1.30pm Bangkok time, 31 October 2014
The theme of this conference is ‘Rice for the World’. A few years ago the UN had an entire year dedicated to the theme ‘Rice is Life’. There can be no doubting the importance of rice in the world’s food supply, or in the cultural and national identities of dozens of countries, most especially here in Asia.
Here in Thailand, as we heard from the minister of agriculture, half the country’s farmland is devoted to growing rice. In Bangladesh, a country where I have spent a lot of time recently, rice paddies are everywhere – you get the sense that other crops are just filling in space between the rice. Rice provides staple food for 3 billion people worldwide. Along with wheat, it is probably the world’s most important source of food calories.
I feel very privileged to address a room full of the world’s foremost rice scientists, and I am humbled that my only formal qualification to address you is an MA in modern history and politics. Having said that, and coming to the title of my talk, ‘It’s the 21st century, where’s my GM rice?’, it is not science that has held back the use of molecular genetics in rice breeding – it is politics. So perhaps I am not so unqualified to address you after all!
Looking to the future, the essential contours of our great challenge are well known so I will only recall them briefly. We have to feed a growing world population heading towards 9.5 to 10 billion over the next 35 years. We probably therefore have to double overall food production, but do so without increasing the area of cropland in order to spare rainforests and other remaining natural ecosystems.
We also have to make agriculture more sustainable overall – to reduce the environmental damage done by fertilisers, pesticides and other chemical inputs. And we have to do all this within the context of a rapidly-changing climatic situation where global temperatures may well have risen by 2C or more by mid-century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that this temperature change will lead to increased droughts, heatwaves, floods, pests and diseases.
Asia is the epicentre of this challenge – it contains the most densely-populated large areas, and is also growing most rapidly economically. Most Asian countries will have achieved developed world status within the 2050 time-frame, and will therefore increase their food and energy consumption substantially. Asia is also of course the main rice-producing and consuming region.
It has been estimated that for every 1 billion people added to the world’s population, 100 million more tonnes of paddy rice need to be produced annually – using less land, water, nitrogen and energy, and resulting in less greenhouse gas emissions, of which rice is a currently a major source.
As rice breeders and agronomists every aspect of this challenge will no doubt concern you. You will know intimately the tools you have available and how you might use them. You will be highly aware of how the growth in rice productivity has stagnated in recent years, how new diseases are emerging and how you might want to address these challenges.
Crop genetics comes into every aspect of this picture. Changing the biology of rice plants offers the chance to combat major and emerging diseases, to tackle pests with fewer and less toxic pesticides, to increase water- and nitrogen-use efficiency and to increase overall productivity to feed more people on less land.
Familiar tools include conventional cross-breeding and hybridisation, marker-assisted selection and mutagenesis. However, in order to be able to access the widest-possible pool of germplasm it will be essential for rice breeders to be able to use transgenic techniques as well as conventional breeding.
And yet the use of these molecular biotechnology techniques, which are improving all the time in accuracy, variety and usability, remains needlessly controversial.
As soon as the dreaded term ‘GMO’ enters the conversation, researchers and journalists that cover the science can find themselves at the centre of a whirlwind of hyperbole, hysteria, hatemail, and even death threats. This is where politics comes in, in other words.
Indeed politics can surely be the only reason why, after two decades of rice breeding involving many projects using molecular techniques for genetic improvement, there is still currently no commercially available rice anywhere in the world that might attract this dreaded moniker ‘GMO’.
Even though there were an estimated 175 million hectares of genetically modified crops grown worldwide in 2013, none of these hectares of officially-approved GMOs were of rice. According to ISAAA, genetic modification is the fastest- adopted crop technology in recent history.
But this fast rate of adoption does not include rice. Indeed so far rice has been entirely locked out of the crop biotechnology revolution.
Why? Is this because genetic techniques offer no advantages to rice breeding, unlike to every other crop currently grown by humans? Of course not. The reason is simple: GM rice has been overwhelmed by the tide of misinformation and superstition that passes for a GMO ‘debate’ nowadays.
