As the controversy over genetically modified foods continues to rage amongst consumers and researchers, Greenpeace recently came under fire from 110 Nobel Laureates calling them out for their consistent anti-GMO stance, in particular, against “Golden Rice” — a rice product genetically engineered to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice.
In their letter, addressed “To the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world,” the Nobel Prizewinners support precision agriculture, their key argument being that with global population projected to double by 2050, the demand for food, feed and fiber will need to double as well.
“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,” the letter reads.
“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.”
The Laureates cite World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people suffer from Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), including 40 percent of children under five in the developing world. Furthermore, UNICEF estimates one to two million preventable deaths annually as a result of VAD, which compromises the immune system, is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000-500,000 children each year, with 50 percent dying within 12 months of losing their eyesight.
The letter ends by asking, “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’"?
Sustainable Brands reached out to Greenpeace for comment on the controversy; the NGO’s topline response is that golden rice is not yet a viable commodity, has not proven to produce useful yields, and there is no proof that it provides the nutrition to which it purports. Furthermore, while noting the distinguished careers of the laureates, none of them are experts in directly relevant fields.
“The science is clear: GE ‘Golden’ rice does not exist - it is not available to farmers on the market, it’s still in development and as such, is a fiction,” Greenpeace USA's Senior Research Specialist, Charlie Cray, told SB. “The fact that it doesn’t exist isn’t because Greenpeace has campaigned against it, or because people around the world concerned about genetically modified food have spoken out about it. It’s because ‘Golden’ rice is a failing project still at research phase after 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into it.
“We’ve seen the same critique of Greenpeace’s position on ‘Golden’ rice before, which raises the question, why are we seeing this again right now, in the U.S.?” he added. “The timing of this letter is not a coincidence. The GM conversation is at a pivotal moment in the USA, with the U.S. Senate considering a vote on the issue that could determine if labeling becomes mandatory.”
“Corporations are overhyping ‘Golden’ Rice to pave the way for global approval of other, more profitable, genetically engineered crops,” Greenpeace Philippines' Agriculture Campaigner, Wilhelmina Pelegrina, told us. “This costly experiment has failed to produce results for the last 20 years and diverted attention from methods that already work. Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture.”
“The only guaranteed solution to fix malnutrition is a diverse healthy diet,” she added. “Providing people with real food based on ecological agriculture not only addresses malnutrition, but is also a scaleable solution to adapt to climate change.”
Greenpeace offers several sources supporting its positions, including one from Washington University of St Louis’ The Source: “It is still unknown if the beta carotene in Golden Rice can even be converted to Vitamin A in the bodies of badly undernourished children. There also has been little research on how well the beta carotene in Golden Rice will hold up when stored for long periods between harvest seasons, or when cooked using traditional methods common in remote rural locations, they argue.”
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), responsible for the development of Golden rice, has itself stated that initial testing results require more research, and it has yet to be proven whether GE Golden rice can improve the nutritional status of VAD people. Meanwhile, Greenpeace has highlighted alternative, eco-agriculture solutions including smart breeding and building climate resiliency.
Forbes’ Steven Salzberg concurs with the Laureates: “The argument about relevant expertise is ridiculous. Sir Richard Roberts and Dr. Phillip Sharp, two of the Nobel Laureates who spearheaded the effort to write the letter, are among the world’s leading geneticists and molecular biologists, as are many of the other Nobelists who signed the letter.
“I asked Sir Richard Roberts if he had any response to the arguments from Greenpeace, and he replied that: ‘Greenpeace just reiterate the old arguments that are adequately debunked elsewhere. Why won’t they just admit they got this issue wrong? Is it because they have consistently introduced roadblocks and then wonder why it is taking so long to introduce Golden Rice to the market? Are they serious?’”
“In attempts to contact the organizer of the recent letter campaign against Greenpeace, we were directed to the website of Jon Entine, who as recently as 2012 was a consultant for Monsanto,” Cray said. “Today, Entine presents himself as an independent journalist, but his connections with the industry still run deep. We encourage journalists to continue reporting the facts, including any relationship the organizers of the Support Precision Agriculture campaign has to companies or interests who stand to profit from GM technology.”