The Philippine's regulatory body, the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) under the Department of Agriculture, has given golden rice the nod of approval to grow this genetically modified (GM) crop commercially. That country's farmers will now grow this variety of beta carotene-rich rice side by side with other crops in their fields. The Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) submitted the data on field trials of the rice to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in November 2017. Now it has been under review at the bio safety core committee for about four years. Will the regulatory authority finally give the sought-after approval for this GM rice's commercial production in Bangladesh?
Globally, there are strong anti-GM food crops lobbies which fear that these crops may have unknown consequences on the health of the GM rice's consumers as well as on the environment. There are pro-Green groups in the Philippines who mounted strong legal barriers, even resorted to vandalism, to stop the regulatory body from giving approval of the GM rice for commercial production. The pro-environment group apart, there are also the ones who think big biotechnology and agrochemical companies have a stake in promoting the GM crops including the golden rice in countries where rice is the staple. Indeed, the agrochemical giant, Syngenta, initially helped the two German scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in the 1990s to equip rice plant with beta-carotene genes from maize. Since then with the help of these scientists this transgenic plant entered the domain of the government-run research institutes in different countries in Asia and elsewhere. So, one cannot dismiss out of hand the complaint that global biotechnology companies are trying to influence the governments and regulatory bodies concerned to give golden rice the green signal so the GM crop may be introduced in those countries' farming practice. Hence is the reason why the golden rice is a headache of the anti-agrochemical activists as well as pro-Green groups. In Bangladesh, for example, the NGOs, the Agricultural Farm Labour Federation and the National Women Farmers and Workers Association, called for an outright ban on the golden rice. They have an identical stand on Bt brinjal (eggplant), another transgenic food crop.
But why is golden rice so important as it is at the centre of such a big controversy?
The original researchers who developed golden rice believed that this biofortified (Vitamin-rich) rice will be able to meet the micronutrient gap that the people, especially, children, suffer from in the developing rice-eating nations. In particular, Vitamin A is the micronutrient that traditional rice lacks. Since Vitamin-A Deficiency (VAD) is the prime reason behind childhood blindness of a large number children in Bangladesh (6.3 per thousand children), it was thought that Vitamin-A-rich golden rice could be an answer to the problem. Also, VAD is the cause of immunodeficiency in both children and adults.
However, there is already a programme in place to feed children vitamin-A-rich food supplements as well as Vitamin-A capsules directly. But such approach to address this widespread public health issue is as costly as it is difficult. Especial efforts like the foreign-aided immunisation programmes are required to treat children of their condition arising from VAD. But if these same children could eat Vitamin-A-enriched rice, which they take at least twice a day, it could practically be a simple, effortless and less costly solution to the problem. Unfortunately, since time immemorial conservatism has been a big roadblock to the introduction of anything new in society. History testifies to it. Mention may be made here of the Luddites, a section of English workers, who fearing job loss would in the 19th century attack and destroy machines in the cotton mills. They hated machines. But still earlier, the Church came in the way of scientific progress. In that case, the fear was more deep-rooted as science threatened the very basis of religious beliefs. In fact, behind such anti-progress conservatism were basically the vested groups in society and in the governments.
But this is not to say that all forms of conservatism are reactionary. If truth be told, conservatism, sometimes, plays a very positive role in protecting human society from unnecessary and risky practices and enterprises. For, many thoughtless interventions in the natural way of things have also been made in the past in the name of scientific progress and development. For example, mindless destruction of the forests and unrestrained burning of fossil fuels extracted from the womb of the Earth have been going on for centuries. The suicidal fallouts of such actions are now for all to see. Had social conservatism been able to play an effective role in this case, humankind could avoid the catastrophic phenomenon of the climate change from happening. However, it is often hard to determine which kind of conservatism is helpful for mankind and what is not in the long run. Informed choices and decisions can show the way out of such dilemmas of historical proportions.
So, are the opponents of GM foods including those of golden rice on the right side of history? There is no foolproof answer to the question. One may then ask the still broader question if biotechnology that created GM crops is a branch of knowledge worth pursuing.
There is no denying that biotechnology has opened up a world of possibilities before humanity.
Like the science of the ultimate particles peers into the heart of matter, so does molecular biology or biotechnology into that of life itself. Here lies the fear. This is why there is a vehement opposition to any kind of tinkering with genes, the building blocks of life. Who knows what monster it might create to threaten the existence of human race! But one has also to be careful about the kind of conservatism that is blind.
So, there should be forums to hold informed debates on the pros and cons of a GM food, the golden rice. Thus the public should be given an informed choice to make in favour of accepting or rejecting the golden rice.