MASIPAG’s Open Letter to the Editor of The Guardian’s Article on Golden Rice: Respect the Knowledge and Agency of the Filipino People

June 3, 2024

by MASIPAG National Office

We hold deep with respect The Guardian’s commitment to impactful journalism and science communication that gives voice to the powerless. However, The Guardian’s recent article, and in fact, the second one, regarding Greenpeace and the Philippine Court ruling against Golden Rice fails to meet this standard.

As Filipino farmers, scientists, development workers, and citizens dedicated to a sustainable, just, and ecologically sound food and agriculture system, MASIPAG cannot stand by The Guardian’s misinformed and ideologically driven claims that undermine our collective aspirations. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and the richness of our local and cultural practices, The Guardian has succumbed to the worldview of Golden Rice’s proponents in publishing an article that dismisses the efficacy of our natural vitamin A-rich crops in combating Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) – these doable, people-led solutions. Moreover, the implicit assertion that our local solutions are backward, not at scale, disjointed from reality, and unscientific while positioning corporate lackeys as the saviors, is both condescending and inaccurate.

Let us, the Filipino people, share our story

Our country is one of the world’s 18 mega-biodiverse countries blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including various crops rich in Vitamin A. Despite this natural wealth, western and corporate proponents of Golden Rice for two decades have painted this genetically modified rice as essential for alleviating VAD in the Philippines. Yet, a thorough and honest academic approach would question why this problem persists amidst our natural abundance ultimately finding the solutions systemically and from within.

Historically, the colonial takeover of our lands and the erasure of our local knowledge systems have for the past centuries breached our sovereignty over our food and agriculture. This colonial legacy continues to influence our agricultural policies and practices and ultimately the current shape of our state as a nation as it stands that the Philippines is rightfully an agricultural nation. Ironically, despite the natural abundance, the Philippines is one of the top importers of agricultural products of today despite its vast potential to be self-sufficient. A dependency resulting from global free trade agreements influenced by former colonial powers, which have kept our local economy in a state of perpetual export-oriented, import-dependent limbo, purchasing powers, and accessibility towards our naturally abundant and nutritious crops becomes harder and harder even for food producers.

And this import dependency will be further entrenched by Golden Rice. 

In a webinar held by the Golden Rice Project in November of 2022 [1], proponents aim 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 [2], 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. 

In an already precarious state of agriculture, the proliferation of Golden Rice seeds further poses a significant threat to our agricultural independence and food sovereignty. Out-crossing and seed mixing with Golden Rice will contaminate our heirloom rice varieties, which have been preserved for centuries by our indigenous communities. Once contamination occurs, it will be impossible to clean up, threatening our rich agricultural heritage, including traditional varieties like kinandang pula, pirurutong, dinurado, and milagrosa. Moreover, there is no present agreement to provide Golden Rice’s seeds, which shall be disseminated for free indefinitely. Farmers will eventually be forced to pay, leading to yet again a dependence on foreign companies. In conjunction, seed and land ownership is the cornerstone of farming in the Philippines—those who control seeds and lands control food, and those who control food control power. 


Having said this reality- the plight of the Filipino people, The Guardian’s “fearless, investigative journalism that gives voice to the powerless and holding power to account” must then be ultimately upheld, especially when addressing societal issues. It is therefore essential to recognize that Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) is a structural problem that demands a comprehensive and holistic approach – a kind of contemplation that The Guardian failed to consider in their article.

Golden Rice is often highlighted by its creators and proponents as a critical solution to VAD. However, we Filipino people for the longest time have been reiterating that we have multiple local and indigenous crops that are not only effective against VAD but also culturally and ecologically appropriate. Our local crops such as malunggay (moringa), kalabasa (squash), and kamote (sweet potato) are naturally rich in Vitamin A and widely available across the country. These crops are integral to our diets and agricultural practices. Last year, our country observed hundreds of tons of squash were left lying around unsold. Massive overproduction of squash in the country has been observed for three straight years now yet the government has yet to find a solution on how to address it. On the other hand, Golden Rice is enjoying much attention and limitless resources from the government, IRRI, and corporations, to the detriment of our food and agriculture. 

A Grave and Ideological Misrepresentation of the Court Case

The Guardian’s article incorrectly and deceivingly claims Greenpeace “convinced” the court to halt Golden Rice operations. The case details are public knowledge, yet The Guardian ignored these facts, akin to a colonialist disregarding the true narrative of the locals. The truth is that the Philippine court halted the production of Golden Rice “until such time that the concerned respondent government agencies submit proof of safety and compliance with all legal requirements.” This decision was based on evidences submitted by both petitioners and respondents, statements of witnesses and scientific experts, and the country’s Constitution, not merely Greenpeace’s influence.

