What do the eco heretics mean for GM golden rice?

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Photo Credit: Allow Golden Rice Now
Photo Credit: Allow Golden Rice Now

Related tags Greenpeace Environmentalism

Dr Patrick Moore – Greenpeace founding member and GM defector – represents a fear that lurks in the heart of all ideologists: Am I on the right side of the fence? Am I the goodie or the baddie? 

It’s an odd scenario whereby Greenpeace has been cast as villain by its own dropout, who protested outside the NGO’s London headquarters​ at the end of last month. Rewind four decades and a young Patrick Moore was among the founding eco-warrior members of the organisation until an abrupt change of heart in 1986. Since then he seems to have campaigned for all the things that Greenpeace and the like stand against, most notably perhaps GM golden rice. 

GM golden rice is engineered so that the beta-carotene – a precursor of vitamin A – already occurring in the plant’s inedible leaves occurs in the grain also. The World Health Organisation estimates that 250 million preschool children​ are affected by vitamin A deficiency globally, which can lead to blindness, stunted growth and weakened immune systems. Supporters say the rice presents a realistic and long-term way to tackle the deficiency which is particularly prevalent in developing countries where rice is central to so many diets.

While concerns over corporate domination and biodiversity are to me real and reasonable, I cannot help but wonder if the warlike way in which these fears are communicated by some groups on both sides presents a dangerous obstruction on the path to progress.

The sensible environmentalist

In his vow against what he calls Greenpeace’s sensationalist and fear mongering tactics in the GM debate, Moore has proclaimed himself the “sensible environmentalist”.​ His departure, Moore told us, marked for him a move away from the politics of confrontation to that of consensus.

“Gradually Greenpeace, and much of the green movement, drifted into an anti-human stance where humans were seen as the enemies of the earth. I could not think this way. We are from the earth like all the other life and have evolved with it,”​ Moore said.

And Moore isn’t alone, GM advocates have somewhat smugly held up examples of the other eco dropouts as proof of our inevitable conversion. Jens Katzek, a former anti-GMO campaigner for Friends of the Earth serves as conversion poster boy in the concluding remarks of a statement​ from The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

In 2005, early American environmentalist and writer Stewart Brand proposed that in the next ten years environmentalists will reverse their ideas on four core issues – urbanisation, population, nuclear power and genetic modification in an article entitled Environmental Heresies​.

Perhaps more dramatically, in January last year environmental journalist and author Mark Lynas stood up at the Oxford Farming Conference​ and apologised for the years he spent ripping up GM crops and his part played in, “demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

“In 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage,”​ he told the audience.

Mellowing with age

Personally I’ve always battled against the suggestion that I will mellow in lefty conviction with age, which is perhaps why Dr Moore’s case sits so uneasily with me. It’s this idea of inevitable compromise, of age and experience bursting an ideological bubble. A quotation often accredited to the ex-French President Georges Clemenceau goes: "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart, to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.​" Perhaps the same can be said for anti-GM sentiments.

Certainly it’s within these dropouts – and the uneasiness they provoke in those who have not yet made up their minds – that GM’s greatest leverage for public opinion lies.

Surely they will serve to plant a seed of doubt in other staunch anti-GMer’s minds. I don’t count myself among them but the idea of corporate funded research dressed up as a humanitarian project sits uneasily with me too, as does the (however unfounded) idea of unleashing a technology with as yet unknown consequences into the 'wild'. This process would be irreversible, and that seems scary.

But then that seed of doubt planted by the eco dropouts rears its head and asks if such incorporeal qualms can really justify cutting off a technology that holds such tremendous potential to improve global nutrition?

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Oh Dear, what a shame.

Posted by Jonathon Harrington,

Your correspondents seem to think that GM Rice is some sort of 'con' trick to persuade the general public that GM crops in general are safe. What I do not understand is why they think this yet typically think that 'organic' food is safe and good for us when often the opposite it true. Recent examples of organic spinach and chicken which have both poisoned hundreds of people in California seem to be ignored.Do they really think people like Dr Moore and Mark Lynas are that stupid? Please contributors, raise you sights above the horizon and see the possibilities open to us all.

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Mr. Moore is mistaken

Posted by Jay Jackson,

GM rice is not the answer to the problem, rather the problem is being used as an excuse to push toxic GM crops. The golden rice will NOT solve the problem, only introduce many other problems. A very simple solution would be vitamin A supplementation or fortification, along with introducing food variety to these people, after which supplementation will not be necessary. This a solution that WILL work and will cost nothing long-term and is sustainable without damaging health and the environment.

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Golden Rice and GMOs are a fraud

Posted by Luis Freeman,

Golden rice is nothing more than a PR stunt to try to improve the image of GMO products, which are failing miserably. It is a ludicrous idea for many reasons. The carotene in the rice does not survive processing and cooking, also the ability of malnourished people to effectively convert the carotene to active vitamin A is compromised, and the type of rice developed is not even the same variety that is grown in the areas most in need. A FAR better and FAR less costly way to accomplish vitamin A sufficiency would be to provide vitamin A supplements short term and to introduce variety of different conventional foods that provide vitamin A requirements. This is a permanent solution that costs little to nothing and avoids the severe damage to the environment and health that are associated with GMOs.

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