It seems that no-one quite dares to move things forward. Rice breeders are wary of putting forward GM rice varieties for approval, however much promise they show. Regulators have yet to approve GM rice, however safe and beneficial the new traits may be. Traders are nervous of trading GM rice. Retailers are worried about losing markets with GM rice. Consumers are wary of eating GM rice.
Those in the rice trading sector are haunted by the spectre of the 2006 LibertyLink disaster, which ended up costing Bayer $750 million to settle lawsuits after an unapproved herbicide-tolerant rice variety was found in US rice exports. Who would risk this kind of exposure again?
It is important to remember that there was never any plausible risk to human health or the environment from LibertyLink rice. But just as with the Oregon wheat contamination scare, the facts about any real risk come a very distant second to the politics of the food scare.
In China right now the same thing is happening with Bt rice. In this case there is no private company standing to benefit, as the rice was developed by state-funded scientists at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan. But it has recently become the centre of a major food scare following the discovery of unapproved Bt rice on supermarket shelves in some Chinese provinces.
The hysteria that has followed is worryingly reminiscent of medieval witch-trials. Millions of otherwise perfectly sane Chinese people now apparently believe that GMOs are an American plot to turn Chinese people infertile and thereby prevent the country becoming a superpower to challenge US military dominance.
Add to this geopolitical paranoia the usual mix of scary myths about cancer, autism and so on and you have all the ingredients for a nationwide moral panic that could set back GM research in China for another decade or more.
Anti-GMO activists have now honed exactly the right ingredients to spark a moral panic – witness the eruption during the Golden Rice child feeding trials in China in 2012 following a minor breach of protocol in the experiments. This led to the state-approved hounding of the researchers involved, no small matter in a country like China.
I would be very surprised if Golden Rice were ever able to be released in China now, so vitamin A deficiency in Chinese children must be tackled by other means or, more likely, not at all. I won’t guess at a figure of likely resulting deaths, but we can get a sense of the probable order of magnitude from a recent paper published in the journal Environment and Development Economics estimating the impact of 10 years of non-availability of Golden Rice in India.
The authors estimate a figure of 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India thanks to vitamin A deficiency. Remember, these years of life lost primarily affect vulnerable young children, 125 million of whom suffer vitamin A deficiency around the world.
This in turn leads to a quarter to a half a million cases of blindness in children per year, and a half of these children die within a year. Many more have their immune systems compromised by lack of vitamin A, increasing the risk that common childhood diseases will end in death.
So when Greenpeace started the media panic in China, there was something of an irony in its claim to be defending the rights of children not be used as guinea pigs in Golden Rice feeding trials. By helping block golden rice in China, Greenpeace will not be helping young children – it will be hurting them, on a scale that as a parent of young children myself I find painful to even imagine.
The Bt rice scandal in China, which has also been stirred up by Greenpeace, will have made the situation even worse. What is frustrating is that there is an obvious solution: the authorities must rapidly consider and hopefully approve the Bt variety, and only then must it be made available to consumers in fully labelled form.
This label need not say ‘Warming: contains GMO’, as the antis would no doubt prefer. Given the facts of how dramatically Bt technology has provably reduced insecticide use in cotton and other crops, Bt rice might instead by labelled: ‘Low insecticide, ecologically-friendly’. In the US the USDA recently reported that farmers growing Bt corn reduced their use of sprayed insecticide 10-fold, and similar results have been reported on Bt cotton in India and China.
This is the other great irony – even tragedy – at the heart of these controversies. The truth is that while there is no remotely likely risk of Bt rice causing cancer and infertility, the same cannot be said of the alternative. Conventional rice in China is often exposed to a cocktail of chemicals from fungicides to insecticides, some of which do indeed have suggested links with infertility and may be carcinogenic, particularly when used inappropriately.
So this is where the environmental movement has ended up, defending chemical-based monoculture against competition from more technologically advanced and environmentally friendly alternatives because of a potent cocktail of ideology and superstition.
