Bangladesh is on the verge of making one of the most important decisions in the history of GM crops: it may become the first country to commercialise and grow golden rice.
This miracle crop promises to save lives and prevent blindness in children. Packed with beta carotene in the yellow grains that inspire its name, golden rice holds the potential to wipe out the Vitamin-A deficiencies that have caused so much suffering in the developing world.
The toll is enormous: an estimated one million people die each year because they don’t have enough Vitamin A in their food. Most of them are children. An additional half million people go blind.
I have observed poverty, malnutrition and disease up close here in the Philippines, where I am a farmer who grows corn and rice. More than one in five of my fellow Filipinos live in dire poverty. The situation is even worse in Bangladesh. Its per-capita GDP is about half of what we enjoy in the Philippines.
Poverty is a root cause of malnutrition and malnutrition gives rise to any number of severe problems with long-term consequences. It can stunt growth in every nightmarish way, from physical stature to mental capacity. In the worst cases, it kills.
The good news is that golden rice would fuel the consumption of Vitamin A in poor countries where rice is a staple food. Its regulatory approval would keep people alive and their vision intact. All they would have to do is keep eating the rice-based meals just like they do today.
Science shows that golden rice is safe. We have studied it for two decades. Regulators in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States have accepted it—but hardly anybody in those countries needs golden rice. They get enough Vitamin A in their diet so there is no commercial market.
The situation is different in Asia. Here, golden rice would help hundreds of millions of people in countries such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Bangladesh and the Philippines would also benefit, which is why scientists in our two countries have studied golden rice and pushed for its commercialisation.
Several weeks ago, word got out that Bangladesh would make an important announcement about golden rice on November 15. Anticipating its regulatory approval, media around the world prepared for its coverage. Would Bangladesh indeed become the first developing nation to accept this GMO? Would other countries then follow its example, approving the crop for their own farmers to grow and consumers to eat?
Yet November 15 came and went without an announcement. Perhaps a decision will arrive next week, or maybe next month. We just don’t know. We remain right where we have been, stuck in the maddening limbo of recognising a bad problem, knowing a specific solution, and doing nothing.
The reasons behind Bangladesh’s delay are unclear, but it’s easy to speculate about the political pressures its policymakers face. Here in the Philippines, poorly informed environmental activists destroyed a golden rice testing site in 2013. Beholden to an ideology that refuses to tolerate scientific inquiry, they launched a violent attack on a tool that can fight malnutrition—and their extreme tactics unfortunately have succeeded in delaying the approval of golden rice.
I have planted GM corn on my farm for years. I prefer these crops because they have protected my crops from pests that would have destroyed it, allowing me to grow more food on less land. It is good for the environment, as well as the food security situation of my country. It is also good for me as a farmer. The extra income has helped me pay for the education of my children.
I would love to have the opportunity to plant golden rice—and I am hoping that an approval in Bangladesh would lead to an approval in the Philippines.
A new book by Ed Regis—a science writer with a doctorate in philosophy—makes a persuasive case for this innovative crop. “The effects of withholding, delaying, or retarding golden rice development through overcautious regulation has imposed unconscionable costs in terms of sight and lives lost,” he writes in “Golden Rice: The Imperilled Birth of a GMO Superfood,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
It’s time to stop the suffering of our peoples and grow golden rice. I am hopeful that Bangladesh would do the right thing and show us the way.
Rosalie Ellasus is a first-generation farmer and public servant, growing corn and rice in San Jacinto, Philippines.