Golden rice to hit the fields

Researchers have started trials for genetically modified (GM) Golden Rice as prices of the grain soar internationally and importing nations fret about possible shortages. Gerard Barry, the co-ordinator of the Golden Rice Network, said on Thursday that field testing on the GM rice, enriched with Vitamin A, started last week in the Philippines. “We are at the beginning of the process,” said Barry, who works at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI has said that Golden Rice, which is meant to improve nutrition in the developing world, may be available to farmers by 2011. But other GM varieties of rice could be produced commercially by countries such as China, India and the US before then, if they were to change current policy, increasing yields and potentially easing some of the pressure from tight world supplies. “Countries that have been field-testing for many years and have the technology could start production in the not too distant future,” said Barry. There is as yet no GM rice grown commercially due to lingering scepticism about possible health risks but Barry, a former head of rice genomics at Monsanto, said GM technology needed to be considered as part of the solution to a potential global rice shortage. “You should look at GM if you want to be responsible for increasing food production,” said the native of Co. Cork in Ireland. “If the need is to increase yields and whether GM traits can increase yields, especially if it also reduces inputs, then you have a double win, you increase food availability but also you reduce farmers’ costs.”

Nearly half the world’s 6.6 billion people depend on rice to survive and demand for the grain is expected to increase 50% by 2030. So far this year, average rice prices have more than doubled to $780 a tonne as exporting nations cut shipments to cool domestic inflation, traders speculate and countries such as Bangladesh, which have been hit by bad weather, increase demand. Encouraged by the high prices, farmers in the world’s two biggest exporters, Thailand and Vietnam, are working feverishly to plant more rice, which should help calm some of the global rush in coming months. While GM crops including cotton, a source of vegetable cooking oil, are grown widely in North America and parts of South America, some countries, particularly in Western Europe, remain sceptical about their safety. But Barry said attitudes were slowly shifting with even farmers in Germany, with its strong environmental lobby, growing a small amount of GM maize. “It’s clear that there is a change going on,” he said. In the Philippines, one of the world’s biggest importers of rice, approval for commercial production of GM varieties remains years away despite the government’s difficulty in sourcing enough of the grain to meet its annual requirement. “We have a tough regulatory process, because of the controversy,” said Leo Sebastian, executive director of the government-funded Philippine Rice Research Institute.

“But there is a high acceptance of GM rice based on our surveys.” The Philippines was the first Asian country to commercialise GM corn and Sebastian said in the long-term GM technology would be one part of the solution, along with better farming investment and population control, to increasing production of rice. “It’s not the only answer. Even if we have the Golden Rice variety it will not solve all of our problems. Bit it will be one of our solutions.” via Indiatimes.

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