And this anti-GMO superstition is now holding the world to ransom by preventing plant breeders from moving forward to tackle the pre-eminent challenge of feeding the growing world population sustainably using one of the best technological options available.
And it is particularly sad because the world needs an effective environmental movement now more than ever given the challenges of climate change and wider sustainability. But an effective environmental movement must be science-based and amenable to change in changing times.
I do not want to single out Greenpeace either – Greenpeace has conducted admirable campaigns recently on climate change, overfishing and deforestation in East Asia, all of which I support wholeheartedly. In particular I applaud Greenpeace’s commitment to defending the scientific consensus on climate change – but in doing so I can’t help noticing the contradiction with their denial of an equivalently strong scientific consensus on GM.
I would love to be able to point to reasons for optimism, but if anything in my view things are getting worse rather than better. China, once the great hope for agricultural biotechnology, is now increasingly lost to fear and anti-GMO hysteria. Thailand was lost back in the mid-2000s – I will tell you the story of how in a minute.
Philippines is on a knife-edge, with a Greenpeace case now in the Supreme Court that could ban GM field trials for a generation. India was lost over the Bt brinjal furore – another pesticide-reducing crop that was blocked by so-called environmental activists ostensibly concerned with reducing pesticides. And I’m still only in Asia – I could mention the 10-year moratorium in Peru, or the GMO import ban in Kenya.
Worst of all is probably the situation in Europe. Here an entire continent, supposedly guided by evidence-based policymaking, has been retreating further and further into an unscientific dark age regarding crop biotechnology. Just next week the European Parliament is set to overturn a carefully-crafted compromise intended to allow those member states who want to allow GM cultivation on their territories to do so. This comes after years of EU policymakers ignoring the advice of their own scientists at the European Food Safety Authority that many GM crops should be approved.
The quid pro quo would be that those EU countries that wish to effectively prohibit GMO cultivation will also be allowed to do so, without the need to put forward any scientific evidence to justify this decision. And many will surely do so – at the last count in February 2014 19 governments were fiercely opposed to the proposed authorisation of GM insect-resistant maize. Unfortunately this nationally-devolved compromise is the best we can hope for.
The worst outcome for the EU would be many more years of stalemate – which for the antis is just as good as a ban, and perhaps better because it leads to uncertainty and chaos, the kind of political environment within which they thrive.
Without a doubt, in many areas this is a difficult time to be a scientist. Technological advances in human understanding and potential have triggered backlashes from different ideological camps – the political right in the case of climate change science, the left in the case of GM crops.
If you include anti-vaccine activism, conspiracy theories about Ebola, religious extremism and various other challenges to the modern Enlightenment view of the world, it is clear that those of us who care about empiricism and evidence-based thinking are in danger of losing a wider war and have to learn to fight back.
That is why I am proud to have joined the Cornell Alliance for Science, a new initiative based at Cornell University’s world-leading College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, aimed at depolarising the GMO debate and advancing science-based solutions to agricultural challenges across the world. Cornell’s College of Agriculture is a land-grant US university with a historic mandate to serve the public as well as to promote ecological sustainability and social well-being.
The Cornell Alliance for Science is solely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has an interest in combatting anti-science rhetoric as it threatens work in health and development, particularly in vaccines, as well as in biotechnology.
Our Cornell Alliance for Science first worldwide campaign, launching next week, is called ‘Access2Innovation’ – we are launching this campaign to try to ensure that farmers across the world can access the best tools to improve productivity and sustainability in agriculture, and can partner with scientists who are free to research these in the best way possible.
The Access2Innovation campaign will also ensure that publicly funded scientists and international academic institutions are able to create knowledge about important staple crops like cassava, Matoke banana, eggplant and papaya. Access2Innovation will encourage scientists’ ability to innovate and improve agricultural productivity for those people in developing countries who are most likely to suffer from the dual challenges of population growth and climate change.
Access2innovation matters, most especially for those trapped in poverty and subsistence agriculture. Please join the campaign if you can.
