In December last year, the Philippine Department of Agriculture authorised the direct use of genetically-modified Golden Rice as Food and Feed or for Processing. This was the latest in a series of regulatory approvals which brings the cultivation of Golden Rice in developing countries a step closer. It is especially encouraging as Golden Rice’s progress has been in the teeth of vocal opposition and vitriolic hostility.
Viewed from any kind of rational standpoint, progress in genetic technology is merely the natural development of the husbandry which mankind has practised for millennia. We have bred and crossbred plants since the Stone Age to modify their genetic makeup, produce higher yields and promote resistance to pests and disease.
The potential for these technologies to alleviate food scarcity is vast and stands in the noble tradition of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which saw genetically improved strains of wheat relieve appalling food shortages on the Indian subcontinent and turned it into a net exporter.
Many of us will remember the traumatic news bulletins of the 20th century with images of starving people on the Indian subcontinent. In the late 1960s, the prominent American biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote, in his book The Population Bomb, that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Ehrlich was a prophet of doom and his solution was to reduce the number of human beings on the planet.
Fortunately, Borlaug took a different approach. He is now known as “the man who saved a billion lives” and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in transferring wheat with new genetics from the Americas to the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s. He used genetic adaptation to save a billion lives from starvation, and now India is a net food exporter.
Yet still, despite these extraordinary successes, the hostility to GM produce persists, and nowhere more virulently than in Greenpeace’s war on Golden Rice. It was developed at the end of the last century by Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer by enriching rice with vitamin A-producing beta-carotene. In 2001, the two scientists donated their invention to the world in the hopes that it would be used to end the scourge of vitamin A deficiency, which is the principal global cause of childhood mortality and blindness.
Had Golden Rice been a part of their diet, millions of young eyes and millions of young lives, primarily in Africa and South Asia, could have been saved. The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board lays the blame for their crop’s delayed development firmly with political suspicion and interference. Greenpeace, with its $500 million war chest, has rallied the forces of green privilege in a global campaign to frighten the public about GMOs and to pressure governments into keeping Golden Rice off the market.
The Humanitarian Board believe that their project should have been where it is today, with the major part of a regulatory package finished, in around 2006, 14 years ago. There are now fewer deaths among children under five than there were a decade ago, down to 16,000 per day from 26,000 per day. But they estimate that this death toll still equates to around 4,500 preventable vitamin A deficiency related child deaths every day, many of them in countries where rice is the staple food, usually grown close to where it is consumed.
Indeed, as Beyer and Potrykus commented with Adrian Dubock following the Philippine announcement, “Even partial substitution of white rice consumption with Golden Rice — all grown in the Philippines by Philippine farmers — will combat VAD, and with no possibility of overdosing.”
It is small wonder, therefore, that 151 Nobel Laureates have denounced the Greenpeace campaign against Golden Rice in a letter, saying “Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped” and asking “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?”
Malnutrition more widely still affects almost 2 billion people around the world, accounting for the loss of 3 million young lives each year and stunting the growth of one in four children. Manifestly, new approaches are needed and embracing biotechnology holds the key to that progress. Continued baseless opposition to genetic-modification and gene-editing technologies is, as Dutch plant scientist René Smulders put it, “like using a typewriter while the computer has already been invented.”
Countries like the Philippines are to be commended. As the UK leaves the EU, we must become a global champion of sane, evidence-led biotechnology policy for boosting production, improving the environment and, above all, lifting millions out of malnutrition across the world.