Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines

Abstract

“Golden Rice” has played a key role in arguments over genetically modified (GM) crops for many years. It is routinely depicted as a generic GM vitamin tablet in a generic plant bound for the global South. But the release of Golden Rice is on the horizon only in the Philippines, a country with a storied history and complicated present, and contested future for rice production and consumption. The present paper corrects this blinkered view of Golden Rice through an analysis of three distinctive “rice worlds” of the Philippines: Green Revolution rice developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the 1960s, Golden Rice currently being bred at IRRI, and a scheme to promote and export traditional “heirloom” landrace rice. More than mere seed types, these rices are at the centers of separate “rice worlds” with distinctive concepts of what the crop should be and how it should be produced. In contrast to the common productivist framework for comparing types of rice, this paper compares the rice worlds on the basis of geographical embeddedness, or the extent to which local agroecological context is valorized or nullified in the crop’s construction. The Green Revolution spread generic, disembedded high-input seeds to replace locally adapted landraces as well as peasant attitudes and practices associated with them. The disembeddedness of Golden Rice that boosts its value as a public relations vehicle has also been the main impediment in it reaching farmers’ fields, as it has proved difficult to breed into varieties that grow well specifically in the Philippines. Finally, and somewhat ironically, IRRI has recently undertaken research and promotion of heirloom seeds in collaboration with the export scheme.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Most terms for the technology are contested, but genetically modified here simply refers to incorporation of recombinant DNA. GMO refers to a genetically modified organism.

  2. 2.

    Breeders and researchers in Viet Nam, India, and Bangladesh are also working with Golden Rice, but release is not on the horizon in any of these countries.

  3. 3.

    IRRI (see Fig. 2) collaborates with PhilRice—the Philippine Rice Research Institute—in the Golden Rice development and testing.

  4. 4.

    The rice sector in the Philippines is unusual in other respects outside the scope of this paper. Despite being a major rice producer, it is also one of the world’s largest importers of rice. It is also home to particularly advanced participatory breeding schemes for rice (Sievers-Glotzbach 2014).

  5. 5.

    For example, NERICA varieties, much heralded by breeders, have not been taken up with enthusiasm (Kijima et al. 2011).

  6. 6.

    Note too that none of the improvements anticipated in 2004 have come to pass. The “New Plant Type,” portrayed as a stage of progress already achieved, was incapable of out-yielding the best indica rice varieties (Peng et al. 2008); no transgenic rice varieties have yet been approved for commercial planting; and C4 rice (a proposed plant transformed to have a radically more efficient photosynthetic process) is a speculative product still far from potential release (Normile 2006; von Caemmerer et al. 2012). Datta expected that by 2015 breeders would be designing new crop varieties from scratch, but this remains a distant prospect (Cheung 2014; Long et al. 2015).

  7. 7.

    Some use “Green Revolution” for all “modern varieties” in developing countries (Evenson and Gollin 2003), although there were many differences between the 1960s revolution and later breeding (see Evenson 2004).

  8. 8.

    CIMMYT and IRRI are two of the network of 14 breeding and agricultural research centers comprising the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

  9. 9.

    Also known as “early” varieties, this mainly meant photoperiod-insensitive plants that could be used for more than one cropping cycle per year.

  10. 10.

    At the time, the explicit treatment of locally adapted seeds and practices as problems to be overcome was challenged by few, the exception being geographer Carl Sauer (Richards 2004, p. 266; Wright 1984).

  11. 11.

    This disembedding was reduced somewhat by placeless elite strains being distributed to other research centers where they were crossbred with other varieties. Well after the Green Revolution, IRRI breeders became more interested in non-ideotype breeding, as discussed below.

  12. 12.

    In Mexico, Borlaug had gone a step beyond ideal field conditions to outright rigged demonstrations in which conventional varieties were fertilized so heavily they fell over (Cullather 2010, p. 191).

  13. 13.

    Monsanto has been eager to take credit for Golden Rice (Stone 2011b), although it neither funded nor conducted research on Golden Rice. It did waive some of its patent rights on a promoter gene used in early experiments, but this gene has long since been replaced.

  14. 14.

    There are two publications specifically on potential impacts of Golden Rice in the Philippines. One of these (Zimmermann and Qaim 2004) includes no actual information about the Philippines beyond a few outdated countrywide health statistics. The other (Dawe et al. 2002) is an empirical study of VAD levels in an area where rice is neither a major crop nor a dominant starch in local diets.

  15. 15.

    Field trials of Golden Rice are also planned for Bangladesh and Indonesia, but commercial release in these countries appears to be much farther off.

  16. 16.

    The normal method of creating a GM crop is to (1) engineer a genetic construct containing one or more genes for desired traits, and then (2) expose cells from the target plant to an agent capable of inserting the construct into the cells’ DNA. Each instance where the construct is successfully integrated into the target cell DNA is a unique “transformation event.” Transformed cells are then selected and grown into whole plants that can be bred conventionally. There are several different Golden Rice 2 (GR2) transformation events; at least one is located in an exon and one in an intron associated with root development (Dubock 2014, p. 81).

  17. 17.

    The javanica subspecies is now often classified as the tropical variant of the japonica subspecies.

  18. 18.

    The study by Tang et al. (2012) was retracted in July 2015 after an investigation revealed breaches of ethical procedures. See Retraction Watch (2015).

  19. 19.

    The rice is certified organic by the Organic Certification Center of the Philippines, but since OCCP standards are not yet recognized internationally, it is only labeled organic in the Philippines.

  20. 20.

    World Rice Statistics, http://ricestat.irri.org:8080/wrs2/entrypoint.htm (Accessed 27 June 2015).

  21. 21.

    CHRP growers produce yields of 2.8–3.8 MT/ha of unmilled rice. Elite rice cultivars such as China’s Y Liangyou 900 achieve yields approaching 15 MT/ha. in ideal conditions (Cheung 2014).

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Acknowledgments

Major funding for this research came from the John Templeton Foundation initiative, “Can GM Crops Help to Feed the World?” Additional funds came from the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex University, UK. For assistance and insights we are grateful to Bruce Tolentino and Nollie Vera Cruz of IRRI; Marlon Martin and Jacy Moore of SITMo; Stephen Acabado of UCLA; Jovy Camso of Mountain Province Agriculture Department; Vicky Garcia, Mary Hensley, and Jimmy Lingayo of the CHRP; Tony La Viña of Ateneo School of Government; Tony Alfonso formerly of PhilRice; Amber Heckelman of University of British Columbia; Priscilla Stone of S.I.T.; and two anonymous referees.

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Stone, G.D., Glover, D. Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines. Agric Hum Values 34, 87–102 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-016-9696-1

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Keywords

  • Rice
  • Seeds
  • Genetically modified crops
  • Golden Rice
  • Green Revolution
  • Landraces
  • Breeding
  • Heirloom crops