Specifically, the Philippine court found that no actual tests were conducted to ensure the long-term safety of Golden Rice. Instead, the regulators relied heavily on reviews of related literature and the concept of substantial evidence as a principle to ascertain the safety of the GM crop. No genuine, exhaustive, independent, and active monitoring activity was conducted by the regulators. 

The court also found that the regulator’s risk assessment provisions were too broad and general, relying on information from the public rather than initiating proactive monitoring activities. Our court even recommended that the drafters of our biosafety policy should adopt a more realistic timeframe for processing biosafety permits (BSPs). These permits should be thoroughly reviewed and evaluated by the concerned assessors and regulators rather than being hastily issued to comply with shorter periods prescribed by laws like the Ease of Doing Business Law.

Proper monitoring is a crucial part of risk assessment, necessary to observe, identify, and address possible risks of GMO activities that might not be apparent from scientific literature alone. As it stands, the burden is on the regulators to perform this obligation and responsibility since this is their mandate. 

Of Questionable Intention 

Golden Rice proponent Dr. Martin Qaim who was quoted in the article further demonstrates how science can be used as a tool to peddle decontextualization of societal and structural problems such as VAD just to artificially manufacture the need for Golden Rice. In 2003, Dr. Qaim reported a spectacular yield increase of up to 87%, based entirely on data supplied by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Co. This report was rebutted by many scientists, including Dr. Shantu Shantaram of Syngenta, who remarked that publishing such premature manuscripts based on seemingly not rigorous data does a disservice to science and technology development [3].

Additionally, Dr. Qaim’s report among others suppresses significant ethical concerns, such as the clandestine feeding trial of Golden Rice to schoolchildren in China by a group of U.S. scientists. Responsible journalists at the Guardian should report that, following publication in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2012) [4], it was revealed that neither the parents of the children nor the regulatory authority in China were informed of the experiment and its potential risks. Approval documents were fabricated, leading to the paper’s retraction in 2015 and the lead author being banned from conducting research on human subjects for two years [5].

A Call for Respect and Recognition

The Guardian consciously lumped the number of Filipino organizations and individuals [1] that filed against the commercialization of Golden Rice into ‘local farmers’, which to us is a clear step to silence the narrative of Filipino organizations fighting for their right to health and the environment. We urge the Guardian to respect the agency and knowledge of the Filipino people. Our approach to solving VAD is holistic, treating it as a structural issue rather than relying on a single technological fix such as Golden Rice. The portrayal of corporate-led solutions as superior not only undermines our efforts but also perpetuates a colonial mindset that we must move beyond.

Our voices and stories must be heard. The Filipino people possess the knowledge and resources to address our own challenges. We have been fighting tooth and nail for more than two decades, on all fronts, because we know that Filipino farmers and the people in general deserve better. We also fight because, to us, rice is life. We invite The Guardian to engage with local perspectives and to consider the broader socio-economic, political, and cultural contexts in their reporting. ###

[1] Petitioners include farmer-led network Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines, Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), Climate Change Network for Community-Based Initiatives (CCNCI), Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns (SALINLAHI), and individuals including former defense secretary and senator Orlando Mercado, crop scientist Dr Teodoro Mendoza, University of the Philippines Manila professor and spokesperson of Samahan at Ugnayan ng mga Konsyumer para sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan Reggie Vallejos, social critic and concerned citizen Mae Paner, human rights advocate, and former Commissioner of the National Anti-Poverty Commission Liza Maza, farmers Virginia Nazareno, Jocelyn Jamandron, and rice breeder Lauro Diego.

Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) is a farmer-led network of more than 500 farmers’ organizations, Non-government organizations, and scientists working towards the sustainable use and management of biodiversity through farmers’ control of genetic and biological resources, agricultural production, and associated knowledge.

References:

  1. PhilRice. 2022. Golden Rice Multi-Year Deployment Timeline
  2.  PhilRice. 2023. Malusog Rice Program Stats as of September 2023. Malusog Rice E-newsletter. https://us2.campaign-archive.com/?u=831d5b3f7694549624621422c&id=86085b837d
  3. Scoones I. 2003. Regulatory manoeuvres: The Bt cotton controversy in India. Institute of Development Studies. ISBN 1 85864 511 5 
  4. Tang, G., Hu, Y., Yin, S. A., Wang, Y., Dallal, G. E., Grusak, M. A., & Russell, R. M. (2012). β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 96(3), 658–664. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.030775 (Retraction published Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep;102(3):715)
  5.  Qui. J. 2012. China sacks officials over Golden Rice controversy. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2012.11998