Supporters of genetic modification technology, known as GMO, apparently scored a big one on June 30 with the publication of an open letter signed by over 100 Nobel prize laureates blasting Greenpeace for its opposition to GMO crops, in particular so-called ‘golden rice’, supposedly high in vitamin A. But activists and critical experts see the much publicized open letter as no more than a clumsy and awkward public relations move.
The open letter, published in the Support Precision Agriculture web site, says:
“We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against “GMOs” in general and Golden Rice in particular.
Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.” (1)
The signatories allege that GMO ‘golden rice’, which supposedly would save millions of people in Asia from vitamin A deficiency, has not been used because of the opposition of groups like Greenpeace. Therefore, according to the open letter’s logic, these activists are responsible for perpetuating world hunger. “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a crime against humanity?”, ask the signers rhetorically.
Greenpeace responded within hours. Wilhelmina Pelegrina, who runs the organization’s agriculture campaign in Southeast Asia, said:
“Accusations that anyone is blocking genetically engineered ‘Golden’ rice are false. ‘Golden’ rice has failed as a solution and isn’t currently available for sale, even after more than 20 years of research. As admitted by the International Rice Research Institute, it has not been proven to actually address Vitamin A Deficiency. So to be clear, we are talking about something that doesn’t even exist… This costly experiment has failed to produce results for the last 20 years.” (2)
In their open letter, the Nobel laureates do not present data to support their assertion that Greenpeace has succeeded in blocking the development or regulatory approval of ‘golden rice’ in any way. They do not even provide evidence that this rice could address the problem of vitamin A deficiency. The signatories’ claims are unsupported by data or studies.
According to Silvia Ribeiro, of the Canada-based non-governmental organization ETC Group: “The letter is rich in adjectives and grand-sounding qualifiers, makes false statements and has no arguments, which makes it more like a propagandistic diatribe of biotech companies than scientists presenting a position.” (3)
In a column published in the Mexican daily La Jornada, Ribeiro says that “for starters, the so-called golden rice that they defend with so much emphasis, does not exist. Not because of the critiques of Greenpeace and many other organizations, but because its supporters have not been able to make a viable formulation, in spite of almost 20 years of research and over $100 million invested. Neither have they demonstrated that it has any effect on contributing vitamin A.”
In a peer reviewed study published on April 16 by Agriculture and Human Values, anthropology professor Glen Davis Stone, of Washington University in Missouri, and development expert Dominic Glover, rice specialist at the University of Sussex in England, demonstrated that ‘golden rice’ is not ready and that pressure from activists has nothing to do with the delay in its approval by regulatory agencies. (4)
“Golden Rice is still not ready for the market, but we find little support for the common claim that environmental activists are responsible for stalling its introduction. GMO opponents have not been the problem”, says Stone, the study’s main author.
“The rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done,” Stone said. “It has not even been submitted for approval to the regulatory agency, the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).”
Professor Stone is no rookie latecomer who has just arrived on the scene. Since 2013 he directs a Templeton Foundation-funded study on rice in the Philippines. In his research he compares ‘golden rice’ with other rice varieties developed and planted in the Philippines, including industrial ‘green revolution’ varieties as well as traditional heirloom varieties from the mountains of Luzon island.
Neither is he opposed to GMO’s. “Golden Rice was a promising idea backed by good intentions… In contrast to anti-GMO activists, I argued that it deserved a chance to succeed. But if we are actually interested in the welfare of poor children — instead of just fighting over GMOs — then we have to make unbiased assessments of possible solutions. The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.”
We still want to know where the wise Nobel laureates got the idea that Greenpeace is holding back the ‘golden rice’.
Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican journalist and director of the Biosafety Blog. His blog on journalism, politics and activism is updated daily and his latest online venture is appropriately titled The World According to Carmelo. Ruiz is visiting professor at the Institute for Social Ecology and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. His recent Counterpunch Radio interview can heard here. His Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.