TWN Info Service on Health Issues (December 06/02)

5 December 2006

Transgenic rice is no magic bullet to solve hunger

Genetically engineered (GE) rice is ineffective, expensive and risky to human health, farming communities and the environment in rice growing regions. This was revealed in a Greenpeace report ‘Future of Rice’ ( The report claims that corporations promoting GE rice are promoting the patents they own over the rice and increasing their profits, and has nothing to do with feeding the hungry of the world.

The following article is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 6150, 28 November 2006.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Environment: Transgenic rice is "risky and not necessary"

By Chee Yoke Heong, Kuala Lumpur, 27 November 2006

Genetically engineered (GE) rice and the risks it brings are unnecessary, as there are many varieties of rice in existence that are grown sustainably by millions of farmers around the world, maintains Greenpeace in its new report.

The report, 'Future of Rice' says that genetic engineering when compared to other rice breeding methods and to traditional rice growing practices is "ineffective, unpredictable, expensive and risky to human health, farming communities and the environment in rice growing regions".

According to the environmental group, GE rice is no magic bullet and will cause more problems than it can possibly solve. The promises are to remain a dream as these high-tech rice varieties are not likely to offer massive increases in yield or prevent diseases or pests. Nor do they offer long-term reductions in chemical and fertilizer use that will improve the environment, the quality of food or the health of farm workers.

Rice is the world's most important staple food - grown in over 100 countries, consumed by over two billion people and the primary source of protein for millions. Therefore, what happens to it will have a lasting impact on the livelihoods of millions with its inherent environmental and socioeconomic effects.

Currently, there are a number of GE rice being developed but none is being grown commercially though some are being planted illegally such as in China. The report debunks the myths surrounding these types of GE rice, adding that they are not solutions to problems of rice production.

A particular rice being pushed by GE advocates in Asia is the bacterial blight rice which is a transgenic rice variety that has been injected with a gene from a wild rice intended to control bacterial leaf blight. The report says that this rice is unnecessary because bacterial blight is not a major agricultural problem in Asia and other non-GE methods can be employed.

Also, rice farmers are unlikely to benefit from its introduction because its large-scale cultivation will lead to a breakdown in resistance resulting in the appearance of more virulent strains.

Meanwhile, several types of Bt rice - rice that is genetically engineered to contain Bt genes from a soil bacterium to enable it to produce toxins to kill rice stem borer pests - are in the pipeline. But the report says that no food safety assessment has been finalised and its impacts on health and safety remain in question.

While no environmental assessment is publicly available, studies from other Bt crops such as maize and cotton indicate that Bt rice will also have serious environmental consequences such as threats to long term health of soil.

Again, Bt rice is also unnecessary because stem borer is a low level chronic pest that causes little damage to crops, says the report.

GE corporations, such as Bayer, are also pushing for the adoption of genetically engineered rice that is resistant to herbicides. But wide-scale use of herbicide-tolerant crops could result in increased dependence on toxic chemicals with its inherent danger to human health.

Another controversial GE rice under development is the 'Golden Rice' - so named for the GE rice that produces beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) which its proponents believe to be the answer to solving the problem of vitamin A deficiency, which is a major form of malnutrition in developing countries.

But the Greenpeace report points out that the food safety of Golden Rice has never been established, thus raising concerns about its safety for humans. The report contends that it will also exacerbate malnutrition because it encourages a diet based on one staple.

"The high risks of growing and using GE Golden Rice as food to alleviate vitamin A deficiency are not at all justified by the theoretical benefits," Greenpeace says.

There are concerns that if GE rice is commercialised, this could lead to the contamination of other rice crops including wild rice varieties. Already, there have been incidents of contamination with GE rice from field trials causing massive financial losses to farmers, millers, traders and retailers worldwide with untold impact on the environment.

This is particularly risky for Asia which is the centre of origin of rice. The loss of wild species of rice could potentially lead to the loss of genetic resources for current and future breeding needs.

It also means increased exposure of humans to GE organisms through their diet and hence exposing them to risks associated with GE food in a direct way.

The report also claims that the development of GE rice by the corporations is about expanding their profits and not feeding the hungry of the world.

When large corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta or Dow promote a GE rice, they are in fact promoting the patent they own over the rice so that farmers must buy new seeds from them every year. They are also promoting their chemicals that must be used on the patented rice.

The report, therefore, encourages practices that move away from industrial agricultural practices such as genetic engineering. It stresses the need to embrace rice knowledge developed by farmers over thousands of years and the diversity of rice varieties, and to combine these with new technologies such as marker assisted selection.

"Existing biodiversity of rice varieties and their nutritional composition needs to be explored before engaging in transgenics," it quoted the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as saying.

The report gives examples of existing solutions to current problems with rice production that are being used and working in various parts of the world.

It points to massive reductions in chemical use on farms in the Philippines where 80% of pesticide sprays used by rice farmers (a trend widespread in Asia) is found to be not necessary; to reductions in chemical use and increased yields and incomes in Vietnam as a result of programmes that reduce the use and increase the efficiency of fertilisers.

In India, farmers have reduced pest related crop losses through the re-introduction of beneficial predators, such as wasps. In Myanmar, predatory ants are spread in fields and feed on the eggs of problem pests. In China and many other countries, the use of fish or ducks in rice paddies has resulted in decreased pests, increased yields and an additional source of protein and income when the fish or ducks are harvested.

Many of these solutions ensure that farming communities continue to control their land and crops while reducing the environmental and health impacts that come with the chemically-intensive monoculture farming systems, concluded the report.