People who oppose golden rice, a new variety of GM crop, are “wicked” and could be condemning children in developing countries to blindness and death, according to the British environment secretary.
In an emotive intervention into the polarised debate about genetically modified crops in poor countries, Owen Paterson, a known advocate of GM foods, came out strongly in favour of golden rice, which has been developed to contain beta carotene, a source of vitamin A.
Supporters of the rice, including GM company Syngenta, claim a single plateful can provide 60% of a child’s daily vitamin A requirement, potentially reducing blindness and other illnesses that afflict millions of children in developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, dietary vitamin A deficiency compromises the immune systems of about 40% of children under the age of five in the developing world.
Paterson has expressed dismay that opponents of golden rice have, as he sees it, delayed its introduction for many years.
“I feel really strongly about it,” Paterson told the Independent. “I think what they [opponents] do is absolutely wicked. There is no other word for it. It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology.”
His statement, described as personal by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, coincided with the launch of what appeared to be a co-ordinated campaign by some scientists and a handful of GM advocates in the US and UK to back golden rice.
In the past two weeks, Scientific American has accused Greenpeace and other anti-GM organisations of using “misinformation and hysteria” to delay its introduction, while a group of experts writing in Science – including Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society – have argued strongly that it should be commercialised.
Paterson’s outburst also coincided with the launch of a pro-golden rice group by the US environmentalist Patrick Moore, who accused Greenpeace of a “crime against humanity” for having tried to delay its introduction.
“Their crime is 8 million children dead,” said Moore. “Golden rice is the cure for a crisis that kills more people each year than malaria, HIV/Aids or tuberculosis. The zero-tolerance policy towards GM by Greenpeace and its allies has blocked this cure, resulting in 8 million deaths, mostly among poor children. We believe this is a crime against humanity as defined by the international criminal court.”
Greenpeace and development groups have fought back, however, accusing Paterson of following the GM industry line.
Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace said: “Owen Paterson believes problems caused by vitamin A deficiency have one and only one solution: GM ‘golden’ rice. And if you don’t agree with him, you are ‘wicked’. There are more than half a dozen vitamin A strategies in use today. Golden rice is not one of them because it doesn’t yet exist. I think he’s falling into a trap over GM and I don’t think he understands the issue. He’s swallowed the industry spin hook, line and sinker without talking to anyone with a different view. It’s the politics, not the technology, that has failed to deliver access to a healthy diet for everyone.”
The World Development Movement in London said Paterson was not interested in the plight of malnourished people. “There’s more than enough food to feed the world’s population – the problem is access,” said the group’s policy officer, Christine Haigh. “Malnutrition in the global south is almost exclusively a result of people’s inability to access enough food, or a sufficiently varied diet. The way to solve it is to improve incomes – not to hand power to the multinationals that already control our food system, further squeezing producers and forcing them into an industrial monoculture production that posits golden rice as a solution rather than a problem.”
Scientists have pointed out that the rice is not a commercial venture and is not owned by western multinationals such as Monsanto or Bayer. “There is much public support for golden rice in Asia but, unfortunately, some western NGOs have recently influenced local activists to destroy some of the field trials in the Philippines, which is very regrettable,” said Denis Murphy, a biotechnology adviser to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.
However, Chito Medina, environmental scientist and national co-ordinator of Masipag, a network of Filipino farmers, scientists and development workers, countered: “Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition are complex issues that are inextricably linked to poverty and access to resources. Golden rice is a simplistic, techno-fix solution to the problem.”
Others backed the introduction of vitamins into crops and foods, but said it was not necessary to do it using GM. “Golden rice is a Trojan horse for the GM industry,” said Jonathan Matthews, director of GM Watch. “It’s not even available yet. We do not know if it’s effective. This is a feelgood product that appears to give the moral high ground to the industry. In fact, it may be diverting resources and distracting attention from farming methods that are proving themselves to be effective at both reducing poverty and improving health.”
Many countries have reduced vitamin A deficiency using traditional methods. A programme by the Philippine government’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute, reduced its prevalence among children from 40.1% in 2003 to 15.2% in 2008, according to the latest available figures (pdf).
Golden rice was developed in Switzerland by Igor Potrykus, a biologist at the Institute for Plant Sciences, and Peter Beyer, of the University of Freiburg, Germany. But their idea of a humanitarian GM crop whose seeds would be made freely available to poor farmers ran into problems when it was tested on Chinese children without the necessary approvals.
Since then, golden rice has gone through a multitude of regulatory processes and field trials in the Philippines. It awaits approval from the country’s regulators.