Protestors and environmental groups which oppose the idea of allowing organisms to exist with genes that have been artificially inserted or modified have been known to attack test fields of genetically modified crops and destroy experiments in progress. Sadly, this is nothing new. It happened in Australia, when activists from Greenpeace destroyed a field of experimental genetically engineered wheat, which was being studied by CSIRO. It has also happened elsewhere, and not only to experimental crops, but even to farms which are suspected of using genetically engineered seeds.
An especially unsettling and telling move from the Anti-GMO groups has been the targeting of “Golden Rice,” a genetically modified form of rice which has been in development since the 1990′s and which holds great promise for improving the health of many in the poorest areas of the world.
Activists Destroy ‘Golden Rice’ Field Trial
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Activists Destroy ‘Golden Rice’ Field Trial
Protestors from two anti-GMO groups, KMB and Sikwal-GMO, yesterday vandalized a field of genetically modified (GM) “golden rice” in the Bicol region of the Philippines.
GMA News TV channel in the Philippines showed dozens of young men and women tearing down fences, swarming over a rice field, and uprooting stalks. “I am outraged,” says Ingo Potrykus, a plant biologist, now retired, who was one of the researchers that originally created the rice strain. The rice was just weeks away from being harvested, he says. “Important data were to be collected from that field trial, and this can set us back months.”
Golden rice is engineered to carry two foreign genes—one bacterial and another from maize—that together produce beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A that gives the rice grains their characteristic yellow hue. Scientists hope distribution of the modified rice can make inroads against vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and makes people more susceptible to infectious diseases. The deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children aged 6 months to 5 years in the Philippines alone, according to the International Rice Research Institute.
The vandalized field was one of five involved in golden rice trials in the Philippines aiming to show that “the plants are suitable for cultivation and would give farmers a good crop, and to assess any environmental impact they might have,” says Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute. The grain harvested from the plants is also needed for studies assessing whether the beta carotene in the rice is absorbed and converted into vitamin A in vitamin A-deficient people. Golden rice could be deemed safe and approved by the Philippine government as early as the end of this year, Zeigler says—but the efficacy trials could take another 18 months. That’s the timeline if the remaining field sites are unmolested, Zeigler says.
This destruction is a devastating blow to the ongoing effort to deploy golden rice in the Philippines and elsewhere. After many years of research and development, Golden Rice is almost ready for mainstream use and these field trials mark the final step in demonstrating the viability of the crop. For those who wish to keep it from every entering the fields of farmers around the world, this may be their last hope, and therefore, increasingly violence and destructive tactics have been used.
One should make no mistake about who is behind this: While many of the protests seem to be the work of local farmers and concerned citizens, these are simply locals who have been whipped into a frenzy by constant bombardment with anti-gmo propaganda from the wealthy environmental groups of rich industrial nations. As they may already be untrusting of the government, it is easy to see how claims that the rice is either poisoned or will destroy their ability to grow their own crops could be a powerful ploy in building up opposition to Golden Rice.
About Golden Rice:
It should first be noted that the reason for the development of Golden Rice is not and never has been profit. The research has not been conducted by any single corporate entity and has been done largely through free and open source programs. Monsanto does not own or control Golden Rice, and while some of the gene insertion techniques used to develop Golden Rice were developed by Monsanto, the company has agreed NOT to seek royalties and to provide all applicable intellectual property free of charge. While it is possible that the genes used to produce Golden Rice may show up in commercially produced seeds, which would be sold for profit, the base strain of Golden Rice is intended for free distribution.
The motive for the creation of Golden Rice is one of the most severe and ongoing nutritional crises facing humanity. Every year, an estimated 670,000 children around the world die as a result of a deficiency in vitamin A. Hundreds of thousands more become blind because their diet lacks the vital nutrient. Millions more adults and children suffer the results of deficiencies of vitamin A, which include greater susceptibility to infection, vision problems, night blindness and reduced kidney function. Inadequate vitamin A also increases maternal mortality, and the reduction in health and increase in the number of blind and disabled persons has far-reaching socioeconomic impacts on poor societies.
