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Sunday, November 2, 2014

IRRI to Continue Research on Golden Rice Amid Opposition to GM Foods

Research on the controversial Golden Rice will continue amid sustained campaign from opponents of genetically modified (GM) foods.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) made this clear here at the 4th International Rice Congress (IRC2014), which concluded yesterday with around 1,500 participants from 69 countries.
IRC is organized by the Philippine-based ‎IRRI, and is considered the “Olympics of Rice Science” because it’s the largest such event and is held every four years.
The institute challenged the delegates to the October 27 to November 1 assembly of top rice scientists and researchers‎ to make inclusive to all farmers the benefits of their scientific breakthroughs in rice research.
“No farmer must be left behind,” the challenge went at the IRC2014‎.
“This call to action adds all the more to our resolve to continue the research on Golden Rice, a potential new food- based approach to help fight Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a form of hidden hunger,” said Dr. Violeta VillegasLaguna, Golden Rice coordinator at IRRI in Los Baños, Laguna.
She is here with the 262-odd IRRI delegation. IRRI organized the IRC2014 in collaboration with the Royal Government of Thailand.
Villegas ‎cited the institute’s unwavering resolve to go on with the effort to produce a rice variety rich with beta carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A.
This is because not only farmers who should not be left behind, but also rice ‎consumers, particularly women and children, she said.
Citing various statistics from authoritative sources, the institute noted how pervasive and persistent the worldwide problem of hidden hunger that affects over 2 billion people, particularly 190 million preschool children and 19 million pregnant women.
This problem in the Philippines is affecting at present around 1.7 million children (15.2 percent) in aged six months to five years.
In  two other countries where the yellow-colored food staple is also being conducted, over half of preschool and school children in Bangladesh are suffering hidden hunger and 14.6 percent of children under five in Indonesia experience Vitamin A sub-clinical deficiency.
IRRI said this is where Golden Rice can come with its potential for sustainable complement to lessening the incidence of VAD.
“The initial investment in developing and testing Golden Rice can generate new, healthier rice varieties that farmers can grow for years to come. Because rice is consumed near to where it is grown, it is envisioned that there will be low distribution costs for Golden Rice,” the premier rice research body said.
Without mentioning any particular group, IRRI acknowledged that there are groups opposed to the development of the rice variety.
Incidentally, one of the groups battling GM or genetic engineering (GE) had an exhibition booth at the week-long IRC2014, Greenpeace International, which has a chapter in the Philippines.
The group gave a copy of its ‎statement to the Manila Bulletin. Greenpeace wants research on Golden Rice stopped.
Among others, the group announced its support for Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), or Smart Breeding which, it said, is a way to develop plant traits to fight the different challenges facing agriculture at present: from disease-resistance to climate adaptation.
The group described MAS as “biotechnology for conventional plant breeding, producing new varieties of crops which are being used by farmers worldwide,” citing China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
Greenpeace wants governments, co‎mpanies and philanthropies to put their money behind what it said are “more ecological farming practices and innovative technologies like MAS, which could contribute to the shift towards an ecological farmhouse model that feeds people healthy food in a changing climate without damaging the environment.” 

IRRI answered the three points being raised by those opposed to deployment of Golden Rice, such as being a threat to food security; it is being forced to farmers and consumers; and a false answer to VAD as indicated by its lengthy development.
Villagas provided the rebuttal.
“To answer the first point, it is incorrect to speculate that Golden Rice will threaten food security,” she said.
She assured that, rice being typically pollinated and cross pollination is not common, it is not likely that Golden Rice will contaminate traditional or conventional rice varieties.
On the second point, Villegas stressed that IRRI and its partners have never claimed Golden Rice as the silver bullet (surefire cure) to V‎AD.
“We have always emphasized that Golden Rice will be a complement, not a replacement, to the current strategies in the fight against VAD,” she said.
On the third point, ‎Villegas said the Golden Rice research and development is taking longer because they want to ensure it will give benefits to its planters and those who need it most.
She the increased harvests through technologies developed by IRRI can help farmers to make part of their farm to plant other nutritious crops and animals.
Villegas stressed that IRRI goes into genetic engineering only after the beneficial traits needed cannot be found within the gene pool.
“Marker assisted selection is indeed a useful tool for both conventional and modern breeding. However, surveys of rice germplasm around the world failed to identify any variety that contains significant amounts of beta carotene, so conventional breeding programs could not be used to develop Golden Rice,” she said.
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