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  • Kai is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine based in Berlin, Germany.
 

Activists Destroy 'Golden Rice' Field Trial

9 August 2013 4:30 pm
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Protestors from two anti-GMO groups, KMB and Sikwal-GMO, yesterday vandalized a field of genetically modified (GM) "golden rice" in the Bicol region of the Philippines.  

GMA News TV channel in the Philippines showed dozens of young men and women tearing down fences, swarming over a rice field, and uprooting stalks. "I am outraged," says Ingo Potrykus, a plant biologist, now retired, who was one of the researchers that originally created the rice strain. The rice was just weeks away from being harvested, he says. "Important data were to be collected from that field trial, and this can set us back months."

Golden rice is engineered to carry two foreign genes—one bacterial and another from maize—that together produce beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A that gives the rice grains their characteristic yellow hue. Scientists hope distribution of the modified rice can make inroads against vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and makes people more susceptible to infectious diseases. The deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children aged 6 months to 5 years in the Philippines alone, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

The vandalized field was one of five involved in golden rice trials in the Philippines aiming to show that "the plants are suitable for cultivation and would give farmers a good crop, and to assess any environmental impact they might have," says Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute. The grain harvested from the plants is also needed for studies assessing whether the beta carotene in the rice is absorbed and converted into vitamin A in vitamin A-deficient people. Golden rice could be deemed safe and approved by the Philippine government as early as the end of this year, Zeigler says—but the efficacy trials could take another 18 months. That's the timeline if the remaining field sites are unmolested, Zeigler says.

The Philippines’ Agriculture Department plans to step up security at the trial sites. In Zeigler’s view, the vandals are unfairly attacking the public sector project as if it is a multinational company producing GM plants for profit. They “are condemning this technology by association," he says.

*Correction, 13 August, 11:19 a.m.: This story has been changed to correct an error in the regulatory timeline.