A rice dilemma
The development of Golden Rice by scientists funded by the Rockefeller Foundation has presented Greenpeace and other anti-GM groups with a moral dilemma. To what extent do these groups wish to be seen as opposing a crop which, through its genetically engineered fortification with Vitamin A, may play a key role in reducing blindness in Africa and Asia which results from a deficiency of that vitamin? Should the moral crusade against imagined 'pollution' by GM crops override specific concerns for the health and welfare of some of the poorest people in the world?
Greenpeace has never been comfortable with the charge that its food campaigns, led primarily by relatively well-fed people in the West, represent an elitist disregard for genuine suffering and malnutrition in less fortunate parts of the world. It has tried to fend off such challenges by describing them as nothing more than cynical PR for the multinational biotech companies – those who stand to profit very substantially from widespread acceptance of the GM crops which they have developed. But the Golden Rice issue has always been different, primarily because it has arisen out of research by a charitable foundation which has placed the technology freely in the public domain. No 'big business' hidden agendas or exploitative motives here.
The discomfort felt by Greenpeace over this issue has now resulted in highly schizoid announcements about its stance on Vitamin-A enriched rice. Their international coordinator on genetic engineering, Benedikt Haerlin, is reported as indicating a distinct U-turn by decalring that Golden Rice will be an exception to Greenpeace's routine vandalism of GM crops: "I feel that 'golden rice' is a moral challenge to our position. It is true there is a different moral context, whether you have an insecticidal or pesticide-resistant GM, or whether you have a GM product that serves a good purpose." Independent
This is the first time that the organisation has publicly recognised the fact that GM crops can serve 'a good purpose'. This new direction may, in part, be a result of the drubbing that Haerlin received last year when he described many scientists as liars and said that "smarter science and smarter scientists" were needed to increase the extent of organic farming around the world. An African official from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) pointed out to him that the mode of farming he championed was currently practised by 800 million poor farmers in the world only because they lacked the resources to buy fertilisers and pesticides, and it was failing them. Undeterred, Haerlin allegedly remarked to reporters that saving African and Asian lives was less important than the spread of a technology which he considered to be untested.
Despite Haerlin's apparently Damascene conversion, however, Greenpeace itself continues to play down the benefits of Golden Rice, claiming, for example, that an adult would need to consume 3.7 kilos (dry weight) of the rice in order to receive the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. It also quotes the Rockefeller Foundation as agreeing with Vandana Shiva that the "public relations uses of Golden Rice has gone too far." Few people would argue with that sentiment. But what Greenpeace fails to tell us is that the Foundation has also mounted a serious rebuttal to the claims that Golden Rice can play little or no role in the alleviation of blindness. In their letter to Greenpeace UK in January they say:
"In her comments Vandana Shiva ignores the fact that Vitamin A-deficiency disorders result from a deficiency of Vitamin A, not a complete absence of Vitamin A in the diet. Vitamin A deficient individuals are lacking 10%, 20% or 50% of their daily requirements, not 100%. Hence, any additional contribution toward daily requirements would be useful. We calculated that the best Golden Rice reported in Science could contribute 15%-20% of daily requirements."
The Rockefeller Foundation also notes that the new strains of Golden Rice contain substantially higher levels of beta-carotene than the early versions on which Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva based their calculations.
So why then does Greenpeace continue to deride the value of Golden Rice, even when its own senior 'expert' has accepted that there is a strong moral case for its production and distribution? Could it be that when the global business bogeyman is removed from the equation, its opposition to GM food is exposed as fundamentally groundless?
The socio-economic aspects of food production and distribution around the world present major challenges. Issues of ownership of new technologies, and the consequent dependency of poor farmers on biotech companies which in the past have shown themselves to be less than benevolent, require urgent consideration and resolution. Such concerns, however, are quite separate from the science of genetic engineering itself. With the development of any beneficial technology comes the danger of exploitation. This is as true in the case of hybrid plants as it is in the case of those which are genetically engineered. But disingenuous anti-science propaganda serves only to distract from the truly important task of ensuring that the real and tangible advantages of GM crops in adverse agricultural areas are not diminished by a neo-colonial exploitation of those in most urgent need of the technology.
Perhaps now that at least some people in Greenpeace accept the 'moral challenge' that Golden Rice presents, it will focus on the real issues – not on 'Frankenstein's monster' but on the genuine social and political considerations which its supporters seem all too often to avoid.
February 12th 2001