The Philippines Dodged A Hidden Bullet With Its Ruling Against Golden Rice – Here’s Why 

May 24, 2024

by MASIPAG National Office

The genetically modified Golden rice is slated to be planted in more than five hundred thousand hectares of rice paddies in the Philippines by 2028. With a below-average yield performance already observed in many provinces in the country, Golden Rice would have been a disaster in the making had it not been stopped by the Philippine court. 

Mang Graciano Manlangit is a conventional rice farmer from San Andres in the province of Catanduanes. One of the three farmers picked by Golden Rice’s government-corporate developer, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), he was given seeds of Golden Rice in early 2022 that he planted in his half-hectare land (500 square meters). The province of Catanduanes is one of the priority provinces identified by the Philippine government in its pilot deployment of Golden Rice. Brought by curiosity and production incentives given by PhilRice, Mang Graciano took part in the pilot deployment. 

“The (Golden Rice) yield was average. But compared to the usual varieties we plant, it was cavans behind”

By mid-year 2022, Mang Graciano finally harvested the Golden Rice he planted in his half-hectare rice paddy. “The yield was average. But compared to the usual varieties we plant, it was cavans behind” said Mang Graciano who managed to harvest 30 cavans or 1500 kilograms of Golden Rice in his half-hectare farm. Mang Graciano, whose usual rice variety of choice is an inbred that he locally sources from fellow farmers via seed exchanges and seed buying averages a yield of 60 cavans or 3000 kilograms during drought season and up to 100 cavans or 5000 kilograms during “kinder” seasons meaning little to no erratic weather.

He also observed the unusual emergence of the tungro virus in his area affecting not only his farm but also the other neighboring rice farms. A prevalent disease during the Masagana 99 era in the 1970s that caused leaf discoloration, stunted growth, and reduced yield performance brought by the introduction of the foreign IR8 miracle rice of the International Rice Research Institute, the emergence of the tungro virus in Catanduanes was the first in recent years according to Mang Graciano. He, along with neighboring farmers, suspected that its emergence was due to Golden Rice’s introduction in their area, further citing that it was the only “foreign” seed that they had planted during that season. 

According to PhilRice, the average yield of rice per hectare in the country in 2022 is 90 cavans or roughly 4500 kilograms whereas the average cost to plant a hectare of rice is fifty-five thousand pesos per hectare. Asked about his usual cost of production in his half-hectare rice farm without any subsidies and support, Mang Graciano said that it was around twenty-five thousand pesos. “Instant bankrupt” he claimed had he not received any subsidy from the Government since he was only able to sell it at eighteen pesos per kilo potentially leaving him with roughly two thousand pesos to budget along with his family for the next three months or the next cropping season. 

A Bullet of Poverty and Food Insecurity Dodged 

Last April, the Court of Appeals gave a cease and desist order to all the activities related to Golden Rice and Bt eggplant citing the precautionary principle amid the scientific uncertainties of both crops’ safety to the consumers and the environment. While the ruling focuses more on the environmental and health aspects, the Court’s ruling also managed to dodge a potential problem of food insecurity and debt for farmers amid Golden Rice’s poor yield performance.

From the data reported by PhilRice on the overall yield of Golden Rice as well as its total land area, a below-average yield performance can be observed with PhilRice reporting a yield of 1360 kilograms in a 47-hectare land area of cultivation for the first half of 2023 [1]. Pair it with the average cost of production of rice per hectare along with its farmgate price during that season,  as little as seven thousand pesos as net revenue for the entire three-month cropping season is all a farmer can get. A farmer desiring to cultivate Golden Rice who has minimal or no subsidy coming from the government will see themselves and their family in instant debt by the end of the cropping season.

A decrease of 750,000 metric tons of the country’s national rice yield at the advent of Golden Rice is mighty plenty – 750, 000 metric tons of rice that can sufficiently feed more than four million Filipinos for an entire year

In a webinar held by the Golden Rice project in November of 2022, Dr. Ronan Zagado reported that the Government aims to plant Golden Rice by 2028 covering almost five hundred thousand hectares of the country’s rice planting area. In 2023, the Philippine Government recorded an overall yield of 20.64 million metric tons of rice over the country’s 4.8 million hectares averaging a yield of 4.3 tons per hectare. Suppose that its five hundred thousand hectares were replaced by Golden Rice which only averages a yield of 2.8 tons per hectare as observed in 2023, the projected total rice yield now will only be at 18.28 million metric tons – a decrease of 750,000 metric tons of rice or roughly a reduction of 4% in the national rice productivity rate of the country – 750, 000 metric tons of rice which can sufficiently feed more than four million Filipinos for an entire year. 

