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Home » Greenpeace blocks golden rice for children of the Philippines

Greenpeace blocks golden rice for children of the Philippines

Recently, the activist group Greenpeace won a lawsuit to block the use of golden rice in the Philippines. Golden rice is a genetically modified rice that is a cost-effective way to combat vitamin A deficiency which has killed millions of children in less-developed countries. Unfortunately, activists opposed to transgenic and genetically modified foods raised false concerns that led governments to delay the approval of golden rice.

This is sad since the safety of GMO foods has been firmly established over the years. Because of the pseudoscience pushed by the anti-GMO forces, the world hasn’t been able to provide a nutritional food source for children who are dying of vitamin A deficiency. I’m not one to push morality or ethics, but what is the morality of fighting against this life-saving food? There isn’t any based on the science of GMO foods.

Let’s take a look at vitamin A deficiency, golden rice, and what’s going on in the Philippines.

golden rice philippines

Vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A is in a class of nutritional compounds called antioxidants. It is needed by the body to help with vision, reproduction, cell growth, and the immune system. It protects your cells against free radicals and supports cell growth and function.

Vitamin A prevents and treats xerophthalmia (inability to see in low light) and night blindness. Individuals with vitamin A deficiency are at risk of mortality from measles (despite anti-vaccine claims, vitamin A supplements do not prevent measles).

People most at risk for vitamin A deficiency are those with a limited variety of food in their diet, with cystic fibrosis, and with malabsorption problems (problems absorbing food).

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History of golden rice

Golden rice was first developed in the 1990s and then modified in 2004 with transgenes from maize and the soil bacterium Erwinia uredovora. This genetically modified rice produces beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, in the normally white endosperm of the rice.

The current golden rice variety has two added genes, one from maize and another from a bacterium, that enable the plant to produce the compound that the human body converts into vitamin A after the rice is consumed.

In July 2021, golden rice was approved for cultivation in the Philippines. A recent study has estimated that substituting golden rice for conventional rice could provide 89% to 113% and 57% to 99% of the recommended vitamin A requirement for preschool children in Bangladesh and the Philippines, respectively. Even if there were no other dietary vitamin A sources, golden rice would provide sufficient vitamin A to prevent diseases that are associated with vitamin A deficiency.

Every bit of real scientific data says that Golden Rice is safe for humans and the environment. A group of Nobel laureates wrote:

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.

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Greenpeace and golden rice

Much of the opposition to golden rice comes from the environmental activist group, Greenpeace.

Greenpeace is opposed to the planting of golden rice in the Phillippines (and other places) because they claim that since it is genetically engineered, it is “environmentally irresponsible,” it poses a risk to human health, and it 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 Greenpeace’s points one by one:

  1. Environmentally irresponsible. Greenpeace believes that golden 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.
  2. Human health risk. Similar to the application of the precautionary principle above, Greenpeace claims there’s some possibility that 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.
  3. Compromise security. Greenpeace has invented some myth 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, harm family farms and good nutrition in places like the Philippines. They think that there are other methods to prevent vitamin A deficiency, including supplements and more vegetables in diets. Of course, most of these solutions are expensive in areas of the world where rice is a staple of the diet. Greenpeace seems to pushing a privileged view of vitamin A deficiency — using expensive first-world methods to treat the disease.

Greenpeace and other groups generally oppose transgenic or genetically modified organisms, and they raised concerns that tried to get courts and politicians in the Philippines to block the production of golden rice.

One of their arguments is that it will bring huge profits to biotechnology companies. However, the golden rice technology is available at no cost for humanitarian uses, like supplementing vitamin A for children in underdeveloped areas such as the Phillippines. There are also no limitations, except for export, on golden rice seed — anyone can replant, sell, or give away the seed, which is different from other transgenic crops

Many things bother me about the anti-GMO rhetoric, but one of the major ones is a matter of privilege and entitlement. Unfortunately, Greenpeace and others are presenting fake science to support an issue that is irrelevant to rich countries, while ignoring the deaths and harm caused to poor countries by keeping golden rice out of farmers’ hands.

In high-income nations where populations have access to a diversity of foods, vitamin A deficiency is rare. On the other hand, in many low-income nations, people have limited access to foods rich in vitamin A or beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor — vitamin A deficiency rates remain dangerously high in children.

As an example, children in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia continue to disproportionately experience vitamin A deficiency and its associated risks — infectious and diarrheal diseases, irreversible blindness and other sensory losses, and premature death.

Vitamin A deficiency is endemic in areas of poverty and agricultural market constraints. Meat and produce that is rich in vitamin A are unavailable or so expensive that they are effectively unavailable. Supplementation is expensive and may not be available to individuals outside of urban centers.

On the other hand cereal grains, such as rice, are less expensive and more readily available. Although they do provide sufficient calories for survival, they tend to be missing key nutrients such as vitamin A. This is where golden rice is truly golden.

Greenpeace fights golden rice in the Philippines

According to an article in Science, on 17 April 2024, a Philippines Court of Appeals revoked the permit for farmers to grow golden rice. The ruling was on a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups. The ruling stated that there was an absence of a scientific consensus on the safety of golden rice, thus it should not be commercially cultivated. As I wrote above there appears to be a solid scientific consensus on the safety and effectiveness of golden rice.

The court also stated that the Philippines government had not established mechanisms to monitor the growing and consuming of golden rice. This decision even blocks the testing of golden rice in greenhouses and open fields.

Greenpeace celebrated the decision. Greenpeace Southeast Asia campaigner Wilhelmina Pelegrina wrote this statement that the decision:

…is a monumental win for Filipino farmers and Filipino people. GM crops have never been proven safe.

No, it’s a monumental loss for the Filipino children.

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In an editorial in PNAS, Felicia Wu and colleagues wrote:

The arguments used by organizations to delay adoption of GR (golden rice) often resemble the arguments of anti-vaccination groups, including those protesting vaccines to protect against COVID-19. Some of the opponents of GR and agricultural biotechnology more generally see the introduction of GR as forcing the consumption of GMOs on the population. However, for the case of GR, consumers have the option of easily avoiding consumption because GR is very easily identifiable by its color.

The tragedy of GR is that regulatory delays of approval have immense costs in terms of preventable deaths, with no apparent benefit. The approval of GR is even more urgent with the ongoing pandemic, which has made access to healthcare services more difficult in vulnerable populations worldwide. The World Bank has recommended that micronutrient biofortification of staple crops, including specifically GR, should be the norm and not the exception in crop breeding.

This is part of the reason why I started writing about GMO foods — their arguments sound like the pseudoscience and misinformation presented by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. I used to joke that science deniers get together at annual conventions to share tactics and pseudoscience to help one another.

Ironically, most of the anti-GMO nonsense comes from the left, generally, those who accept anthropogenic climate change and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccine.

All of this pseudoscience about GMOs and golden rice will lead to more deaths of children in countries like the Philippines. Period. These people need to shut up and let us save children from death. Period.

If Greenpeace and these other anti-GMO activists would get behind golden rice to prevent vitamin A deficiency, that would be the moral and ethical choice, but they don’t. They argue from privilege using junk science and ignorance of science to harm their fellow humans. And I am calling them on it.


Michael Simpson

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