Genetically Modified Golden Rice Not The Cure-All Industry Claims

08/08/2016 12:49 EDT | Updated 08/08/2016 12:59 EDT
Erik de Castro / Reuters
A scientist shows "Golden Rice" (L) and ordinary rice at the laboratory of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Laguna south of Manila, August 14, 2013. Bruce Tolentino, Deputy Director of the International Rice Research Institute, said his team has been perfecting their decades-old research on “Golden Rice”, which consists of genetically-modified rice grains infused with beta-carotene, a chemical substance responsible in producing Vitamin A in the body. He also said,“ In a Vitamin A-enriched rice, what the scientists did was to select three genes out of roughly 30,000 genes in a rice plant. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: FOOD AGRICULTURE BUSINESS)

GMO advocates argue that genetically engineered Golden Rice will provide farmers with a crop capable of adding much-needed vitamin A to local diets. Vitamin A deficiency is a problem in many poor countries in the Global South and leaves millions at high risk for infection, diseases and other maladies, such as blindness. It is argued that Golden Rice could help save the lives of around 670,000 children who die each year from Vitamin A deficiency and another 350,000 who go blind.

More than 100 Nobel laureates recently put their names to a letter urging Greenpeace to end its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The letter asks Greenpeace to cease its efforts to block the introduction of genetically engineered Golden Rice.

The letter campaign was organised by Sir Richard John Roberts, a biochemist and molecular biologist with New England Biolabs, and Phillip Sharp, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize. The letter urges Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods "improved" through biotechnology and abandon their campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.

According to the letter, scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be safe. It argues their environmental impacts are not damaging to the environment and a boon to global biodiversity.

While in Mysore, India, last year, Roberts delivered a talk on "A Crime Against Humanity." He said propaganda against GM crops is affecting hungry people in the Global South and asked why should not the denial of food to people in developing nations by developed nations be considered a crime against humanity. During a talk in Hyderabad, he said that "millions of people in the third world" would die of starvation unless GM crops were introduced and added that Greenpeace is in the business of scaring people when it comes to GM crops.

It seems a little strange that Roberts would attack Greenpeace for "blocking" the introduction of Golden Rice when new research from Washington University indicates that the reason it hasn't come to market is because, after over two decades of expensive research, it is still not ready to be rolled out, alternative approaches to supplying vitamin A to children are actually working and that the actions of campaigners have had no impact on its failure to reach the commercial market.

Among the 107 Nobel laureates, there is one peace prize winner and eight economists, 24 physicists, 33 chemists and 41 doctors. In other words, they possess no formal credentials to suggest they are experts in this particular field. The letter appears to be a PR stunt by the agritech industry.

While Roberts likes to convey the impression of an overwhelming consensus on the efficacy and safety of GMOs, Food & Water Watch has produced this brief (citing peer-reviewed sources) on the general lack of consensus within science on GM. Furthermore, readers may also wish to consult this (also citing peer-reviewed sources) on the failures of 20 years of GMOs. Moreover, not a single long-term epidemiological study has been conducted with GMOs.

There is sufficient evidence to show that GM crops do not necessarily increase yield or outperform non-GMO crops with positive traits derived from conventional breeding (see this and this, both cite numerous peer-reviewed journal papers).

Furthermore, they are usually worse than non-GM crops at tolerating extreme climate conditions like drought (see this, again with peer-reviewed studies).

Certain scientists choose to ignore the economic mess many nations find themselves in due to the "structural adjustment" of their economies, which has devastated agriculture. This as true for African countries as it is for the Philippines, where Golden Rice is being offered as a proxy solution for an aspect of malnutrition.

These scientists make inflammatory statements in an attempt to denigrate any legitimate analyses of the root causes of hunger and poverty and genuine solutions for productive, sustainable agriculture that can feed humanity.

The evidence might lead us to question why supporters of Golden Rice continue to smear critics and engage in emotional blackmail. Are they even capable of carrying out unbiased assessments of GMOs?

In 2011, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management asked a similar question. She noted the Golden Rice project is presided over by an elite, so-called "Humanitarian Board" where Syngenta sits -- along with the inventors of Golden Rice, the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID and public relations and marketing experts, as well as a handful of other parties.

Golden Rice is really a Trojan horse (see heading "GMO rules" in link); agribusiness corporations are attempting to pave the way for the acceptance of more GM crops and food. Once this is acknowledged, it is apparent why so much money, lobbying and time has been invested in trying to tackle just one aspect of malnutrition with a single GM crop.

While effort would be better spent on restoring natural, agricultural biodiversity to address malnutrition in its broadest terms, one obstacle has been the Philippine government's cooptation to the agenda of transnational corporations and the WTO and the revolving door between government, academia and corporations.

The policies that pushed the Philippines into an economic hole over the past 30 years are due to "structural adjustment": prioritizing debt repayment, conservative macroeconomic management, cutbacks in government spending, trade and financial liberalization, privatization and deregulation, the restructuring of agriculture and export-oriented production. Whether it concerns the Philippines, Ethiopia, Somalia or Africa in general, the effects of IMF/World Bank policies have devastated agrarian economies and made them dependent on Western agribusiness and manipulated markets and trade.

GMOs are now offered as the "cure" to "boost productivity" or to tackle poverty-related diseases. This technology derives from the very transnational agribusiness companies that profited from the destruction of indigenous agriculture in the first place.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Can These GMO Foods Save the World?