The Philippines is still one of the world’s top rice importers, having only a 77% rice self-sufficiency rate in 2022. A decrease of 750,000 metric tons of the country’s national rice yield at the advent of Golden Rice is mighty plenty especially since this projected loss comprises almost 20% of the total rice we imported from 2023 alone. Should Golden Rice continue, the Philippines is expected to import more foreign rice.  An increase in rice importation and foreign dependency on the country’s staple food entails a domino effect on farmers and consumers bearing its brunt. Purchasing powers to buy and access basic needs and adequate and nutritious food will decrease further resulting in poverty and malnutrition such as vitamin A deficiency. 

Vitamin A deficiency is a structural problem that needs structural solutions

When asked what other crops he cultivates, Mang Graciano proudly said that he and his wife plant organic vegetables in their backyard. “This is where we source our vegetables, and it’s organic!” exclaimed Mang Graciano’s wife. Their humble vegetable garden comprises eggplant, squash, malunggay, and beans among others – local vegetables that are naturally rich in vitamin A and other nutrients that their family consumes. 

As a national program, Golden Rice claims to address Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is asserted as a major cause of avoidable blindness among children and breastfeeding women in rural areas such as Catanduanes. Presently, the incidence of VAD has been reduced from a severe public health concern to a moderate one due to the Philippine Government’s interventions ranging from Vitamin A supplementation to feeding programs of locally available Vitamin A-rich vegetables. 

According to Ace William Tria of the Catanduanes Agriculture Office, the state of VAD incidence in Catanduanes currently has no official data and is only being done on physical observations. He added that VAD could have been avoided and that there is no need for Golden Rice if we could just make vegetables appealing to children [2].

An Agroecological Future

“In the long run, we plan to shift from conventional farming to organic farming,” said Mang Graciano. Aside from the ever-costly and fluctuating prices of synthetic farm inputs and prices of their products, Mang Graciano and his wife have also observed some level of degradation in their soil that they suspect was due to their constant application of chemical inputs. “In conventional farming, we normally let the soil rest after planting it with rice. But since prices are fluctuating, we and the soil cannot afford to rest” said Mang Graciano. “I don’t think it is sustainable so we are now looking for an alternative” he added. Mang Graciano’s sibling who happens to be a MASIPAG member farmer was enthusiastic enough to introduce him to farmer-led agroecology. 

“Aside from my husband and I, the other farmers in our community (who are also MASIPAG members) were able to supply all of the 110 households in our community with our own harvest of rice,”

In many areas of the Bicol region where Catanduanes is situated, MASIPAG farmers observe bountiful harvests in all aspects – nutritious, environmental, and economical, and strengthen solidarity. Cora Tesorero, a MASIPAG farmer living in the town of Bato in Catanduanes has just recently harvested her half a hectare rice farm using traditional and farmer-bred varieties she got from MASIPAG. A half-hectare rice farm that functions as a trial farm, Ate Cora treats her rice farm as an on-site laboratory to further observe which varieties of rice are better performing in different weather conditions and for consumption and local marketing. “Aside from my husband and I, the other farmers in our community (who are also MASIPAG members) were able to supply all of the 110 households in our community with our own harvest of rice,” proudly shared Ate Cora. 

The recent court ruling against Golden Rice, albeit a health and environmental case in nature per se has also saved us from its potentially disastrous impacts on our food security and local economy. What this tells us then is that the discourses on health, environment, food, and economy are matters that are intricately intertwined with one another and therefore necessitate a structural approach rather than a band-aid solution such as Golden Rice. Indeed, as proclaimed by economists and experts alike, the recent court ruling against Golden Rice will affect our food security and economy – and it is for the good, that we have just dodged a bullet of deepening hunger and poverty. 

[1]  PhilRice. 2023. Malusog Rice Program Stats as of September 2023. Malusog Rice E-newsletter. https://us2.campaign-archive.com/?u=831d5b3f7694549624621422c&id=86085b837d

[2] Conde M et al. 2023. Genetic engineering against malnutrition: Does Golden Rice live up to its promise? Unbiased the News! https://unbiasthenews.org/genetic-engineering-against-malnutrition-does-golden-rice-live-up-to-its-promise/