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