Genetically Modified Rice Causing a Scandal in the Philippines

A war between synthetic and organic is brewing in the Pacific.

Rice field


Genetically Modified (GM) foods have caused quite the scandal in the U.S. over the years, but the new ground zero is the Philippines–a country often seen as an example to other developing parts of Asia for its agricultural sector.

Researchers at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are intent on developing a variety of rice that produces beta carotene and if they proceed, they will be the first to grow GM rice commercially. Meanwhile, the country’s agriculture secretary, Proceso Alcala, is fiercely opposed to the scientists’ plans and is making his opinions known–this is shaping up to be quite the domestic and potentially global controversy.

Alcala’s main concerns are that the rice should first be proved safe for eating and that organic farming be given a fair chance as an alternative to GM foods. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A and is thus beneficial for various health outcomes, such as preventing blindness in children, which means that the golden variety of rice being proposed for genetic modification should be grown in some way, shape, or form, organic or not.

The production is set to run as a field test and is scheduled to be carried out in December in one central location for a four-month period. PhilRice and IRRI already received permission to do field trials from the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines before Alcala came into office, so both research institutions feel no obligation to delay their trials.

Who will come out on top? Whether organic or GM, the Philippines has a role to play in setting agricultural trends and standards. “The Philippines has been a model for the developing world. The country has good scientists working with professional regulators who move slowly and carefully to good decisions,” said food safety and GM expert, Bruce Chassy. “The developing world is watching.”

[Image via flickr/Peter Blanchard]

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.