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The deliberate frustration of golden rice is a humanitarian crime

Belated posting of my recent Times column on golden rice with links:

It was over harlequin ducks that we bonded. Ten
years ago, at a meeting in Monterey, California, to celebrate the
50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, I bumped
into the German biologist Ingo Potrykus watching harlequin ducks in
the harbour before breakfast. Shared enthusiasm for bird watching
broke the ice.

I knew of him, of course. He had been on the cover of Time magazine
for potentially solving one of the world’s great humanitarian
challenges. Four years before, with his colleague Peter Beyer, he
had added three genes to the 30,000 in rice to help to prevent
vitamin A deficiency, one of the most preventable causes of
morbidity and mortality in poor countries with rice-dominated
diets. They had done it for nothing, persuading companies to waive
their patents, so that they could give the rice seeds away free. It
was a purely humanitarian impulse.

Had Ingo or I known that ten years later this rice would still
not be available to the poor, that a systematic campaign of
denigration against it by the behemoths of the environmental
movement, especially Greenpeace, would be consuming lawyers’ fees
while perhaps 20 million children had died in the meantime through
vitamin A deficiency, he and I would have felt sick with horror
that morning.

In the debate over genetically modified food that has bubbled
since Owen Paterson (yes, he’s my brother-in-law, get over it)
became the first European Agriculture Minister enthusiastically to
endorse GM crops a few weeks ago, not a single British journalist
or blogger to my knowledge has bothered to research the facts about
golden rice, which featured so prominently in his speech. Surely, I
thought, some newshound would get out to the Philippines and China
and Switzerland and find out what’s actually going on. But no. Just
as with fracking, it’s easier to report the controversy.

Well, I will pick up the story myself. The agri-business
Syngenta improved Professor Potrykus’s “golden rice” by adding two
genes instead of three (one from maize, one from a common soil
bacterium) until it produced good yields while providing 60 per
cent of a child’s vitamin A daily requirements from only 50 grams
of rice. So for all those poor people who couldn’t afford, and
would never be offered, supplements, who had nowhere to grow
spinach, but who lived largely on rice, simply substituting golden
rice for normal rice would save lives.

Again and again, remedying nutrient deficiency comes top when
humanitarian priorities are ranked according to cost benefit
analyses. The World Health Organisation estimates that 170 million
to 230 million children and 20 million pregnant women are vitamin-A
deficient and, as it weakens the immune system, that 1.9 million to
2.7 milllion die of it each year, more than from Aids, TB and
malaria. We hear a lot about risk assessments; well, here’s a
benefit assessment.

Then came the backlash. Greenpeace and its pals lobbied
governments to slow down the project and drive up its costs. Their
objections have been, variously, that golden rice was a corporate
plot (untrue), did not produce enough vitamin A (not true), might
cause health problems (a vitamin enriched bowl of rice?), might
upset ecosystems (unlikely for a domesticated crop) and that
capsules of vitamin A were a better bet (after 20 years at nearly
$1 billion a year, vitamin A capsules still reach too few

Despite Professor Potrykus, or Adrian Dubock, who now runs the
Golden Rice Project, meeting every objection,
the greens were implacable. One incoming head of Greenpeace briefly
said he would look at it again, whereupon he was slapped down. The
two researchers at Syngenta who had improved golden rice lost their
jobs when the company pulled out of Britain thanks to the
Frankenfoods hysteria.

“Do you think I should show pictures of blind babies in my slide
shows?” Professor Potrykus once asked me. In 2010 he could take it
no more. “I therefore hold the regulation of genetic engineering
responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children
and young mothers,” he wrote in Nature

Recently three groups of 24 Chinese children
were fed golden rice, spinach or beta-carotene capsules in a
scientific test. The organiser, in agreement with the ethical
review boards involved and US government guidance, but in hindsight
foolishly, did not tell their parents that GM food was involved.
All hell broke loose; the scientists were arrested, then fired.
Greenpeace had just what it wanted: a scandal about golden rice. No
matter that no harm had been done, or could possibly have been done
— perception is all.

Pressing home its advantage, Greenpeace brought a court case in
the Philippines against insect-resistant aubergines. As a result,
genetic modification may have to cease in the Philippines, where
golden rice is being field-tested. The greens are frantic to stop
golden rice because it undermines all their criticisms of GM crops.
It is non-profit, free, nutrition-enhancing, and of more value to
the poor than the rich: only farmers earning less than $10,000 a
year will be allowed to sell the seed on. The truth is, GM crops
have already proved a friend of the poor: they have enabled people
in India and Burkina Faso to grow cotton almost without
insecticides, for example. The crop has boosted yields, cut
pesticide use and brought back farmland wildlife.

Imagine instead an agricultural system that often exhausts the
soil, uses extra land, occasionally kills people through
contaminated food, uses scrambled and unseen genetic changes caused
by gamma rays and licences old-fashioned and toxic sprays. We’d ban
it, wouldn’t we?

Well, that’s organic farming. Because it refuses inorganic
fertiliser, it exhausts soil fertility unless a farmer is wealthy
enough to have the luxury of dung from elsewhere. Because its
yields are lower, it uses about twice as much land as inorganic
farming to produce the same quantity of food. Because it uses
manure, it risks outbreaks of fatal food poisoning such as the one
in which organic German bean sprouts killed 53 people in 2011. Because it happily
uses varieties of crops like “golden promise” barley whose genes were
deliberately scrambled by gamma rays in a nuclear facility, it has no
scruples about random genetic changes, only precise ones. And
because it allows prewar pesticides, it is happy to licence
copper-based fungicide chemicals.

Meanwhile at least half a million, perhaps two million, children
die each year from preventable vitamin A deficiency. On your
conscience, Greenpeace.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times