It is not that Filipino farmers don't want to grow genetically engineered "golden rice." It's just that most have never heard of it.
In the Philippine province of Nueva Ecija, most farmers don't know that golden rice exists, even though the crop is fortified with beta-carotene to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, particularly in children. But if farmers could be convinced the rice is healthy to eat, marketable and provides a good yield, then they would consider growing it, according to Mark Chong, a Cornell University doctoral candidate in communication, reporting his exploratory research in the latest issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology (Correspondence, Sept. 1, 2003).
"This study shows that both awareness and knowledge of golden rice among the [farming community] leaders is almost nonexistent. Moreover, only one barrio leader [among 32 of the communities interviewed] had any knowledge of what a transgenic crop is," says Chong.
Vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in over 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is particularly acute in Africa and Southeast Asia, where it is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children.
Today there are more than 100 million vitamin A-deficient children around the world, according to WHO. It is estimated that 250,000 to 500,000 of these children become blind every year, and about 50 percent of those die within a year. In Asia and Africa, nearly 600,000 vitamin A-deficient women die from childbirth-related causes.
In the most recent National Nutrition Survey (1998) conducted in The Philippines, about 8.2 percent of children (aged 6 months to 5 years) and about 7.1 percent of pregnant women were Vitamin A-deficient. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) like golden rice as well as diets rich in vitamin A can help change these sobering statistics, but few science issues in recent years have elicited such polarized public reaction as biotechnology and its applications, says Chong. Indeed, even the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the development of golden rice, has warned that the benefits of the transgenic crop have been exaggerated.
Since rice is a staple food in the Philippines, Chong sought to understand why farmers might resist growing it. A Philippines-based anti-biotechnology group, Masipag, he notes, has made claims that Filipino farmers do not want to grow genetically modified crops. "I found that wasn't true. I found there was a huge disconnect between the anti-GMO groups and what the farmers are actually saying," says Chong. "Most of the farmers know next to nothing about agricultural technology. There is a huge disparity from what the anti-GMO groups are saying and what the farmers really have said in my research." He also explains that not a single barrio leader mentioned anti-biotechnology groups as a trusted agricultural information source.
The International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines, is now conducting tests on golden rice and is completing the first field and food safety trials.
Nueva Ecija has 28 municipalities and four cities, each with barrios. For his research, Chong interviewed one barrio leader from each of the 32 communities in the province. "Opinion leaders play a pivotal role in the adoption and diffusion of new technologies in their communities," he says. "The risk perceptions of barrio leaders have potentially significant implications for the acceptance of transgenic crops."
The barrio leaders' low awareness and knowledge levels suggest that the biotech debate is still predominantly an urban, elitist discourse, says Chong. He believes that it is pertinent that three barrio leaders who had been aware of golden rice knew about it through contacts at PhilRice (a Filipino rice research entity), Syngenta (an agribusiness company that owns many of the golden rice patents) and from other farmers. "This suggests that interpersonal channels of communication may be more effective in reaching rice farmers than the news media," he says.
Farmers are mainly concerned with producing enough rice to meet immediate needs, says Chong. "Less tangible considerations, such as longer-term environmental risks, become of secondary concern. This makes sense when seen against the backdrop of stagnant rice yields in the country for the past decade."