A Deficient Approach

Imagine looking out on the historic rice terraces and seeing a thriving, working landscape – a landscape where the indigenous farmers are using their traditional knowledge and expertise to build a sustainable and culturally appropriate economic enterprise.

This is the vision of RICE Inc, an NGO working with villagers in the Philippines to protect heirloom rice varieties that have been cultivated for generations in an impressive landscape of high-level terraces. Across Asia, rice farmers cultivate an incredible diversity of rice crops adapted to their regions, but the influence of modern, hybrid and genetically engineered rice varieties threatens their future.

The announcement last month of support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for further development of genetically modified ‘golden rice’ in the Philippines and Bangladesh is the latest threat, and has been strongly opposed by RICE Inc and other farmers’ groups participating in Slow Food’s Terra Madre network for small-scale sustainable food production.

The farmers’ organizations are worried that golden rice, being developed to increase Vitamin A in the local diet, will do more harm than good. They are concerned that GM crops require large-scale use of fertilizers and damage soil fertility; that the health risks linked to consumption remain unclear; and that the contamination of non-GM crops is an issue occurring all around the world. But most worrying of all, they are concerned about the massive loss of local food and cultural diversity that would accompany its widespread introduction.

Golden rice is a genetically modified strain containing beta carotene, which gives the rice a yellow color and is converted by the body to vitamin A. Following 20 years of investment and research, the Gates’ grant of US$ 10 million to the International Rice Research Institute is destined to fund the final stages of development and evaluation of golden rice varieties, with hopes that it will be available in the Philippines in 2013 and Bangladesh in 2015.

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) affects 90 million children in Southeast Asia alone, and causes 670,000 deaths and 350,000 cases of blindness among children worldwide each year. However, for many, golden rice is not the ‘golden’ answer to this very serious problem.

“The world desperately needs to address the plight of children with preventable diseases. But the reason that so many children in Southeast Asia suffer vitamin deficiencies isn’t that their rice lacks vitamin A, it’s that the only thing that they can afford to eat is rice,” argues writer and activist Raj Patel. “An end to vitamin A blindness won’t come from strange colored food, but restoring the investment in agriculture, education and welfare that poor families have long demanded. Gates is patching a broken agricultural and economic system, rather than listening to the voices of the people who have plenty of robust, proven ideas about how to fix it.”

Nancy Haselow, from new golden rice project partner Helen Keller International that works on Vitamin A delivery programs, asks us to picture a different scenario on the foundation’s blog. “Imagine living in Bangladesh and eating little more than a bowl of rice or two each day. Rice has been part of your diet since you were a child, and you feed it to your children because it’s filling, inexpensive and accessible.” She goes on to tell us that rice has calories, but it has minimal additional nutritional value and that a diversified diet that includes nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables is necessary to prevent sight- and life-threatening deficiencies, including vitamin A deficiency. But in the their opinion, if diverse diets are unaffordable or unobtainable, nutritionally enhanced staple crops are the best way to help the two billion people worldwide facing deficiencies.

A 2010 report from Greenpeace takes a different stance, outlining how the resources given to the development of golden rice would be far better applied toward existing methods to fight VAD. Significant improvements have been made over the past two decades in the treatment of VAD, and these are due to a combination of four strategies, said to be well-tested and proven to be successful: vitamin A supplementation with capsules, the fortification of food with vitamins and minerals, oral supplements or food additives, and dietary diversification.

With the end goal of rebuilding local food systems for the world’s poor, these short-term approaches are part of the journey to more resilient solutions. Even the World Bank has admitted that rediscovering and use of local plants and conservation of vitamin A rich green leafy vegetables and fruits have dramatically reduced VAD-threatened children over the past 20 years in cheap and efficient ways.

Laurence Padilla from the Philippines’ Palawan Center for Appropriate Rural Technology is quick to point out that malnutrition is partly a question of awareness and ownership/access to the right food. “The United States is a very rich country but they have a lot of malnourished people. How can they solve malnourishment in other countries if they themselves cannot solve it? Our traditional seeds have been used by several generations and we do not buy them from any company. Why do they want to force us to use GMO?”

Grassroots groups across the region are focusing on the preservation of these traditional rice varieties, as the fundamental link to the continuation of their culture and local economy. RICE Inc executive director Vicky Garcia commented, “The preservation of traditional rice and its cultivation on the terraces are allowing us to keep Indigenous skills, knowledge and resources in practice that will allow the new generation to appreciate and continue… while the native rice varieties that are actually grown in the mountains and in the terrace may have slower yields and growth cycles compared to lowland rice, this centuries-old tradition can be bridged to economic opportunity.”

Also in the Philippines, MASIPAG – a farmer-led network of organizations and scientists working towards the sustainable use and management of biodiversity through farmers’ control of genetic and biological resources – is disappointed in the announcement, but not surprised.

“It is not a shock to hear the Gates Foundation putting their resources to the rice research institutes for this GM project as they are one of the top stockholders of Monsanto Corp – the largest corporation in the world aggressively pushing genetically modified organisms as the answer to poverty and malnutrition,” said Georita Pitong, MASIPAG’s coordinator. “We strongly oppose GMOs, and our network of farmers, scientists and NGOs has been working since 1986 towards the sustainable use and management of biodiversity through farmers’ control of genetic and biological resources, agricultural production and associated knowledge.”

Pavel Partha of Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK) commented that the answers to the major problems they are facing can often be found through local knowledge and varieties, but it is overlooked in favor of ‘modern’ science, which in turn may wipe out local diversity.

“Following the devastation of cyclone Alia this year, a so-called agricultural rehabilitation program financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on trying to develop saline tolerant rice varieties and hybrid maize,” said Partha. Meanwhile BARCIK has been searching out local varieties of rice that will produce good yields in the future, and already have a group of 14 types of local rice varieties that are saline tolerant and adaptable to the climate change situation.

Its time to adopt this culturally and environmentally sensitive approach in major responses, avoiding the lone band-aid that’s likely to come unstuck. What we really need is a holistic solution that goes to the roots of malnutrition and supports local farming to build strong food communities, supported by effective interim measures. This is the approach Slow Food is taking with the A Thousand Gardens in Africa project this year, working with the Terra Madre network to create food gardens in communities and schools to cultivate local food varieties and spread the know-how to families.

Let’s imagine a world where the poorest people are supported to build sustainable food systems, provide food security and increase agricultural diversity in a way that is empowering communities, providing income to rural farmers, and improving the nutritional status of people around the globe.


The Gates funding is also supporting a BioCassava Plus project in Nigeria and Kenya, which aims to add beta-carotene, iron and protein to cassava, a staple crop eaten by more than 250 million people in Africa. You can read a response here from Slow Food International vice-president John Kariuki from Kenya.

To find out more about actions being carried out by the Slow Food network around the world against GM crops, click here.

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Bess Mucke
[email protected]

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