I know scientists aren’t, and most of the time shouldn’t be, campaigners. But my fear is that if the scientific community remains silent or retreats into studied neutrality, it cedes ground to those who have no interest in objective truth. I’m thinking, for instance, of the anti-GMO activists in Uganda who visit remote farming districts armed with photoshopped images of babies’ heads emerging from ears of corn.
Or those who spread rumours in Muslim constituencies again in Uganda of GMO bananas containing genes from pigs, nearly causing riots in the process. I don’t think scientists should stay neutral in the face of such blatant and destructive misinformation campaigns.
With this in mind it is important not to under-estimate the anti-GMO movement or to misunderstand its objectives. Yes, there are specific campaigns about labelling and particular issues like weed resistance, which are reasonable and need addressing.
But it seems pretty clear to me as a long-time observer and a former anti-GMO campaigner myself that what the vast majority of activists seek is a permanent worldwide ban on the research and application of all forms of crop biotechnology.
In other words what they are trying to do is prohibit an entire field of human scientific endeavour. This really is an extraordinary demand – analagous to burning a library of books before anyone has a chance to read them.
Who knows what benefits this emerging field of knowledge might deliver? If the antis have their way, we will never know, and never find out. They think they already know the answers, and therefore science must stop. Can there be a bigger challenge to the values of the Enlightenment that are supposed to guide the modern age?
More prosaically, there are also direct economic losses attributable to this blocking of GM rice. A recent paper by Demont and Stein, published in New Biotechnology journal, estimates the benefits foregone by the non-commercialisation of GM rice at $64 billion per year.
Put this another way. The cost to the global economy of the anti-GMO movement’s activities just for rice alone is $64 billion a year, a loss of income that primarily affects poorer farmers and countries here in Asia. This is the price paid by real people for the current global campaign of misinformation on GMOs.
Let me give you a very specific non-rice example that I am intimately familiar with. Cornell University scientists were involved in helping Bangladeshi scientists develop a genetically modified eggplant that promises to allow farmers to dramatically reduce pesticide spraying on this important vegetable.
What happens currently on conventional brinjal is that farmers are forced to spray 80-100 times during the growing season to control the fruit and shoot borer pest. Farmers almost never wear protective clothing, and tens of thousands succumb to poisoning each year. Consumers, meanwhile, are threatened with brinjal containing very high pesticide residues.
However, anti-GMO activists, all funded ultimately by rich countries in Europe through various NGOs, have done their utmost to block this technology. When I visited numerous farmers who were the first to grow the crop this year in Bangladesh, every single one had been visited by activists telling them they would contract cancer, that their children and even grandchildren would be paralysed, and that they should carry on growing conventional brinjal and spraying pesticides instead.
No wonder that the Bangladeshi agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury has suggested that pesticides companies – who stand to lose markets if Bt brinjal is successful – are now in direct collaboration with anti-GMO activists. I heard such stories myself at grassroots level, but have so far not been able to confirm them first-hand.
The antis know the stakes are high in each case. If they can block a single GMO, then they can likely block all of them – as with Bt brinjal in neighbouring India, where a spineless populist politician called Jairam Ramesh allowed the antis to bias the political process towards an eventual moratorium in 2010.
Nothing has happened since in India, and the new Modi government is far from assured of being able to open the process up again.
In Bangladesh, the activists know that if they can stop farmers being able to grow Bt brinjal, then they also stand a good chance of blocking blight-resistant potato, and golden rice, both currently in the country’s development pipeline.
This is why access to innovation is such an important concept and campaign.
If this analysis seems unduly pessimistic, you only need to remember what happened right here in Thailand. I am very familiar with this case too, having co-authored a book chapter on the fate of Thailand’s GMO papaya with my Cornell Alliance for Science colleague Sarah Davidson Evanega. This chapter is now published in the Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics and Society, available online.
Very briefly, Greenpeace was able to stop virus-resistant GM papaya being made available to farmers in Thailand. This is the same virus-resistance technology that saved the Hawaiian papaya industry from annihilation after the ringspot virus began to spread rapidly there in the late 1990s.
