Anyone reading my blog will know that I’m no knee-jerk supporter of Greenpeace, though I think they do some great work on climate, forests, overfishing and other areas. However, in today’s extended Radio 4 Today Programme interview the UK’s former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson severely overstates his case in attacking Greenpeace for blocking golden rice and thereby killing thousands of people every day who die from vitamin A deficiency.
It is not disputed that Greenpeace has campaigned against Golden Rice in the past (see this 2010 report) and continues to be critical today. Nor is it disputed that Vitamin A deficiency is a severe problem, which according to the World Health Organisation leads to the preventable deaths of thousands (mainly young children) per day.
However, it is not correct or fair to attribute these ongoing deaths solely or even mainly to Greenpeace’s actions. If you listen to Paterson’s statement (reported here in the Telegraph, or listen to the audio link here, starting at 1:39:28), Paterson accuses Greenpeace of being morally responsible for a proportion of “6,000 people” who have “died from vitamin A deficiency… since yesterday”.
Latest: exclusive video interviews and footage with 5 farmers in Rangpur (filmed on my phone!):
9 May, 12.00hrs – see updates at end of post…
Once again media reports have emerged claiming that genetically modified pest-resistant Bt brinjal (eggplant) has failed in the field and that farmers in Bangladesh are regretting that they have begun to grow it. (An earlier example was dealt with here.) The stakes are admittedly high here: this is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution to resource-poor smallholder farmers. The powerful anti-GMO lobby knows that if Bangladeshi farmers successfully adopt this new crop, other GMO crops in the pipeline such as Golden Rice (also being developed in Bangladesh) will be advantaged and their cause of banning the technology permanently will be harmed.
The latest media report appeared in New Age, a Bangladeshi newspaper, and was titled ‘Bt brinjal farming ruins Gazipur farmers’. It is online here. The report is very specific, quoting farmer Mansur Sarkar, who is supposedly furious at the non-performance of his Bt brinjal crop. Sarkar is one of 20 farmers in 4 regions of Bangladesh who are growing the first generation of Bt brinjal. The rationale for the new variety is very simple – it is resistant to the endemic pest called fruit and shoot borer by carrying the Bt gene, and therefore requires drastically less pesticide than is conventionally applied by farmers to brinjal.
Here is a particular allegation from the New Age:
During a spot visit on Monday at four Bt brinjal fields in Gazipur, New Age found that Bt brinjal plants faced several troubles – they did not grow up and came under attack of different pests including shoot borers.
The article also alleges that Sarkar and another farmer were furious and demanding compensation for being “guinea pigs” and for loss of livelihood. International media is already interested in this story, and Twitter has come alive with retweets from anti-GM activists with the New Age article.
However, it is entirely false. I myself, along with various scientists and others from Cornell University and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, visited the same farm a day earlier and found the crop in good health and the farmer happy. Here are the photos to prove it:
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Guest posting by Robert Stone
Not too long ago, most environmentalists assumed that the world was rapidly running out of fossil fuels. This certain fact, we believed, would lead to a steady and steep rise in energy prices that in turn would encourage and facilitate the inevitable transition towards a renewable energy future. We were wrong.
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This is an English translation of the response by the Swedish minister of development cooperation to a letter sent by scientists protesting its funding of Masipag, a Filipino activist group linked to the recent vandalism of a Golden Rice trial. See below for a further response from Swedish scientists
Answer to questions about Swedish foreign aid to the International Rice Research Institute and the local organisation MASIPAG
For many years Swedish foreign aid has contributed to the development of agriculture in the poorest countries of the world. Sweden has, through Sida, supported both local farmer organisations such as MASIPAG, and world leading research institutes such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
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This is a guest posting by the signatories below
To: Minister for Development Cooperation Hillevi Engström
Department of Foreign Affairs
Gustav Adolfs torg 1
SE-103 39 Stockholm
Why does Swedish foreign aid support vandalism of valuable research?
On August 8th, field trials of the vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice were vandalized in the Philippines. The trials were conducted by the Philippine Department of Agriculture, on behalf of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI is supported by Sweden through foreign aid to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.
The attack was presented as an uprising of local farmers. However, it is clear that the attack was orchestrated by protesters from various environmental organizations, according to a pattern that we have seen recurring here in Europe. Philippine authorities have identified members of the organization MASIPAG among the attackers, and are now preparing legal action against them. On MASIPAG´s home page, explicit support for the attack is expressed.
It is now clear that MASIPAG has for many years been receiving support from the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (Sida) through funds to the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SNF). Hence, Swedish foreign aid funds are directed both to organizations that seek scientific ways to help ensure a safe and secure global food supply, and to organizations that support criminal actions aimed at counteracting such development. We assume that this does not accord with the intentions of the Swedish government.
Golden Rice is a strain of rice capable of producing β-carotene that has been developed using modern plant biotechnology. This trait could not have been introduced into rice by means of conventional plant breeding methods. Upon consumption β-carotene is converted into vitamin A, which is an essential component of the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin in the eye. Golden Rice was developed with the support of independent funding agencies, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The trait that allows Golden Rice to produce β-carotene has now been crossed into several local rice varieties. After completion of the field trials and following regulatory approval, these locally-adapted rice varieties are intended to be freely distributed to local farmers. Hence, Golden Rice is not the legal property of any private company, and is instead supervised by a Humanitarian Board.
Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and in severe cases death. It may also directly affect the body’s immune system and can thus exacerbate many serious diseases. Vitamin A deficiency is a disease of poverty and poor diet. It has been estimated that vitamin A deficiency causes between 1.9 and 2.8 million deaths each year, predominantly among poor children under the age of 5 and among poor women. It is now well documented that Golden Rice has the ability to produce sufficiently high levels of β-carotene to prevent blindness and death due to vitamin A deficiency.
The global scientific community has therefore reacted with dismay, and has strongly condemned the attack on the Golden Rice field trials. This vandalism is not only an attack on efforts to reduce human suffering, but also an attack against science itself since the arguments that have been put forward against the trials are fundamentally anti-scientific. The attack can only be understood in an international context, where influential ‘environmental’ groups are organizing a global campaign against modern plant breeding.
We welcome the Swedish government’s longstanding support for aid-related agricultural research, including the continued support to CGIAR and IRRI, and we do appreciate the value of pluralism in funding policy. But we see it as extremely worrying that Swedish aid funds are used to sabotage research that aims at mitigating human suffering. Sida has also financed projects in South America with the stated aim to reduce or eliminate modern plant breeding. We do not believe that Swedish foreign aid should be used to finance activities aimed at stopping the introduction of modern technology in the agricultural sector.
We therefore urge the Swedish government to investigate if the development funds allocated to MASIPAG have been used in accordance with the governmental guidelines to Sida; funding that has provided alleged support for the destruction of publicly funded field research. We also wish to seek clarification as to what steps the government plans to take in order to ensure that future foreign aid in the agricultural sector is directed towards developmental projects that are knowledge driven and have a sound scientific basis.
Pugh Professor, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Penn State University
Former (2012) president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Dr. Robert S. Zeigler
International Rice Research Institute
Professor emeritus of theoretical ecology, Lund University
Former Deputy Vice Chancellor SLU
Professor of Plant Breeding
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)
Professor of Plant Cell and Molecular Biology
Assoc. Professor of Plant Physiology, SLU
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