If one hundred Nobel Laureates asked you to change your mind about a controversial science topic like vaccines, global warming, or engineered crops (GMOs), do you think you would? And if that didn’t convince you to change your stance, is there anything that could? I know this sounds like some kind of silly, hypothetical thought experiment, but this very thing happened a couple of months ago. In an open letter, 109 Nobel Laureates in Physics, Medicine, and Chemistry asked the environmental organization Greenpeace to “abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs.’” The letter states that Greenpeace has “misrepresented [the] risks, benefits, and impacts” of engineered crops, and asserts that multiple studies have determined that GMOs pose no greater threat to human health or the environment than conventional crops.
The letter also singles out a specific engineered rice variety, Golden Rice, and asks Greenpeace “to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice”. A humanitarian effort started in 1990, Golden Rice has been modified to produce beta-carotene in the grains. Beta-carotene is what makes carrots orange and does actually turns the rice a golden color, but more importantly it is processed by our bodies into vitamin A, which our eyes need to capture light and also supports a healthy immune system.
Although not a problem in the U.S., the World Health Organization estimates that 250 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) around the world. Every year some 500,000 of these children go blind as a result of VAD, and half of them die within a year of going blind. VAD is particularly prevalent among the world’s poor who subsist almost entirely on rice, as conventional rice does not contain any vitamin A and foods that do are inaccessible to those in extreme poverty. Golden Rice seems like a potentially promising food that could help alleviate the suffering of literally millions of people, most of whom are impoverished children. So, what does Greenpeace have to say in response to this letter?
Greenpeace’s official response begins with the rebuke: “Accusations that anyone is blocking genetically engineered ‘Golden’ rice are false.” Personally, I am a little confused as to what they mean by this, since about six months ago the Philippine Supreme Court ruled in Greenpeace’s favor and placed a complete moratorium on the contained use, import, commercialization and propagation of genetically engineered crops in the country. Greenpeace’s website even hosts a press release celebrating the victory and assures the reader that the ban “includes the highly controversial ‘Golden’ rice”. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is located in the Philippines and is the primary driving force behind the development and continued testing of Golden Rice. Therefore a complete moratorium on the use and propagation of GMOs in the Philippines, as the result of legal action taken by Greenpeace, effectively blocks the development of Golden Rice.
But, according to Greenpeace, that doesn’t matter anyway because “‘Golden’ rice has failed as a solution and isn’t currently available for sale,” and therefore “we are talking about something that doesn’t even exist.”4 This seems just as dubious as Greenpeace’s assertion that they aren’t in any way blocking Golden Rice. To be clear, Golden Rice is in field trials in Bangladesh and was in field trials in the Philippines until Greenpeace effected the moratorium, so it does literally exist. Also, Golden Rice was never intended to be sold. The IRRI plans to make Golden Rice “available to subsistence farmers free of charge,” as the Institute does every year with conventional rice seeds, so conflating its commercialization with its existence seems misguided.
The press release goes on to state that “Corporations are overhyping ‘Golden’ rice to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops.” In my research for this article I have seen this argument repeatedly, claiming that Golden Rice is a Trojan horse for other engineered crops,,. Essentially, the belief is that if Golden Rice is grown and is successful, people will be less likely to oppose other, more overtly profit driven GMOs. However, the people who make this argument do not seem to realize that Golden Rice would succeed as a Trojan horse only if it literally saved millions of impoverished children’s lives.
In fact, many of those making arguments against Golden Rice and suggesting alternative remedies for VAD seem to lose sight of the reality of the situation among the world’s poor. For example, Greenpeace recommends “ecologically farmed home and community gardens, that increase access to healthy and varied diets” as a major solution to combatting VAD. When told children are going blind and dying because they are too poor to buy fruits and vegetables, Greenpeace’s serious answer sounds a lot like Let them Garden!
To me, it seems that if millions of children are suffering from vitamin A deficiency because they can only afford to eat rice, the logical thing to do is produce a rice variety that contains vitamin A. Don’t get me wrong; I am also a proponent of ecological farming. I have lived and worked on organic farms, and I believe that the world does need to fundamentally change the way agricultural research is commercialized and monopolized. That being said, in a global health crisis as pressing as this we should really consider all of our options. One bowl of Golden Rice provides 60% of a child’s recommended daily dose of vitamin A, and ought to be considered a well-intentioned step in the right direction that should be given a chance at success. Keep in mind that the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association have all officially declared GMOs as safe as conventional crops, and a recent meta-study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that analyzed over 900 individual studies from the last two decades concluded that there is “‘no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops,’ and no conclusive causal evidence of environmental problems tied to genetically modified crops.” As for particulars, one study showed that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is the same as that found in other food like carrots, and another study found that Golden Rice does not contain any toxins or allergens. And really, is there something about engineered crops that is more frightening than going blind and dying?
I believe that the international community should throw its support behind Golden Rice. In this case, the active obstruction of engineered crops is ill-informed, anti-science, and contributing to a global health crisis. But don’t take my word for it. Ask a Nobel Laureate.
Grady is a second year graduate student in Plant Biology at UC Berkeley whose primary interest is in genetic modification of crop plants. Grady has been a member of CLEAR since 2015, and he believes it is incredibly important to educate people about how and where their food is produced.