Last week something unprecedented happened.
In a letter published online and presented at a press conference at the National Press Club, Washington DC, on June 30, 2016, over 100 Nobel Laureates virtually bashed up Greenpeace over its stand against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in general and Golden Rice in particular. Golden Rice is a new type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A.
Sir Richard Roberts, who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, organised the letter campaign. Roberts started by saying that he is not a plant biologist. He clarified that none of those who signed the letter is a plant biologist. But the vast majority of them are good scientists. They are able to speak logically. They know what is going on in the field of plant biology.
“One thing is clear to us, that there is nothing in our diet which is not genetically modified.” He lucidly explained (professor style) what he means by precision agriculture. Dr. Randy Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and Dr. Martin Chalfie, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, joined him online. The well attended press conference was a tame affair.
The reporters appeared to be overawed by their Nobel Laureate host. The message conveyed in the letter was loud and clear. “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population,” the letter cautioned.
The scientists regret that the organisations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. “They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects,” the letter added.
The Nobel Laureates urged Greenpeace and its supporters to reexamine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, and recognise the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies.
“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,” they asserted.
“Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia,” they clarified
The scientists gave some chilling facts. The World Health Organisation estimates that 250 million people suffer from VAD, including 40% of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, one to two million preventable deaths occur annually because 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.
They urged governments “to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace’s actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology.”
The dedicated group concluded the letter fittingly by asking, “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?” The tone and tenor of this outburst reminded everyone of the emotional blackmail normally indulged in by Greenpeace! It seems a time has come for even Nobel Laureates to use such tactics, devoid of sobriety, to highlight the poignancy of the situation and bring it to the attention of the public.
This author was able to interview Sir Richard Roberts via email (edited for clarity):
KSP: How could you get endorsement of GM technology from over 100 Nobel Laureates? What was the inspiration for this effort? Do you expect that any NGO may fabricate any conspiracy theory or allege overt financial support from GM companies such as Monsanto?
RR: Gathering so many Laureates (now 110) was not so difficult. I just asked. The issues here are very clear to anyone educated in science and logic and the desire to help the developing countries and the poor nations of the world is a strong sentiment in most Laureates. We are usually all very keen to try and bring an end to the suffering we see as soon as we head into the poorer parts of the world. As for “financial” incentives, there are not any. Among the laureates who signed the letter, no one has a connection to the agro-businesses of the world (a couple who did recused themselves from signing the letter). No one is paying us for this. It is strictly a humanitarian effort. Is that so hard to understand? In contrast, I would ask: what does Greenpeace have to gain by opposing GMOs? What are their financial and political incentives?
KSP: What was the reason for the GM crops cultivation progressing significantly in USA compared to Europe? Is it because of the differences in the regulatory approach between USA and European countries? Why are Europeans more conservative?
RR: There are a number of reasons of which an easier regulatory environment was just one. However, a main reason was the incredible amount of activism by Greenpeace and their allies in Europe, which exceeded that in the US. However, I would suggest you read other people’s work on the history as I am not as familiar as many people. You could contact Adrian Dubock on this issue. He will be able to send you lots of reading.
KSP: The signatories have specifically chosen Golden Rice as an example where they are asking Greenpeace to cease and desist from their campaign. Even supporters of GM technology have stated that Golden Rice is many years behind market deployment. How do you justify the choice of Golden Rice as an example in your campaign?
RR: A major reason why Golden Rice has been so slow to develop has been the very active campaign by Greenpeace to stop it. They see it as a poster child, but if it is successful in helping stop childhood blindness it will undermine Greenpeace’s entire argument. After all, it is very difficult to argue that a technology that might save millions of children from blindness is a bad thing. You also have to realise that at every step there have been both scientific and regulatory hurdles to cross. Greenpeace was one of the leading players behind the Cartagena protocol that slowed almost all development work in the area of GMOs. There are some articles relevant to this on the website.
KSP: Politicians in any country will support any technology including GM technology only if the people perceive it as beneficial (often, the perception of people has nothing to do with science). In that context, is it not more constructive to educate the masses at a grassroots level about the advantages of the technology rather than targeting NGOs such as Greenpeace?
