Why I support Golden Rice

Michael Purugganan

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I believe that the best way forward for Philippine agriculture is not to dismiss GMOs outright, but to see how we can best use them to our advantage

Michael PuruggananI support Golden Rice.

I love heirloom varieties and I like to buy organic food when I can.

I realize, however, that there are large-scale issues we need to address in our country and the rest of the world – a growing population that threatens to outstrip our agricultural capability, widespread malnourishment among the poor, and the threat of climate change and deteriorating and shrinking land for use in growing food plants.

For some of these problems (not all), we will have to deploy our best technology to address them or we will be in trouble. GMOs are one key technology in our toolkit – not the answer to everything, but appropriate to address some crucial issues.

I support the intelligent and thoughtful use of GMOs to address key problems when they are appropriate. I do not think all GMOs are bad or risky or dangerous, and data shows that some can be environmentally friendly. I – along with the major science organizations such as the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology, the US National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization – do not believe there is anything fundamentally different between a GMO and a conventionally bred crop. I do believe that we should not use GMOs indiscriminately, but each one should be evaluated and tested on its own merits, rather than saying all GMOs are automatically bad. (READ: Golden Rice debate)

Addressing many of the food issues we face in the long term will need changes in society, including the eradication of poverty that can only come about from the political and social will of our people. Vitamin A deficiency, which Golden Rice seeks to alleviate, will only be finally solved by lifting the 30% of our people out of poverty so they can afford a balanced, nutritious diet. 

However, until that day comes, we can use Golden Rice to help not only our people but the nearly 210 million children and pregnant women around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency every year. We can use Golden Rice to reduce the estimated 670,000 deaths and 350,000 cases of blindness among children that we face annually because of this problem. 

Golden Rice can be a technological fix, a bandage that can help address a clear nutritional problem until we can solve the much harder problem of poverty. 

False claims

There is a lot of misinformation on Golden Rice – that it is engineered to need chemicals, that it causes cancers and poses clear health risks, that it will require eating large amounts of the rice to be effective, that it will inevitably reduce biodiversity, that it is being sold by big biotech companies – to name a few objections. (READ: Golden Rice: The next GMO battleground)

These and many other claims about the downside of Golden Rice are false. They are either factually inaccurate or have no credible scientific basis. Those who perpetuate these myths are doing a disservice to our country, especially to the malnourished, poorest Filipinos, and I urge everyone to seek out credible scientific evidence (with the stress on being both credible and scientific) to find the truth for themselves. 

A good place to start is the International Rice Research Institute, which is a humanitarian, public sector scientific research organization whose only goal is to ensure that we have enough food to meet the challenges our world faces (see IRRI’s “About Golden Rice” page).

I know that they may be perceived as biased because they are the developers of Golden Rice, but the scientists at IRRI are hardworking, decent people of high integrity who only want to help feed the world’s hungry and have the best technical expertise on rice on the planet.

It was IRRI, after all, that helped prevent widespread famines in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s when they produced the high yielding rice varieties we eat today. It is not outlandish to say that without the scientific work of IRRI, hundreds of millions around the world would have died of starvation. It should be a point of pride that these research laboratories in the Philippines have saved so many lives in our country and around the world.

Or you can read the scientific literature for yourself. Yes, you as a layman can do this, with patience and willingness. Many research papers that are published in reputable scientific journals can now be accessed through the Internet, so you can get hold of a copy of the relevant research directly and not rely on blogs or newspapers to tell you what to think. 

To read these papers, I would recommend you follow the advice at this post. This will help you separate credible scientific work from studies that are either biased or poorly conducted.

As you wade through the facts and myths about Golden Rice and other GMOs, keep an open mind. Learn to distinguish between strong and weak scientific evidence, between supposition and rational thinking, between fact and fiction. It will help you not only on this issue but on countless other scientific and technological issues that we confront in the Philippines – from global climate change, to supposed carcinogenic properties of contraceptives, to stem cell therapies.

And if you can, get to know a scientist. These are people trained to sift through evidence, to be skeptical and objective, and to think rationally and logically. Even if they are not experts on the specific issue you want to talk about, they usually can help in figuring out how to approach technical issues. There are not many of them in our country, but you can find a few in our major universities. Be aware, though, that some scientists have their own opinions and biases that can creep into their thinking.

Use your judgement in deciding who is being objective and who is not, and when in doubt do what scientists routinely do – be critical and rely on what scientific data (from reading the research papers) has to say. 

I believe that the best way forward for Philippine agriculture is not to dismiss GMOs outright, but to see how we can best use them to our advantage. I believe that we need to use GMOs intelligently, and that many GMOs can be used for the good of our farmers, our people, and the environment.

Golden Rice is one such GMO, and that is why I support its development. – Rappler.com

The author is a Filipino plant geneticist, and a professor of biology and Dean of Science at New York University. For the record, he studies the genetics and evolution of crop plants, does not work on GMO crops, and has never received a single centavo from private corporations.

The other side of the debate: “Unmasking Golden Rice,” by Von Hernandez, Greenpeace (Nov 25, 2013)

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