contextually appropriate technologies will better serve the farmers and consumers of developing countries, rather than a potentially harmful technology such as Golden Rice.”###