Why Nobel laureates are condemning Greenpeace’s anti-GMO campaign

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Genetically modified crops are grown by 18 million farmers in 28 countries worldwide. In May, a federal study by the National Academy of Sciences  declared that there is no substantiated evidence of human and environmental harm caused by genetically modified crops. But not everyone was convinced, including the environmental activist group Greenpeace. In response, more  than 100 Nobel laureates urged Greenpeace “to cease and desist” its anti-GMO campaign and called upon the governments of the world  “to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace’s actions.”

Despite its otherwise reputable environmental campaigns, Greenpeace has maintained a rather stubborn opposition to all genetically modified foods for nearly 20 years now, threatening to block a development that could save millions of lives. 

A noble battle for Golden Rice

On June 30, more than 100 Nobel laureates released a statement condemning Greenpeace for its long-term campaign against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly its stance against “Golden Rice.”

Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.

Golden Rice, which is at the center of the GMO battle, is a variety of rice that has been genetically modified to produce beta carotene, which the human body needs to form vitamin A. As the Nobel laureates’ letter stresses,  250 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD), and:

One to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000–500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

In 1992, the UN International Conference on Nutrition found that “VAD control is the most cost-effective child health/survival strategy governments can pursue.”

So how could Greenpeace oppose Golden Rice and its potential to reduce so much suffering in parts of the world where children face severe malnutrition?

The answer appears to be clear, as stated in a Greenpeace campaign report titled “Golden Illusion”:  “Not only is golden rice an ineffective tool to combat VAD, it is also environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and compromises food security….”

Golden rice is simply the wrong approach and a waste of money.

In response to such a dogmatic view, the group of Nobelists urged Greenpeace, similar organizations and their supporters to stop putting out misinformation  regarding the risks, benefits and impacts of GMOs. Instead, the laureates recommended that Greenpeace should re-examine the opinions of farmers and consumers, stick to the scientific facts and recognize the authority of regulatory agencies. As stated in the laureates’ letter, these sources have repeatedly found genetically modified food and crops improved through biotechnology to be as safe as food grown in other ways.

The Greenpeace response

We are talking about something that doesn’t even exist.

Wilhelmina Pelegrina, a campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, responded to the laureates’ request by saying that “‘Golden’ rice has failed as a solution and isn’t currently available for sale, even after more than 20 years of research…. So to be clear, we are talking about something that doesn’t even exist.”

Indeed, even though Golden Rice was created to keep children healthy, its optimization and availability on the market has been stunted by regulatory bans, as well as the destruction of a test field by anti-GMO groups.

It’s called overcoming poverty and accessing a more diverse diet…. Fact is, we don’t need this ‘silver bullet’ rice.

So does this mean that if Golden Rice were available for shipping today, Greenpeace would gladly support it?

In 2012, Tang and colleagues (Tufts University, USA) published a clinical study showing that Golden Rice is a promising source of vitamin A in young children. Shortly after, Greenpeace issued a statement alleging that the children were used as “guinea pigs” and calling Golden Rice “a shadowy research project with no applications.” Unfortunately, this caused a media frenzy, leading to the retraction of the scientific paper and halting the research of several scientists.

Greenpeace proposed its own solution to the problem: “It’s called overcoming poverty and accessing a more diverse diet…. Fact is, we don’t need this ‘silver bullet’ rice.”

Precision agriculture in Europe?

GM crops are mainly grown in the US. European farmers have not adopted them on a large scale because of national bans or a lack of clarity about future regulations. In fact, a massive European anti-GMO wave reached its peak in 2015, when 19 EU countries, including the Walloon region of Belgium, chose not to develop precision agriculture by banning the cultivation of GM crops in their territories. Spain is a notable exception: MON810 maize, which has improved tolerance to pests, comprises about a third of the country’s total maize area.

Even though cultivation of GM crops is banned on a large scale, the consumption of foods derived from GMOs is not. To date, nearly 70 GMOs are authorized in the EU for food and feed uses. These authorizations have a validity of 10 years, and any products produced from these GMOs are subject to the EU’s labelling and traceability rules.

The future of precision agriculture in Europe and the world remains largely unclear. Are we going to adopt it and be proud about it, as we have with precision medicine, another revolutionary idea that has already taken root?

Those in favor of precision agriculture can support the Nobel laureates, scientists and other concerned citizens by adding their names to this expanding petition.