But in Thailand, just as with rice currently in China, some seeds were used by farmers before official approval – and Greenpeace successfully created a media firestorm using the loaded term ‘contamination’ that embarrassed the government and stopped the project in its tracks.
Some of the saddest images I have seen since I began working on this issue show the researchers on the Thai papaya project being forced to destroy and bury their healthy papaya trees in pits on the research site. They were forced to destroy their own many years of hard scientific work, and today the only GM papaya seeds are under lock and key in a fridge.
Greenpeace successfully blocked access to innovation, not just for one project, but for the entire crop biotechnology sector in a whole country – a tragic situation which persists to this day.
These high stakes explain why activists are if anything even more determined to block GMO projects that potentially have a high humanitarian or environmental value. The best example of this, which I mentioned earlier, is Golden Rice.
You will doubtless all know about the vandalism of one of IRRI’s Golden Rice field trials in August last year. What you might not have heard is that the activist groups behind this destruction – not including Greenpeace in this case – actually received funding which originated with the Swedish government, specifically the Swedish International Development Agency.
Several Swedish plant scientists protested to the Swedish government at the time, but to date there has still been no official investigation nor any assurance given that funding to this group will be discontinued. So one of the richest countries in the world will potentially continue to fund destructive activities that threaten the lives of thousands in the poorest countries.
In fact I am worried that the situation may deteriorate further now the Green Party has joined the ruling coalition in Sweden after the recent elections. I would appeal to the Greens to consider the humanitarian objectives of Golden Rice and to carefully consider the available scientific evidence before making any decision.
Unfortunately, the Green Party member of the Swedish Gene Technology Advisory Board has publicly declared that he will vote against the approval of any GMO irrespective of any scientific evidence that may ever be presented to him.
For Green politicians, this isn’t science, it is religion. And they risk betraying the cause they are pledged to serve, that of protecting the environment, because they ignore environmental science.
Let me be clear. Religious thinking should have no role in an evidence-based risk assessment process. The problem with ideologies is that they start with conclusions and marshall facts to support them. Good science has conclusions as the end point, not the beginning.
Because ideologists already know the answers, they are not interested in evidence. They are only interested in seeing their worldview prevail. This results in a creeping authoritarianism, based on groupthink and peer pressure starting with rich-world elites.
This is particularly the case when it comes to the forcible destruction of scientific research. Greenpeace, for example, insists that GM crops have not been sufficiently tested even as it physically destroys any attempts to sufficiently test them.
Just last week Greenpeace launched a slick new website further denigrating the Golden Rice project and asking that people join the campaign to, quote: “Ask the Philippine government to immediately stop the field trials, the planned feed testing and eventual commercialisation of Golden Rice”.
It promotes numerous myths, calling golden rice a “fake remedy” and an “illusion”, and asserting bizarrely that rice intended to address a nutrient deficiency will somehow “undermine food and nutritional security”. Instead, Greenpeace suggests, inhabitants of slums in Manila and Mumbai should instead nurture organic carrots in imaginary little backyard plots.
I can only hope that Greenpeace will not join in any further vandalism attempts of Golden Rice field trials in the Philippines. Indeed I would ask the leadership of Greenpeace International, based in the Netherlands, to offer an assurance to this effect to Filipino scientists – that they will not destroy ongoing scientific research that could have a high value to humanity.
But the omens are not good. In Australia, Greenpeace destroyed a wheat trial promising to dramatically improve the productivity and nutritional quality of wheat. In the Philippines, Greenpeace destroyed Bt brinjal being tested in the fields of the University of the Philippines, Los Banos. There are numerous other examples.
Compare this attack on science by anti-GMO greens with the attacks on climate science by the political Right. As Fred Pearce wrote recently in the NewScientist, even the worst climate sceptics don’t go round smashing up thermometers.
