Those who oppose genetically modified (GM) rice enhanced with vitamin A in Africa and Asia are “wicked” and could be responsible for millions of premature deaths, warns environment secretary Owen Paterson.
Paterson slammed environmental groups that are fighting the development of vitamin-rich ‘golden rice’ and supported a letter from a group of international scientists calling for its speedy introduction.
The GM rice could help to prevent deaths of about 670,000 children who die from vitamin A deficiency every year and stop blindness in a further 350,000 children, scientists argue.
“It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology,” Paterson said in an interview published in the Independent newspaper. “I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked.”
Without naming individual groups, Paterson said those who opposed GM technology were “casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world”.
'Casting a dark shadow'
Paterson said there was no scientific basis for opposition to GM crops. “There are 17M farmers, farming 170M hectares,” he said. That represented 12% of the world’s arable area, seven times the surface area of the UK and “no one has ever brought me a single case of a health problem”, he added.
Environmental pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and GM Freeze have long opposed the introduction of GM crops and animals.
Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth director of policy and campaigns, said: “What could be termed as wicked is a minister who turns a blind eye to evidence of the very real threat of climate change on food security and the world’s children, and instead puts his faith in unproven silver bullet measures.”
Bennett said his organisation was not campaigning on golden rice. “We are putting our effort into campaigning for tried and tested measures that have been shown to deliver real solutions for farmers and nutrition – such as boosting yields by protecting soils, better water management and affordable access to seeds.”
Threats to food security
Some of the greatest threats to food security include climate change, soil degradation, and a lack of agricultural diversity, he said. “It is highly doubtful that more intensive forms of agriculture such as GM crops will deliver on these issues for farmers or food supply.”
No one from Greenpeace was available to speak to FoodManufacture.co.uk.
Meanwhile, Paterson also used the interview to back an open letter signed by a group of international scientists calling for the rapid introduction of vitamin-A enhanced rice to prevent child deaths and blindness.
The letter published in the American journal Science stated: “If ever there was a clear-cut case for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other non governmental organisations, as well as individuals, against golden rice.”
Signatories to the letter included 11 leading academics, including two Nobel laureates and the president emeritus of the US National Academy of Sciences.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stressed that Paterson’s comments reflected his own views – not those of the government.
Paterson had long been an outspoken advocate of GM science. In January he told delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference that retailers should play a bigger role in winning consumer support for the science.
In June, David Willetts, UK universities and science minister, told the Cheltenham Science Festival that Europe risked becoming “a museum of 20th century technology” unless EU ministers relaxed rules on the development of GM crops.