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2013 articles

Editorial in Science promotes Golden Rice myths

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pro-gm golden rice message

The journal Science has published an editorial that makes a series of highly dubious claims, and it's not alone in pushing distorted propaganda.

Hot on the heels of the sloppy, inaccurate and partisan editorial in the magazine Scientific American, attacking GMO labeling, comes more of the same from the journal Science.

Called "Standing Up for GMOs", the editorial lauds Golden Rice and more or less declares all opposition to GMOs irrational and wicked. The editorial even claims there has been a rapid take up of GM crops because of its consumer benefits, without specifying what those might be.

But most shamefully of all, the editorial claims: "The rice [that is, Golden Rice] has been ready for farmers to use since the turn of the 21st century, yet it is still not available to them. Escalating requirements for testing have stalled its release for more than a decade."

This claim is a flat out lie. Back in 2000 all that had happened was that there had been a proof of concept for β-carotene being introduced into rice. But the amount was small and the variety was not one normally grown by famers in the target countries for Golden Rice adoption.

These problems have taken many years to resolve, particularly in the case of making Indica varieties (rather than the Japonica varieties which had been genetically engineered) available for farmers to grow. In fact, the agronomic testing of a Golden Rice Indica variety didn't even begin in the Philippines until as recently as late 2010, i.e. a full decade after the editorial says that Golden Rice was ready for farmers to grow.

And as recently as February 2013, the IRRI - the institute overseeing the Golden Rice trials – directly contradicted claims that Golden Rice would not only shortly be made available to farmers but was a proven means of reducing Vitamin A Deficiency. According to the IRRI, "it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness."

There are several other statements in the editorial that are equally open to challenge. What makes this so surprising is that while some of its authors, like Nina Fedoroff and David Baulcombe, do have a record of inaccurate and unsupported claims, as well as links to GM companies, there are a number of scientists listed among its authors who do not have a reputation as out and out GM propagandists.

On the very same day as the editorial in Science was published, an article appeared in The Scotsman newspaper headlined: "'Madness' of opposition to GM crops says Glover". The article quoted Anne Glover, the chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, and someone else with a history of biotech business interests, as saying that opposition to the growing of GM crops on scientific grounds was "a form of madness".

According to The Scotsman, Prof Glover "questioned the ethics of those opposed to GM Golden Rice, which was protecting thousands of children in Third World countries from the risk of blindness caused by a lack of vitamin A in conventional rice." But as Golden Rice has not even been deployed and remains unproven, how exactly could it be "protecting thousands of children in Third World countries from the risk of blindness"?

Also on the same day, another pro-GM scientist, Dan Graur, posted a distressing image on Twitter of a blind child with the message: "The reason that golden rice is not widely distributed among poor farmers is that @Greenpeace likes blind children!"

Yet, as we have noted, the principle reasons why Golden rice is not available have little to do with those challenging the value of Golden Rice. In the words of Dr Michael Hansen, who has been carefully following the research for years: "Bottom line, even if there had been no push back from NGOs, GR [Golden Rice] would still not be on the market due to the technical issues, e.g. getting the engineered traits crossed into Indica rices that people will actually eat."

It's also worth noting that other approaches to Vitamin A Deficiency have already led to a big drop in the problem in the Philippines (see the charts at the bottom of this page). This of course raises the question as to just how many millions have been spent on Golden Rice with nothing so far to show for it, and no certainty there ever will be. And isn't it "a form of madness" not to have invested more of that money, time and effort into the methods that have already been shown to work in reducing Vitamin A Deficiency? We could even ask how many children have gone blind as a result of this misdirection of resources.

