Australia, New Zealand decision on Golden Rice sets tone for GM food approval

In December 2017, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) issued a directive allowing the commercial sale of food derived from genetically modified (GM) rice line known as GR2E. FSANZ said food derived from GR2E is considered to be safe for human consumption. It also requires manufacturers to label their products as “genetically modified,” in line with Australia and New Zealand’s guidelines on food labeling and to give consumers an informed choice.

So how does that a decision made in Canberra and Wellington affects us? It’s because GR2E—a rice variety that was genetically modified to produce beta-carotene in the endosperm of the rice grain—is the same variety that we know as “Golden Rice.” The field testing of this variety has garnered so much controversy that I think most people have forgotten that it was developed to solve a public health problem and has instead focused on the fact that it’s genetically modified. GM food is such a huge baggage that I think most consumers believe that it’s not safe. This, even if GM corn is already widely cultivated in the Philippines, although as far as I know this GM corn is used primarily consumed as an animal feed.

Unlike GM corn, Golden Rice is meant for human consumption. It has been genetically modified to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, which gives the rice its golden color. Golden Rice is meant to be a fortified food, especially in a developing country like the Philippines where rice is a staple food and vitamin A deficiency has killed thousands of children under the age of 5.

But it’s not Golden Rice’s nutritional value that attracted public interest but rather the stiff opposition against it. In 2013 the media reported about the hundreds of farmers and environmentalists who stormed a field site in Camarines Norte to uproot the Golden Rice being tested by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Department of Agriculture. The activists said they attacked the field site because Golden Rice threatens human health, local biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods. Last year a group of Philippine legislators have filed a bill directing the House of Representatives’s Committee on Agriculture and Food to conduct an inquiry to determine Golden Rice’s impact on health, environment and farmers’ rights.

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The IRRI and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) have also applied to the Bureau of Plant Industry for a biosafety permit for the direct use in food, feed or for processing of Golden Rice. The application was submitted in February 2017, but a year later, the IRRI and PhilRice are still waiting for BPI’s approval. That it’s taking local agricultural officials quite a while can be frustrating to those who advocate for Golden Rice’s cultivation. This is why FSANZ’s straightforward approval process is expected to serve as a role model not only to local policy-makers, but also to health and agriculture officials in other countries, such as the United States and Canada where the IRRI also has a pending application for Golden Rice.

According to Dr. Benigno Peczon, president of the Coalition for Agricultural Modernization of the Philippines, FSANZ “made a landmark decision, based on scientific data provided by IRRI.”

Peczon said FSANZ’s approval process, which ensures that the product meets public health and safety concerns, “provides a model for decision-making in all countries which see an advantage in using GR2E rice.”

“This would be of interest in places where the probability of blindness for lack of vitamin A is significant, particularly in places which perceive the advantage in preventive measures,” he told the BusinessMirror.

Indeed, FSANZ’s decision that was issued last December was accompanied by a comprehensive report that explains the reasons behind its decision, noted on the issues raised by other agencies, non-governmental organizations and individuals, and the process it followed to determine the safety of food derived from Golden Rice. FSANZ also conducted a nutrition-risk assessment—including a nutrition hazard assessment that considered potential adverse effects associated with beta-carotene intake; and a dietary intake assessment for beta-carotene that assumes all rice (including brown and milled rice, rice bran and rice bran oil that are consumed as is or in processed foods and mixed dishes) consumed in Australia and New Zealand are replaced with GR2E products.

But not everyone is convinced with FSANZ’s decision. The Munich-based Institute for Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology (Testbiotech), for one, questioned why FSANZ’s didn’t conduct a toxicology assessment.

“According to the IRRI, the consumption of this rice is especially beneficial to young children, as well as lactating and pregnant women. Nonetheless, it is self-evident that food products with no history of safe use must be subjected to the highest standards of risk assessment before the most vulnerable groups of the population are exposed to it. However, no toxicological studies were performed with the rice. Many more in-depth toxicological studies would be necessary before any conclusion can be drawn on food safety,” Testbiotech said.

So the FSANZ’s decision might be final, but still warrants further discussion. I’m on the fence when it comes to GM food and, as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out as to whether GM crops contribute to sustainable farming and dining.

But this debate is something I welcome. In fact, while I have no formal background on environmental/health sciences, I support the current debate on Golden Rice as the arguments are based on science and not on emotions or hysteria. It’s verifiable data that will in the end decide on food and environmental safety and not pandering to populist but misguided views.

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Turning Points 2018