The primary reason for vitamin A deficiency in the developing world is that a large number of its citizens rely on subsistence farming to survive and the primary crops grown do not produce significant amounts of vitamin A. A large percentage of the developing world relies on rice as the primary staple crop. Rice has a high yield, is relatively easy to grow and has been grown for thousands of years. 20% of the world’s food calories come from rice. Unfortunately, while it is an excellent source of food energy (calories) and has adequate amounts of many important minerals and other nutrients. However, it is completely lacking in vitamin A.
Efforts have existed for decades to address the problem. The most obvious and beneficial would be to simply have everyone in third world countries eat a diet as diverse and nutritious as those in the industrial world, but this is obviously not something that can be achieved by anything less than full industrialization – something which, though desirable, is neither easy not fast. Fortified foods and supplementation has been undertaken by a number of international agencies, and has been successful, at least to some extent.
However, supplementation has some severe drawbacks. For one, the programs can be expensive and must be ongoing. Once it stops, the problem of vitamin A deficiency returns. It is difficult to get supplements to all the small villages and outlying areas in poor regions and even more difficult to make sure those who need the supplements actually take them. The entire process makes populations dependent on external parties for ongoing supplementation. Furthermore, many are suspicious of pills provided by government and non-government agencies.
The vitamin A crisis is the reason why Golden Rice research began in the early 1990′s.
Ingo Potrykus, a professor of plant sciences and biotechnology in Zurich, spearheaded the effort to use genetic engineering technologies to produce a rice plant that would provide vitamin A and combat global malnutrition. Potrykus began to explore the idea of using genetic engineering to combat malnutrition as early as the 1980′s, when the technology was in its infancy. In the early 1990′s, after a number of scientists had demonstrated the ability to artificially modify the genes of plants, the prospect of artificially inducing vitamin A started to gain attention in the scientific community. In 1993, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation provided Potrykus with the money necessary to begin the development of Golden Rice.
Dr. Potrykus teamed up with Peter Beyer, a professor of cell biology from Germany and began to experiment with genetic modification of the rice plant. Rice already produces beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, but it only does so in the leaves and stalk of the plant. The endosperm, the rice grain that is eaten, does not contain vitamin A. Thus, the researchers focused on how to activate synthesis of the chemical in the portion of the plant eaten by humans. The project took eight years, but eventually a strain of rice was developed, which produced the vital nutrient in the endosperm. One result of the modification is that the rice grains are yellow in color, thus resulting in the name “Golden Rice.”
Although the research was successful in producing a rice plant which provides vitamin A, the levels present were relatively low. Those who subsisted primarily on rice could still face deficiencies in vitamin A, although they would not be as severe. As a result, research continued and culminated with a second strain of modified rice known as “Golden Rice 2.” Golden Rice 2 produces twenty three times as much vitamin A precursor as the original form of Golden Rice. As a result, even a modest amount of Golden Rice (about a cup a day) could provide more than half the recommended dietary dose of vitamin A – more than enough to prevent death or blindness.
In areas of the world that subsist primarily on rice, replacing conventional rice with Golden Rice would effectively end deaths and blindness as a result of inadequate vitamin A. Additionally, developers of Golden Rice have explored adding other genetic modifications, to make the crop resistant to disease, pests or increase yields. In all cases, the development of Golden Rice has been motivated not by profit, but by a desire to improve health in third world countries. Funding has come from charities, government agencies and international organizations.
Even so, many environmental groups strongly oppose Golden Rice and hence have targeted it, destroying test fields and attempting to persuade those it would benefit to fear and reject it.
The so-called ‘Golden’ rice marketed by the biotech industry is a rice variety genetically engineered (GE) to produce pro-vitamin A. Its proponents say this GE rice could solve the problems of Vitamin A deficiency (which can lead to blindness) in developing countries.
1. Greenpeace opposes the release of GE crops, including ‘Golden’ rice, into the environment.
2. Greenpeace believes that ‘Golden’ rice is not an answer to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and malnutrition, and diverts resources away from dealing with the real underlying causes of VAD, which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a more diverse diet.
3. Greenpeace believes that money spent on fighting Vitamin A deficiency should be channelled into programs that are already working, such as the promotion of home-gardening and pills.
Greenpeace believes that by combating Vitamin A deficiency with home gardens, sustainable systems are created that provide food security and diversity in a way that is empowering women and protects agro-diversity.
