I have always been fascinated with Greenpeace, especially back in the ancient times, when I had much more activist ideas about environmental issues. They tried to block nuclear missile tests and save the whales, which seemed like the right things to do. But my scientific side matured, and after observing the Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs for a long while, I’m not sure that they are scientifically literate.
First of all, GMOs have been heavily studied, and they have been found to be safe for animals, humans and the environment. Moreover, the world’s leading scientific groups have come to the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.
Yet Greenpeace has anti-GMO as if GMOs were killing whales or something worse. They have been so steadfast in their opposition against GMOs that they have tried, partially successfully, to block the introduction of golden rice, a critical food to saving lives of hundreds of thousands of children.
Well, I guess a bunch of real scientists got sick of Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs that bordered on Ludditism. So, a group of 110 Nobel laureates wrote a strongly worded letter to Greenpeace, essentially calling it a “crime against humanity.” And yes, it is.
Let’s look at this story with some science.
What is Golden Rice?
Golden rice is a variety of rice which has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of the rice. It was “invented” about 20 years ago.
Golden rice was intended to be produced and consumed in areas of the world that have a deficiency of dietary vitamin A, a disease which kills around 670,000 children under the age of 5 every year. In other words, Golden Rice could save millions of children over our lifetime.
Every bit of real scientific data says that Golden Rice is safe for humans and the environment. As the Nobel laureates stated in their letter,
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]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. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity. [/infobox]
Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs
Greenpeace is opposed to the planting of golden rice because it is genetically engineered, so it is “environmentally irresponsible,” poses risk to human health, and could “compromise food, nutrition and financial security.” Of course, none of this is based on real scientific data, just on Greenpeace’s continued belief in the appeal to nature, that is, if it isn’t “natural,” it must be dangerous.
I want to examine each of their points one by one:
- Environmentally irresponsible. Greenpeace believes in unscientific things like the rice will contaminate organic farms (no scientific evidence), or that there could be some unknown environmental effect, sometimes called the precautionary principle, a logical fallacy. But here’s the thing – if the most brilliant scientific minds can’t see this, then maybe it’s a false flag.
- Human health risk. Similar to the application of the precautionary principle above, Greenpeace claims there’s some possibility that the genetically modified rice could have some unknown harm to humans. Again, there is simply no evidence that any genetically modified crop has had any harm to any human or animal. Humans have been genetically modifying crops, including rice, for over 10,000 years – why golden rice should be different is not explained by any scientific research at all.
- Compromise security. Greenpeace has invented some trope that genetically modified foods somehow affect food security. For example, using that appeal to nature fallacy, Greenpeace tries to claim that GMO crops, like golden rice, does harm to family farms and good nutrition. They think that there are other methods to prevent vitamin A deficiency, including supplements and more vegetable in diets. Of course, most of these solutions are expensive in areas of the world where rice is a stable of the diet. Greenpeace seems to want to push the white privileged method of keeping children from dying, all out of an anti-science belief set.
In all of the Greenpeace anti-GMO beliefs, especially with respect to golden rice, they provide nothing scientific that supports their beliefs. I guess that has always been the difference between “beliefs” and scientific facts.
The Nobel laureate letter
I don’t want to misquote or paraphrase what was written by the 110 Nobel laureates, men and women who are at the pinnacle of their knowledge of biotechnology and human health. They simply want to save the lives of children, something that’s not clear in Greenpeace’s “beliefs.”
To the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world:
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects.
We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against “GMOs” in general and Golden Rice in particular.
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. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.
Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.
The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 – 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.
WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;
WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace’s actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.
How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?
I know that some will criticize this “appeal to authority,” that is, using 110 accomplished scientists to push back against Greenpeace’s anti-science beliefs. But here’s the thing – these scientists have evidence, mountains of evidence, on their side. Greenpeace does not.
In the end why does Greenpeace oppose trying to save children’s lives? It makes no sense to me. And in the year since that letter to Greenpeace was published, they remain steadfast in their opposition to golden rice.
They are completely wrong on GMOs and on golden rice. They’re anti-science beliefs harm children. They need to shut up, because their ideas about a whole host of environmental issues will also come under scientific scrutiny. And I’m thinking that GMOs are not their only problem.
Editor’s note – This article was first published in July 2016. It was updated for clarity, formatting, and to fix broken links.
- Black RE, Allen LH, Bhutta ZA, Caulfield LE, de Onis M, Ezzati M, Mathers C, Rivera J; Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group. Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences. Lancet. 2008 Jan 19;371(9608):243-60. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61690-0. Review. PubMed PMID: 18207566.
- Ye X, Al-Babili S, Klöti A, Zhang J, Lucca P, Beyer P, Potrykus I. Engineering the provitamin A (beta-carotene) biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoid-free) rice endosperm. Science. 2000 Jan 14;287(5451):303-5. PubMed PMID: 10634784.
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