Two weeks ago, the Asian arm of Greenpeace issued an alarming press release: "24 children used as guinea pigs in genetically engineered 'Golden Rice' trial." A Chinese news agency leaped on the story and reported that Chinese and American researchers had carried out a dangerous and unauthorized experiment to feed modified rice to a group of rural children in Hunan. The Chinese blogosphere lit up with outrage. China's top health authority denied that it had approved the research; it suspended a Chinese scientist and demanded that the Americans investigate.
A spokesman for Greenpeace warned: "The next 'golden rice' guinea pigs might be Filipino children."
Greenpeace has long been an implacable opponent of genetically modified foods, especially Golden Rice. And it had an especially good reason to be alarmed by this trial: It was a complete success.
The Hunan trial, conducted in 2008, was meant to determine whether a small bowl a day of genetically modified rice (called Golden because of its yellow colour) could effectively deliver enough Vitamin A to make a difference. Vitamin A deficiency is a scourge of the world's poor (Vitamin A is contained in fruits and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach). According to the World Health Organization, Vitamin A deficiency affects about a third of the world's children under 5. It claims the lives of more than a million people a year, including hundreds of thousands of children. As many as half a million children go blind every year because they don't get enough Vitamin A.
Golden Rice was developed in the late 1990s by crop scientists who donated it to the world as a humanitarian tool. It was hailed at the time as a spectacularly promising breakthrough. But, in the early days, Golden Rice couldn't deliver enough Vitamin A to make a difference. For years, Greenpeace and other anti-GM groups ridiculed it as overhyped and ineffective. They called it a propaganda tool for the evil GM industry.
But now, that problem has been fixed. The trial conducted in Hunan – the results were published last month in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – helps to demonstrate that. It showed that Golden Rice is now as good a source as vitamin supplements, and better than spinach. (For the record, the Americans say the trial was approved by all the proper channels at the time, and was entirely ethical.)
The last thing Greenpeace wants is for Golden Rice to be effective. It insists that the rice poses all kinds of environmental and health risks, even though repeated risk assessments by leading scientific bodies have found no such risks. In fact, according to scientists at the University of California, GM rice reduces pesticide use and improves farmers' health.
Greenpeace is campaigning vigorously to block Golden Rice trials throughout Southeast Asia. And it has lots of allies, including luminaries such as Naomi Klein and groups such as the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, whose mission is "collaborative campaigning for food sovereignty and environmental justice." These groups insist that what the poor really need is utopian political solutions. "Food insecurity is brought about by lack of enough land, by decreasing rice production and decreasing incomes," says one Golden Rice opponent. "Only through a genuine land reform which ensures farmers' access to sufficient rice and other food sources will farmers start to become healthy again."
Genetically engineered crops do far more than improve people's health. They can dramatically boost yields in places such as Africa. They are the key to feeding the world's exploding population. But GM opponents have been tragically successful in stalling the spread of modified crops to the people most in need of it. In China, where people are already terrified about food safety because of major scandals over tainted milk powder, GM crops are generally shunned.
Are Greenpeace and its allies effectively allowing millions of children to go blind or die when there's a safe solution? The rest of us should be appalled.