MELBOURNE – Greenpeace, the global environmental NGO, typically leads protests. Last month, it became the target. Patrick Moore, a spokesperson for the protesters – and himself an early Greenpeace member – accused the organization of complicity in the deaths of two million children per year. He was referring to deaths resulting from vitamin A deficiency, which is common among children for whom rice is the staple food.
These deaths could be prevented, Moore claims, by the use of “golden rice,” a form of the grain that has been genetically modified to have a higher beta carotene content than ordinary rice. Greenpeace, along with other organizations opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has campaigned against the introduction of beta carotene, which is converted in the human body into vitamin A.
Moore’s mortality figures seem to be on the high side, but there is no doubting the seriousness of vitamin A deficiency among children, especially in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the World Health Organization, it causes blindness in about 250,000-500,000 pre-school children every year, about half of whom die within 12 months.
The deficiency also increases susceptibility to diseases like measles, still a significant cause of death in young children, although one that is declining as a result of vaccination. In some countries, lack of vitamin A is also a major factor in high rates of maternal mortality during pregnancy and childbirth.
First developed 15 years ago by Swiss scientists, golden rice specifically addresses vitamin A deficiency, and the first field trials were conducted a decade ago. But it is still not available to farmers. Initially, there was a need to develop improved varieties that would thrive where they are most needed. Further field trials had to be carried out to meet the strict regulations governing the release of GMOs. That hurdle was raised higher when activists destroyed fields in the Philippines where trials were being conducted.
Critics have suggested that golden rice is part of the biotech industry’s plans to dominate agriculture worldwide. But, although the agribusiness giant Syngenta did assist in developing the genetically modified rice, the company has stated that it is not planning to commercialize it. Low-income farmers will own their seeds and be able to retain seed from their harvests.
Indeed, Syngenta has given the right to sublicense the rice to a nonprofit organization called the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. The board, which includes the two co-inventors, has the right to provide the rice to public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries for humanitarian use, as long as it does not charge more for it than the price for ordinary rice seeds.
When genetically modified crops were first developed in the 1980’s, there were grounds for caution. Would these crops be safe to eat? Might they not cross-pollinate with wild plants, passing on the special qualities they were given, such as resistance to pests, and so create new “superweeds”? In the 1990’s, as a Senate candidate for the Australian Greens, I was among those who argued for strong regulations to prevent biotech companies putting our health, or that of the environment, at risk in order to increase their profits.
Genetically modified crops are now grown on about one-tenth of the world’s cropland, and none of the disastrous consequences that we Greens feared have come to pass. There is no reliable scientific evidence that GM foods cause illness, despite the fact that they receive much more intense scrutiny than more “natural” foods. (Natural foods can also pose health risks, as was shown recently by studies establishing that a popular type of cinnamon can cause liver damage.)
Although cross-pollination between GM crops and wild plants can occur, so far no new superweeds have emerged. We should be pleased about that – and perhaps the regulations that were introduced in response to the concerns expressed by environmental organizations played a role in that outcome.
Regulations to protect the environment and the health of consumers should be maintained. Caution is reasonable. What needs to be rethought, however, is blanket opposition to the very idea of GMOs. With any innovation, risks need to be weighed against possible benefits. Where the benefits are minor, even a small risk may not be justified; where those benefits are great, a more significant risk may well be worth taking.
Regulations should, for instance, be sensitive to the difference between releasing a GM crop that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (making it easier for farmers to control weeds) and releasing GM crops that can resist drought and are suitable for drought-prone regions of low-income countries. Similarly, a GM crop that has the potential to prevent blindness in a half-million children would be worth growing even if it does involve some risks. The irony is that glyphosate-resistant crops are grown commercially on millions of hectares of land, whereas golden rice (which has not been shown to pose any risk at all to human health or the environment) still cannot be released.
In some environmental circles, blanket opposition to GMOs is like taking a loyalty oath – dissidents are regarded as traitors in league with the evil biotech industry. It is time to move beyond such a narrowly ideological stance. Some GMOs may have a useful role to play in public health, and others in fighting the challenge of growing food in an era of climate change. We should consider the merits of each genetically modified plant on a case-by-case basis.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, The Greens (co-authored with Australian Greens founder Bob Brown), and The Life You Can Save.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.