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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
GM rice: A growing Philippines debate
By Sarah Toms
BBC's East Asia Today, Manila

Against the stunning backdrop of the Makiling volcano, pioneering scientists are working on new varieties of rice.

Time seems to stand still on the emerald green rice terraces. A man in a straw hat sits on an oil drum under an umbrella, scaring off any encroaching birds.

But these terraces belong to the International Rice Research Institute (Irri) at Los Banos, just outside Manila, where age-old farming techniques go hand in hand with cutting-edge research.

Golden rice
Golden rice was developed in 2000
More than 80,000 traditional rice varieties are stored like treasure in a chilled vault designed to withstand earthquakes, fires, floods and bombs.

Scientists at the institute are also testing new types of rice, from a super strain producing up to 20% more grain to a new form of aerobic rice, which grows with less water.

"Here's a product that addresses one of the most pressing problems that we are going to have with rice in the future - the availability of fresh water," said Ronald Cantrell, director of Irri.

"There is no doubt that with an increasing population and increased urbanisation, we are going to have less fresh water for agriculture," he said.

But some of Irri's other projects are more controversial, and have raised concern among environmentalists.

Golden rice

One such study is on golden rice - an enriched variety developed by Swiss scientists as a way of combating Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness.

People who don't want genetically engineered products or crops will still have to deal with it
Beau Baconguis
Beau Baconguis, who tracks GM products in Asia for the environmental group Greenpeace, said that golden rice on its own would not solve many problems as it must be eaten as part of a balanced diet.

"Why go to the problem of producing golden rice when you still have to eat vegetables anyway?" she asked. "Just go straight to the vegetables and eat the vegetables for your vitamin A."

She added that more research was needed to ensure GM products were safe to eat.

"When we release these products into the environment, the problem is unlike chemical pollution," she said.

"This kind of pollution is biological. These are living organisms and therefore can multiply and reproduce, so the consequences are far-reaching," she said.

Consumer choice

But Mr Cantrell and many other scientists are confident about the safety of their experiments.

Every time we take medicine, he argued, we take a risk that it is safe and has been adequately tested.

Leonardo Montemayor, president of the Philippine Federation of Free Farmers, said that consumers would have the last word on GM rice - even if it cut costs and raised incomes for farmers.

The Philippines lack the vocal anti-GM groups found in Europe
"It will depend on how we are able to explain the issues to the public and educate them, both on the consumer side and on the farming side," he said.

"If we do it carefully and with sensitivity to the concerns of all stakeholders, I think it will be that much easier to sell the technology," Mr Montemayor said.

"But if we do it in an insensitive manner, although it has a lot of promise, it could end up exploding in our faces."

According to Greenpeace, people in the Philippines are largely unaware of the issues surrounding GM crops, and lack the vocal consumer groups that are prevalent in Europe.

"People are not aware of their rights as consumers," said Beau Baconguis. "They don't know where to go if they have complaints on certain types of products."

"Our problem is that once you release GM (crops) into the environment the contamination sets in.

"You cannot stop the contamination, and people who don't want genetically engineered products or crops will still have to deal with it.

"Their choice not to grow genetically engineered crops, and the consumer choice not to eat genetically engineered food, is being undermined," she said.

GM rice promises countless nutritional benefits, but it will be many years before any of the varieties being tested at Irri will appear on market stalls and supermarket shelves.

In any case, few people shopping in Manila can afford the big city prices for produce trucked in from the countryside.

For them, the consumers' right to choose between GM or non-GM crops is a luxury they will never enjoy.

BBC East Asia Today's Sarah Toms
"At Irri, age-old farming techniques go hand in hand with cutting-edge research"


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