The wicked assault on GM food

Green groups’ opposition to golden rice exposes their irrational, anti-science, misanthropic heart.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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In an interview for the UK Independent this week, Conservative environment secretary Owen Paterson was forthright, to say the least, in his defence of genetically modified (GM) foods, and ‘golden rice’ in particular. ‘It’s just that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology. I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked. There is no other word for it.’

‘Golden rice’ is an idea developed in 1999 by two plant biologists, Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus. Rice plants have the ability to synthesise beta-carotene (which our bodies can convert into vitamin A) in their leaves, but this mechanism is ‘switched off’ in the part of the plant we eat, the grain. Beyer and Potrykus discovered that by transferring two genes into rice, they could switch on beta-carotene production in the grain, giving the grain a distinctively yellow appearance. The result is a form of rice that effectively supplies vitamin A.

Vitamin A deficiency is a very serious problem in poor countries where people don’t have varied enough diets – particularly of green, leafy vegetables – to get enough of the vitamin through their food. The World Health Organisation notes: ‘An estimated 250million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.’

So golden rice looked like an easy solution to this problem – add the vitamin to the food people do have access to. At first, the levels of beta-carotene were disappointingly low – insufficient to make much practical difference. But in 2005, a way was found to boost substantially vitamin-A levels. Subsequent studies have suggested that golden rice could supply half a child’s vitamin-A needs. Good news, right?

Not according to green groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which have campaigned tirelessly against golden rice. Earlier this year, a field trial in the Philippines of golden rice was trashed. This was supposedly done by local farmers who were worried about the new crop, but the project manager of the site told the GM-supporting environmentalist Mark Lynas it was actually the work of a relatively small number of anti-GM activists (and he has some highly suggestive photographic evidence to back up the claim). Whether this piece of anti-scientific vandalism was directly the work of such activists or not, it is most certainly the product of the anti-GM ideas promoted by green groups. The destruction of this crop will set back the approval of golden rice – and any potential benefit that may come from it.

The objections to golden rice put forward by greens are disingenuous. First, they claim that GM in general has not lived up to the hype. Yields have not improved, they claim; the main varieties have been developed by mega-corporations to foist pesticides on to farmers; the reliance on one kind of pesticide has led to the development of superweeds; GM crops are bad for butterflies and may be bad for human health.

Yield depends not only on how much is grown, but how much survives pests, too. In that respect, GM crops do well. Moreover, by allowing weed and pest control simply by spraying crops, they avoid the need for ploughing – which is bad for soil and releases greenhouse gases. Superweeds have been somewhat of a problem in the US, but the answer is better crop management and newer varieties of crop that are resistant to a wider range of pesticides. Monarch butterflies like weeds – and new farming methods are better at getting rid of weeds. It’s not the genetic modification of plants that is reducing butterfly numbers but better weed control. And the health scares about GM foods have been criticised time and again by scientists. Americans have been consuming GM for well over a decade with no evidence of harm.

In other words, anti-GM posturing is just mudslinging. Moreover, few of these anti-GM arguments apply to golden rice, which is a public and philanthropic effort rather than a money-making project. Golden rice has nothing to do with pesticides and should be a considerable help in improving health.

On the other hand, it can’t be claimed that greens have done all that much to prevent golden rice reaching poor children up till now. That is because the product has been in development or going through regulatory testing. It hasn’t been on the market, but it could be ready to roll out soon. By stirring up fears about GM, greens may well delay its availability – and that would indeed be ‘wicked’.

Eco-activists also claim that golden rice is unnecessary, that poor people can get the necessary vitamins through eating more vegetables or through supplementation programmes. No doubt those things could help, but that’s hardly an objection to adding another method of supplying vitamin A. Different strategies will work in different contexts. Given the seriousness of the situation, offering poor farmers the opportunity to grow a crop of their own that solves the problem is surely advantageous.

The bottom line is that most environmentalists want to do everything in their power to stop any GM crop from becoming available. They despise the idea that we should tinker with Mother Nature in such a basic way as altering genes. And golden rice is a big problem for them in that regard. It’s very obviously driven by scientists attempting to use their knowledge to prevent a serious health problem. Greens can’t smear golden rice with conspiracy theories about evil multinationals.

And if GM can be a force for such unalloyed good, its existence undermines the idea that this technology is bad in principle. Consumers and policymakers might take a more pragmatic approach to GM, looking at the pros and cons of individual crops rather than rejecting them out of hand. That would be bad news for greens and great news for the rest of us.

Owen Paterson may have overegged the case for golden rice a little. The best solution to malnutrition is to end poverty rather than devise new crops. But nonetheless, GM has the potential to solve many of the world’s food problems and to make food better and cheaper by improving the efficiency of farming. Environmentalist groups, who love to claim the science is on their side when it comes to climate change, have been exposed for what they are: irrationalists who put protecting nature ahead of human welfare.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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