The anti-GMO lobby is full-scale psychological denial – refusing to admit that the expert opinions of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, numerous Academies of Science around the world, the American Medical Association and every relevant academic body in the world adds up to a meaningful scientific consensus on the inherent safety of GM technology.
This does not mean of course that every GMO will always be safe – it means that GM technology almost certainly presents no inherent process-based risk, and should therefore be assessed on a case-by-case basis just like everything else, not opposed in totality as a class.
So why does any of this matter? It matters, in rice at least, because there are numerous projects using crop biotechnology that could make a meaningful contribution to delivering a food-secure and sustainable world this century.
Golden Rice is the poster child, and has received a lot of attention, but there are many others. In West Africa, for example, NEWEST rice is proceeding well in field trials. NEWEST stands for nitrogen-efficient, water-efficient, salt-tolerant. This rice aims to improve both the productivity and sustainability of rice production across sub-Saharan Africa. And yes, it is GM – these genetic traits could simply not be brought in together using conventional breeding.
An even more ambitious project is C4 rice, another international collaborative scientific project being piloted by IRRI. Converting rice from using the C3 to the C4 photosynthetic pathway could result in dramatic productivity gains – again resulting in more rice per unit of land, water and fertiliser.
As well as golden rice at IRRI, good progress is being made towards iron rice, thanks to a ferritin gene added from soybean that codes for iron storage. Iron rice could help address anaemia, which affects more than 1 billion people globally, particularly poor women and children.
By way of ending, let me be clear that I don’t want my pro-GM musings here to be the flip-side of the anti-GM movement. I am not religiously attached to the technology. There are of course numerous non-GM rice breeding projects which are already delivering clear benefits in the real world.
A great example would be Kenongy Xu, David Mackill and Pam Ronald’s discovery of a gene for submerence tolerance, and the subsequent development of scuba rice by breeders at the International Rice Research Institute. This flood-tolerant rice, which Bob Zeigler highlighted in his opening keynote speech earlier this week, is now protecting millions of farmers’ rice harvests even during flood events.
And yet I know Pam would be the first to defend the right of plant breeders to use GM technology when conventional breeding or other strategies cannot deliver. Saying GM should be banned because non-GM also works is like saying mobile phones should be banned because people can already make phone calls using landlines.
And yet I am sad to say that Greenpeace is today right here in Bangkok launching a report calling for transgenic techniques to be banned because plant breeders can use marker-assisted selection instead. Greenpeace do not seem to have realised that many researchers are already using both technologies simultaneously, because they do different things. Forcing scientists to choose between two different but complementary technologies betrays a wilful lack of understanding of the basics of crop genetic research and development.
Moreover I reject this assertion by Greenpeace and many other campaigners that this is somehow an either-or situation. I don’t think we have to choose between GM and agro-ecological farming – I think they can be complementary and mutually supporting. There are numerous important lessons that organic and ecological farming methods have to offer conventional farming.
For example, it is important to move away from monoculture and to promote crop genetic diversity, not least to reduce vulnerability to pests and disease epidemics. Cover crops, widely used by organic farmers, can help fix nitrogen, reduce erosion and add organic matter to otherwise degraded soils. Integrated pest management, crop rotation, native wildlife refuge strips… all have an important part to play alongside improved seed breeding.
So let me end by praising the activities you are all involved with in rice growing, whether using GM technology or not. Most here will acknowledge that we need a second Green Revolution in rice, one that delivers increased productivity combined with increased sustainability. Let us not throw out any tools that can help deliver this better world.
And then, in the words of the founder of the first Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, we must “take it to the farmer”. This is the leap we have yet to make with GM rice, anywhere in the world. I would hope that by the time of the next International Rice Congress, in 2018, many more rice breeding projects – whether GM or not – will be out in the field delivering benefits to farmers.
And I hope these benefits to farmers will also be benefits to consumers and benefits to the environment. Rice is too important a crop to be locked out of the biotechnology revolution. For the sake of 3 billion rice consumers, and for the sake of the world’s environment, we can and must use this technology where appropriate to make farming more productive and more environmentally sustainable.