There are a number of problems with these arguments. First, artificially genetically engineered crops have been grown in the open for some time, and indeed Golden Rice has been planted in open fields by researchers. Despite this, the sky has still not fallen. No major environmental problems have ever been linked to deployment of genetically modified crops. Furthermore, rice crops are already a highly domesticated genotype, having been modified by centuries of selective breeding. Indeed, all species are, in a sense genetically modified, since nature is forever mutating and recombining genes as species evolve.
Supplement pills do work as a means of addressing vitamin A deficiency, but they are a highly imperfect and expensive way of dealing with the problem. Pills are not a one time solution, but must be distributed continuously. The logistics of getting vitamin A supplements to every small village is daunting and any disruption in the supply will result in a return of the problem. The biggest problems that have faced nutrition aid programs have turned out not to be supply, but distribution, especially in areas which lack infrastructure or are subject to conflict. If nothing else, supplement programs force the poor to be completely dependent on outsiders for their vitamin A.
Vitamin A supplementation programs are currently underway. The Micronutrient Initiative, a Canadian group for nutritional aid, has been one of the most active organizations in distribution of supplements. Grants from world governments and aid from the WHO and UNICEF has also been applied to the problem. These programs have met with some success, yet millions continue to be blinded and die of vitamin A deficiency, even despite the efforts.
We would, of course, like every poor villager to have access to a diet as diverse and nutritious as those of us living in the industrial world. We would also like every poor villager to have air conditioning and access to 21st century medicine. Unfortunately, that won’t be happening any time soon. There are complex economic and cultural reasons for this, but in the end, it takes time for standards of living and food to improve and for the foreseeable future, rice will be the main staple for much of the world.
The poor of the world, are, in fact, not stupid. Their problem is not that they need First Worlders to educate them on what a good idea it would be to grow tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers. Rather, they rely on rice because it is an easily grown staple that provides many calories and can be used to support the basic needs of farmers. You really just can’t use zucchini as a staple crop. These vegetables work fine to supplement vitamins, but unless you want to buy all the subsistence farmers of the world a tractor and irrigation system, they just are not likely to be able to plant specialized vegetables for vitamins.
You can read more about the opposition from various environmental groups. It’s all about the same. Claims center primarily around it being dangerous and also unnecessary. It’s not hard to find anti-gmo article, such as this Greenpeace piece in 2005, which said about the same thing and also called Golden Rice “A Technical Failure.” Of course, while the vitamin A levels were low in 2005, eight years of research and development has yielded impressive results. Food And Water Watch made similar claims this year, also stating that Golden Rice is might not even work at all – a claim refuted by the scientific evidence.
Environmental groups and groups that simply oppose genetically engineered foods or genetically engineered organisms of any kind have generally enjoyed a relatively sympathetic mainstream press. Although there has been editorial content on both sides, they have generally been portrayed relatively positively and have not faced major opposition.
In this case, however, there has been a strong and consistent backlash. Indeed, even elements that have generally been sympathetic to environmental groups, such as modern progressive-leaning outlets have often been opposed to the actions against Golden Rice. The backlash has even expanded to call for a reevaluation of the general policies against all genetically engineered organisms.
Slate: The True Story About Who Destroyed a Genetically Modified Rice Crop
National Post: Trashing Rice, Killing Children
Greenpeace Hysteria Campaign Scares Chinese into Retreat on Nutrition-Enhancing GMO ‘Golden Rice’
The Globe and Mail: Greenpeace’s Golden Rice stand should appall us all
Meanwhile, others have called the Golden Rice issue a “dilemma” for environmental groups. It’s no such thing. There is no dilemma, because it is in no way harmful to the environment nor does it empower any single corporation. It’s a life-saving technology, just like vaccines or water chlorination. Obviously nobody would want to oppose such things…
(oh wait… nevermind)
While there has certainly been some positive press and there are many groups campaigning hard to declare Golden Rice a conspiracy, a hoax or a danger, the groups who oppose Golden Rice are now facing a severe backlash which may extend to their general opposition of all things genetically engineered or even their entire stand on the environment and technology.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 at 10:43 am and is filed under Agriculture, Bad Science, Culture, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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