The world is full of woe: We’re still suffering from the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; economic uncertainty and political anxiety dominate the headlines; and on top of that, here in the Philippines, it’s the middle of typhoon season.
Despite these worries—or perhaps because of them—it makes sense to pause and reflect on a piece of welcome news.
This landmark decision could go down in history as a truly great moment in the story of agriculture. It means a nation in the developing world is leading the way to solve a global health problem through innovation and technology.
Golden rice is a miracle crop. It takes one of the planet’s staple foods and enriches it with beta carotene, through the safe science of genetic modification. This nutritional fortification can boost the intake of vitamin A among impoverished people in the Philippines as well as in Asia, Africa, and around the world.
That’s vital, because vitamin-A deficiency causes up to half a million cases of childhood blindness each year, according to the World Health Organization. For many, the suffering doesn’t end with the loss of sight but with the loss of life.
So this GM is literally a life saver.
Moreover, golden rice doesn’t ask people to change their diets. They can still eat their favorite rice-based dishes. But if the rice they eat is golden rice, it will nourish them with the vitamin A they need to see and to survive.
Scientists have worked on golden rice for years. In 2018, regulators in the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand declared it safe for human consumption. In developed countries, however, there’s no commercial market for golden rice. People in those places already consume plenty of vitamin A. They don’t need golden rice.
Elsewhere, the need is desperate. The International Rice Research Institute, which is based in the Philippines, estimates that 17 percent of Filipino children under the age of five don’t receive enough vitamin A.
Golden rice is for them.
Yet it has remained out of reach. Anti-biotechnology activists have lied about what it does and even have led rioters to destroy research fields.
Their deceptions and violence made golden rice politically controversial—and delayed its commercial approval. For millions of children, the misery of malnutrition dragged on.
Everything changed in July, when the Department of Agriculture in Manila finally gave a green light to the commercial planting of golden rice. The first crops probably will go in the ground next year. Widespread adoption may take a few additional years.
For millions of malnourished kids, help is on the way at last.
In my part of the Philippines, we don’t grow rice, so I won’t plant or harvest golden rice myself. Yet I’ve seen and experienced first-hand the benefits of GM crops because I’ve grown pest-resistant corn that makes our farms much more productive. I’m looking forward to additional varieties of GM crops, such as the pest-resistant eggplant that regulators in Manila also approved, in another important decision.
It provides one more tool in the toolbox for Filipino farmers and it will help keep food prices in check for Filipino consumers.
As much as we can appreciate the long-overdue approval of golden rice, we should keep things in perspective. This crop will help a lot of people, but it won’t solve many of the problems that afflict agriculture in the Philippines.
We need laws and regulations that improve the lives of the vast majority of Filipino farmers. They are subsistence farmers who eat most of what they grow. They probably won’t become producers of golden rice, even though many of them in time may eat it.
We also need public officials who are determined to help these smallholders, who make up the agricultural backbone of the Philippines.
This includes the introduction of more technology. Farmers would benefit from GMs with salt tolerance, for example. That would help us withstand the pressures typhoons put on agriculture. This trait would have the potential to help just about everybody who grows food on this island nation.
Whatever the future holds for farmers in the Philippines, I’m heartened that this summer we’ve taken a step in the right direction with golden rice, offering new hope in a world that needs more of it.