Scientists pressure Greenpeace over GMOs

Jun 30, 2016

Plant Biotechnologist Dr. Swapan Datta inspects a genetically modified ‘Golden Rice’ plant at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at IRRC’s headquarters in Los Banos, Philippines.

In an open letter to Greenpeace, more than 100 Nobel laureates are pressuring the environmental group to change its position on genetically modified crops — in particular, a strain of rice modified to include vitamin A.

Vitamin A deficiency in many parts of the developing world contributes to the deaths of 1.15 million children every year, according to UNICEF.

Greenpeace is spearheading opposition to the “Golden Rice” strain in the face of a huge lobbying push for the grain. The advocacy group argues that Golden Rice has not achieved its promise of high vitamin A content, other aid programs are delivering vitamin A supplements to populations in need, the long-term safety consequences are unknown and prices for such genetically modified crops are prohibitive for local farmers.

However, the laureates’ letters states:

Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption.

They also highlight that food production will have to double by 2050 to meet global population needs.

Randy Schekman, a Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist who is among those who signed the letter, says that the broader scientific community supports the laureates’ claims.

“The vast majority of professional life scientists … recognize that the application [of genetic modification in agriculture] has tremendous value, and it has already shown its efficacy in the majority of plant crops that are grown in the United States,” Schekman told KPCC.

The letter took some in the Greenpeace community by surprise. 

“It’s very unfair for Greenpeace to be pilloried in this way, and I’m very astounded that researchers of this stature should take it upon themselves to launch an attack,” said Paul Johnston, principal scientist with Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter.

Johnston said that he believes that a regulatory framework must be put in place to prevent indiscriminate usage of genetically modified crops, and he argued that Golden Rice is the wrong battleground for the fight over such regulations. 

“It’s a bit of a red herring, because [Golden Rice] is not something that is there and available for use at the moment” Johnston said.

The United States doesn’t currently have any federal legislation regarding genetically modified organisms, though the European Union does have an established legal framework that requires labeling such products.


Randy Schekman, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate; Cell biologist; University of California, Berkeley; Signatory of an open letter to Greenpeace regarding its position on GMOs

Paul Johnston, Ph.D., Principal Scientist of Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter

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