It is surely no coincidence that this wave of aggressive Golden Rice propaganda came in exactly the same week as news broke of how a Golden Rice study had violated ethics rules, leading to the banning of a Tufts' University researcher from conducting human trials. Others involved in the research in China had already been sacked following an investigation by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

EDITORIAL: Standing Up for GMOs

Science, Vol. 341 no. 6152 p. 1320, 20 September 2013

On 8 August 2013, vandals destroyed a Philippine “Golden Rice” field trial. Officials and staff of the Philippine Department of Agriculture that conduct rice tests for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) had gathered for a peaceful dialogue. They were taken by surprise when protesters invaded the compound, overwhelmed police and village security, and trampled the rice. Billed as an uprising of farmers, the destruction was actually carried out by protesters trucked in overnight in a dozen jeepneys.

The global scientific community has condemned the wanton destruction of these field trials, gathering thousands of supporting signatures in a matter of days.* If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a strain that is genetically modified by molecular techniques (and therefore labeled a genetically modified organism or GMO) to produce β-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is an essential component of the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin in the eye. Severe vitamin A deficiency results in blindness, and half of the roughly half-million children who are blinded by it die within a year. Vitamin A deficiency also compromises immune system function, exacerbating many kinds of illnesses. It is a disease of poverty and poor diet, responsible for 1.9 to 2.8 million preventable deaths annually, mostly of children under 5 years old and women.†

Rice is the major dietary staple for almost half of humanity, but white rice grains lack vitamin A. Research scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer and their teams developed a rice variety whose grains accumulate β-carotene. It took them, in collaboration with IRRI, 25 years to develop and test varieties that express sufficient quantities of the precursor that a few ounces of cooked rice can provide enough β-carotene to eliminate the morbidity and mortality of vitamin A deficiency.‡ It took time, as well, to obtain the right to distribute Golden Rice seeds, which contain patented molecular constructs, free of charge to resource-poor farmers.

The rice has been ready for farmers to use since the turn of the 21st century, yet it is still not available to them. Escalating requirements for testing have stalled its release for more than a decade. IRRI and PhilRice continue to patiently conduct the required field tests with Golden Rice, despite the fact that these tests are driven by fears of “potential” hazards, with no evidence of actual hazards. Introduced into commercial production over 17 years ago, GM crops have had an exemplary safety record. And precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity.

New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations. We, and the thousands of other scientists who have signed the statement of protest, stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances such as Golden Rice that have the potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.

*B. Chassy et al., “Global scientific community condemns the recent destruction of field trials of Golden Rice in the Philippines”; (2013).
†E. Mayo-Wilson et al., Br. Med. J. 343, d5094 (2011).
‡G. Tang et al., Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 96, 658 (2012).

Bruce Alberts1,
Roger Beachy2,
David Baulcombe3,
Gunter Blobel4,
Swapan Datta5,
Nina Fedoroff6,
Donald Kennedy7,
Gurdev S. Khush8,
Jim Peacock9,
Martin Rees10,
Phillip Sharp11

1 Bruce Alberts is President Emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and former Editor-in-Chief of Science.
2 Roger Beachy is a Wolf Prize laureate; President Emeritus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO, USA; and former director of the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
3 David Baulcombe is a Wolf Prize laureate and Royal Society Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. He receives research funding from Syngenta and is a consultant for Syngenta.
4 Gunter Blobel is a Nobel laureate and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor at the Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA.
5 Swapan Datta is Deputy Director General (Crop Science) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, India; the Rash Behari Ghosh Chair Professor at Calcutta University, India; and a former scientist at ETH-Zurich, Switzerland, and at IRRI, Philippines.
6 Nina Fedoroff is a National Medal of Science laureate; a Distinguished Professor at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia; an Evan Pugh Professor at Pennylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA; and former President of AAAS.
7 Donald Kennedy is President Emeritus of Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA, and former Editor-in-Chief of Science.
8 Gurdev S. Khush is a World Food Prize laureate, Japan Prize laureate, and former scientist at IRRI, Los Baños, Philippines.
9 Jim Peacock is a former Chief Scientist of Australia and former Chief of the Division of Plant Industry at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Canberra, Australia.
10 Martin Rees is President Emeritus of the Royal Society, Fellow of Trinity College, and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
11 Phillip Sharp is a Nobel laureate; an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA; and President of AAAS.