Written by Andrei B Lanuza
From a rice breeder’s perspective, field trials are crucial in determining and testing the different traits of a new rice variety, either produced via traditional methods or through modern biotechnology.
Some agronomic characteristics that are often determined during field tests include pest and disease resistance, and climate tolerance. Field trials are essential in determining the adaptability of any rice variety under development for local conditions.
For genetically modified crops, field trials are used to collect data on biosafety which is needed to complete the regulatory assessment process. These include data on the growth of the genetically modified crop (if it is similar to ordinary crops of the same breed or species), the effects on the environment, and to produce samples for further studies to be conducted.
For crops developed through biotechnology, there are three different levels of field trials that scientists perform; 1) contained field trials, which are usually conducted inside laboratories or screen houses, 2) confined field trials, where plants are kept in an single, outdoor “confined” area, and 3) multi-location field trial, which is conducted after the successful completion of the confined field trials. In multi-location field trial, plants are grown in multiple locations usually in areas where the plant can be subjected to different agro-climatic conditions or other pre-determined condition as needed by scientists to gather the required data.
Confined and multi-location field trials are usually fenced-off with barrier plants planted around the area. This is done to gather accurate data, prevent animals from disturbing or eating the crops inside the trial field, and to prevent the loss of genetic materials.
Check and balance
To make sure that researchers responsible for the field trials strictly follow all the necessary protocols, the members of the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), which are chosen from the community, local government units, and within Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), oversee each activity of the field trial.
It is the IBC’s primary duty to make sure that the crop or plant undergoing field tests does not pollinate other rice plants, that all plant residues are disposed of thoroughly and properly, and that no plant is accidentally brought out or eaten by animals or people.
For contained and confined field trials, the IBC members report directly to the Department of Science and Technology-Biosafety Committee (DOST-BC) while multi-location field trials are under the oversight of the Bureau of Plant Industry under the Department of Agriculture.
Field testing genetically modified crops
The on-going field trial of Golden Rice, a rice variety genetically modified to contain beta-carotene, being conducted by PhilRice and its partners necessitates the conduct of field trials to determine if the new rice variety will be able to deliver its intended purpose, determine its safety, and evaluate its performance under local conditions.
To know how Golden Rice grow in local conditions, four sites where selected around the country based on established criteria with each site representing one of the four agro-climatic condition in the Philippines.
It is important to note that the conduct of field trials does not necessarily mean that the public release of the genetically modified product is guaranteed. The data gathered from these field tests is but one of many requirements which PhilRice must satisfy.
In this regard, researchers and scientists developing genetically modified crops are making sure that all protocols based on Philippine regulations, regulations which are based on international standards, are followed to be able to successfully release their products.