By Rosalie Ellasus: San Jacinto, Philippines
The world is starting to open its eyes to the wonder of Golden Rice.
On May 24, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave its approval to this genetically modified crop, which promises to improve the health of children in developing countries around the world.
That’s great news here in the Philippines, where I grow rice and corn on my farm in San Jacinto. I am confident it will move us one step closer to the commercialization of this amazing technology—and one step closer to defeating the menace of malnutrition.
Golden Rice derives its name from its yellowish color, but it might be simpler and more helpful just to call it “healthy rice.” The sole purpose of this special crop is to boost the intake of vitamin A, a compound that we all need as part of an adequate diet. Young children need it most because of the high nutritional demands of early growth.
The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 200 million children don’t receive enough vitamin A. Almost all of them live in poor nations, where they suffer from diarrhea and similar maladies. In more severe cases, a lack of vitamin A can lead to bad vision and even blindness. In the worst instances, it can kill. Every year, hundreds of thousands of kids die because they don’t have access to enough vitamin A.
Golden Rice solves this problem through safe and sound science.
We’ve already seen how GMOs contribute to sustainable agriculture. Farmers are growing more food on less land than ever before—billions of acres of GMOs over the last two decades, including GMO corn on my own farm in the Philippines.
As a grower, I’ve seen the advantages of these crops from up close. They have improved my ability to produce food and also to make a living for my family.
Golden Rice does even more. It harnesses the power of biotechnology to confront malnutrition. Biofortified with vitamin A, it can take on the problem of vitamin-A deficiency where it’s most severe, from my home in the Philippines to Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iraq, and large sections of sub-Saharan Africa.
Much of the research in support of Golden Rice has taken place at the International Rice Research Institute, a Manila-based group that seeks to fight poverty through better agriculture. The IRRI’s work started in the lab and more recently has moved into the field—and it looks like Golden Rice finally is ready for the commercialization that we’ve all been waiting for.
A political problem remains, however. Some activists are so ideologically opposed to GMOs that they’ve resorted to a form of terrorism, destroying test fields of Golden Rice in the hope that they can bully scientists and farmers into abandoning this urgent project. This is madness, as it threatens the lives of children for no good reason. Yet their violent hostility almost certainly has delayed my own government’s willingness to approve Golden Rice for widespread adoption by farmers.
So the FDA’s endorsement of Golden Rice sends an important signal. It puts the weight of one of the world’s most respected regulatory agencies behind the safety and promise of Golden Rice. The United States is now the fourth government to back Golden Rice, following Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
It’s unlikely American farmers will grow Golden Rice and American consumers probably won’t ever eat it: Golden Rice is adapted to the local climates where it’s most needed, and just about everybody in the United States already consumes plenty of vitamin A.
The IRRI sought the FDA’s approval to guard against the possibility of a small amount of Golden Rice inadvertently appearing in a food shipment. The FDA essentially said that if this happens, it would be no big deal. “We have no further questions concerning human or animal food derived from” Golden Rice, said the FDA’s letter to IRRI, signed by Dennis M. Keefe, director of the Office of Food Additive Safety.
The time for asking questions is now over—and the time has come to recognize that at long last, the world is ready for Golden Rice.
Rosalie Ellasus is a first-generation farmer and public servant, growing corn and rice in San Jacinto, Philippines. Rosalie allows her farm to be used as a demonstration plot for smallholder farmers to visit and learn from. She is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column first appears.