RR: One would always like to educate the masses, but that is much easier said than done – and in general, I am rather cynical about whether politicians’ rallies do want to educate the masses. They often do better with an uneducated population than with a highly educated one that can see right through their tricks. In general, of course one would like this. However, how will you implement it at this late stage? To some extent, our campaign is hoping to help with that by getting a lot of exposure to the subject. Perhaps, the media themselves will help by running educational news pieces that focus on the science rather than on highlighting perceived controversies when there is none.
Greenpeace has published a press release. It questions the qualifications and expertise of the Nobel Laureates. The release also highlighted the conflict of interest of various pro-GMO individuals. A press release published from Manila gave many references pertaining to Golden Rice and valiantly attempted to defend the position of Greenpeace.
To directly get Greenpeace’s side of things on some of the statements made by the Nobel Laureates, this author addressed initial queries to Paul Johnston, affiliated with the Greenpeace International Science Unit (University of Exeter, UK). In response, Dawn Bickett, the content editor, sent me a copy of the press release from Manila, which primarily addressed the issues related to Golden Rice. Their responses were requested to the following specific questions:
1. The Nobel Prize winners said in part: “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” (emphasis added).
If your organisation has any paper in a peer-reviewed journal showing that GM crops and foodstuffs are unsafe, I would like to get a soft copy. How do you react to the emphasised statement?
2. How do you explain the stand taken by 110 Nobel Laureates against the anti-GMO activities of Greenpeace? Admittedly, not all of them have the right academic qualifications. But many of them are physicians or physicians specialised in select areas.
3. Mark Lynas and Stephen Tindale were two ardent supporters of Greenpeace. How did they turn against it?
I e-mailed that I prefer to get written answers to my questions. I wanted to avoid controversies. Johnston expressed his inability to send written replies until Monday (July 5). He was willing to talk on the phone. Dawn volunteered to get another expert in the next few hours.
An email was received from Jason Schwartz, a Greenpeace a media officer, with the following message (in part):
We are trying to get our scientists in Europe and the Philippines on the line to respond to you, which is proving slightly difficult, as it is quite late in the day where they are. Unfortunately, this is not a Greenpeace USA campaign, and we do not have PhD-level expertise in this hemisphere to respond to your inquiries at this time.
Can you give me a sense for your deadline on this? How much time do we have to mobilise our overseas experts? We are eager to respond but want to do so in a level appropriate to your organisation’s needs.
In the meantime, I am posting a few other avenues for your diligent reporting. The first is a statement from our senior research specialist, Charlie Cray, shedding some insight into the American context for this letter (and its timing). The second is a spreadsheet with the names and email addresses of the signatories of the letter, showing their areas of expertise. I trust that in your diligent reporting you will consider some of the implications of these signers, their expertise, and, perhaps, even consider contacting some of them to be sure that the letter they signed and the one that was published are in concert. As you and your organisation know well, science is methodical and rigorous, and reputations and awards, though nice, do not confer blanket expertise.
The dedicated officials of Greenpeace responded to this author’s series of e-mails with admirable alacrity and speed. However, they could not provide a written response to my specific questions.
The overall protests and at times obstructionist activities of Greenpeace may have slowed down the progress in developing Golden Rice to its full potential. Admittedly, for identifiable reasons, Golden Rice is not ready for the market. The overemphasis on Golden Rice in the letter of the Nobel Laureates slightly diluted the impact of their effort. And anti-GMO enthusiasts fully exploited this overenthusiastic approach by the Nobel Prize winners to draft a caustic reply.
The report by Claire Robinson, published on gmwatch.org, argued that contrary to his assertion, Sir Roberts has financial interest in GMO matters. He carried out propaganda in favour of GM foods in India. According to the same website, Greenpeace was not allowed to attend the press conference and that this decision was taken by Jay Byrne, who has had a long relationship with Monsanto. In matters connected with GMO, conflict of interest dominates and science takes a backseat.
“I agree that the language in the Nobelists’ statement is overblown. And I think it detracts from the impact of their words. They would have been better put to focusing on the issue of scientific consensus only, not on Golden Rice,” Mark Lynas, the GMO enthusiast, wrote in response to my email.
The recent endorsement of the safety of GM crops by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, followed by the present proactive statement by many Nobel Laureates, has indeed given a shot in the arm for the beleaguered GM technology
Dr. K.S. Parthasarathy is former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.
Note: This article was updated on July 3 to include information about Richard Roberts’s pro-GM activities prior to the press conference.