Gambling with Golden Rice: Do we need this?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 08 Oct 2015 8 Comments

At a time when there is much discussion in the country about the aborted ordinance on the land bill, there now comes a thrust from the proponents of the industrial type of agriculture in the form of a campaign “Allow Golden Rice”, starting from the Philippines, moving on to Bangladesh and India. Ironically, the campaign was headed by someone who was at the top of the Monsanto hierarchy. The campaign touched India’s metros, New Delhi and Mumbai in the second half of March this year.


What is Golden Rice?


There are millions of undernourished children in the developing world, who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, commonly known as VAD. Among children, VAD significantly increases the risk of common illnesses such as diarrhoea and measles. With pregnant mothers, VAD occurs especially during the last trimester.


Golden Rice is a genetically engineered variety made by splicing a gene from the daffodil plant and a bacterium which is expected to produce beta-carotene. The US $ 100 million Golden Rice project is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the European Community Biotech Program and the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science.  


Vitamin A is an essential vitamin in human nutrition, which is important to maintain good vision, especially at night. It helps form healthy skin, bones and teeth. It is also closely linked to a healthy immune system. 


What causes VAD?


The primary reason why VAD occurs, especially in small children, is due to malnutrition. But, the Golden Rice is hardly the solution. India is blessed with locally relevant and culturally appropriate food systems which provide us with excellent sources of Vitamin A. Leafy greens, yellow vegetables  such as spinach, and the abundantly available moringa leaves, amaranth leaves and a myriad of local fruits and vegetables, such as, sweet potato, mango and papaya are very rich sources of Vitamin A.  


The root cause for the spread of VAD is the loss of biological diversity in India’s food basket. The permanent adoption of mono-culture, as, for example, continuous rice-wheat rotation as seen in north western India, primarily Punjab, in the so-called highly chemically extractive industrial type of agriculture, euphemistically known as the green revolution, is the root cause for not just VAD, but many other nutrient-related deficiencies in humans. Go to the interiors of India, especially tribal areas. Why don’t they have this VAD problem?


Their food basket is varied, staples like rice or millets, a spread of vegetables, and wild fruits and berries. Adivasi women in Maharashtra have rediscovered a variety of vegetables, highly nutritious, that naturally grow in the jungles. The spread features plants like kurdu (silver cockscomb), kartoli (spine gourd), khurasin (niger), tetu (Indian trumpet flower), shevga (drumstick),  wild mushrooms and even yam leaves  (elephant foot plant). All these are very rich sources of Vitamin A. These plants grow naturally every year in the season and are available free.


Recently, a self-help group, ML Dhavale Trust, in Maharashtra, organised the Rann Bhaji Ustav (wild vegetables fair), which was a great success. The urban food of the average household is primarily centred on either rice or wheat – a variety of rice-based dishes like the ubiquitous idli or dosa, which titillate the palate, but may not be nutritious, as in the south, or the exclusively wheat-based phulka in the north.


Contamination threat


Since Golden Rice is also a genetically modified crop (GM organism) the threat of contamination with other rice varieties, bred through cross pollination or the wide array of native germplasms, is real. This will create an environmental havoc in our rice cultivation. Instead of addressing the root cause of malnutrition, which is at the centre of VAD, the vested interests are targetting this as another “commodity”. 


Communities in The Philippines and Bangladesh have shown how VAD can be solved through kitchen gardens and agro-ecologically farmed homes and community gardens. The report of the UN Sub-Committee on Nutrition revealed in 1998 that access to vegetables and greens through home gardens plays a significant role in checking VAD over time.


In the Philippines, VAD incidence decreased from 40.1 per cent in 2003 to 15.2 per cent in 2008 among vulnerable children aged six months to five years. This is a very remarkable reduction of 62.1 per cent in a span of five years. This was achieved through enabling access to local vegetables, fruits and tubers that were originally part of the traditional diet. The industrial type green revolution, which focused merely on rice, had completely upset traditional food habits.


In fact, when the “Allow Golden Rice” lobby from Canada toured The Philippines (March 3 – 10, 2015), it was met with strong protests from local farmers. The Philippine farmer-scientist group MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura) reports that local farmer groups called on the Department of Agriculture to disapprove the application for commercialising Golden Rice. They also brought and ate sweet potato to show that these vitamins are readily available, cheap and are the natural sources of Vitamin A. India must follow this example in stemming this gamble on our rice cultivation. 


In India, we are yet to hear about the Golden Rice project, as it was not flashed in the media in a big way. We may probably know more when vested interests slip it into our food system, covertly, without fanfare. If we wish to save our indigenous food systems, we must be in solidarity with our farmers, traditional, tribal et al, and also those in Bangladesh and The Philippines who are averse to this dubious GM crop. At no cost should we surrender our food sovereignty, and the Modi government will do well to revive India’s age old traditional food systems and cultures, so that Indians can lead a healthier life than what most of us urbanites do . 


Odisha state is the granary of Indian rice, with such a huge variety. And that is the reason the Central Rice Research Institute was established in Cuttack in the early 1950s, which has done pioneering research, especially in rice breeding. Formerly headed by late Dr Riccharia, a rice breeder par excellence and patriot to the core, he refused to part with his huge collection of rice germplasms, numbering more than 25000, which the World Bank, wanted to usurp them through bribes. The history of Indian agriculture has clearly shown that lesser men have fallen prey to such lure, for personal, pecuniary and professional gain. Unless the powers that be in India are vigilant, the Golden Rice bogey can sneak in silently, thanks to some of our own past agricultural messiahs who swear by Mahatma Gandhi on public podiums, but, back stage, fly the corporate kite.  

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