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”.
There is some interesting work on how many lives have been lost because of the delay in the availability of Golden Rice: one recent peer-reviewed paper proposed a figure of 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade because of the non-availability of Golden Rice. Doug Parr from Greenpeace, who spoke to the BBC the previous day, was also wrong to say that golden rice “doesn’t work” – absolutely it works; I have seen it myself on location at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and levels of Vitamin A precursor beta carotene are now high enough to deliver a major nutritional boost.
However the fact is that the blame for the current non-availability of Golden Rice cannot be laid entirely at the door of Greenpeace – the fact is that IRRI has not actually yet sought approval from the Filipino authorities for the release of Golden Rice. (Release is planned later for Bangladesh and Indonesia, later still elsewhere.) As IRRI (and its partner PhilRice) itself has stated, there is a concern that the current genetic ‘event’ used in Golden Rice lowers the yield somewhat as compared to conventional varieties, and so farmers may not want to plant it. IRRI wants to address this so that a final Golden Rice put forward for approval will deliver an equivalent or higher yield than conventional white varieties. In addition, nutritional studies also have to be carried out before release to study how Golden Rice might improve nutritional status in an everyday social context.
So Owen Paterson is clearly wrong to focus the blame for 6,000 daily deaths from Vitamin A deficiency squarely on Greenpeace. This is particularly the case given that this global total could in any case only be partially addressed by rice biofortification, given that some Vitamin-A deficient populations are not rice-dependent. (A biofortified ‘golden’ cassava is now becoming available in East Africa, and is improving the nutritional status of poorer people there, but has not been the focus of anti-GMO opposition because it was developed using conventional breeding – unfortunately not possible for rice.)
Paterson is also wrong to blame Greenpeace for the outrageous destruction of a Golden Rice field trial in the Philippines last year. (“It is utterly wicked that last year Greenpeace activists trashed trials on Golden Rice”, Paterson told the BBC.) As I wrote myself, this action was carried out by different groups – which received some verbal support from Greenpeace in media statements, but clearly Greenpeace itself was not involved in the destruction. These groups, which turn out to be part-funded by the Swedish government – as I revealed here on this blog – are far more to blame for any delays than Greenpeace right now.
In my experience the scientists involved with developing Golden Rice are the first to insist that it should not be seen as a silver bullet towards addressing vitamin A deficiency in Asia. They are being extremely careful to ensure that Golden Rice will only be part of a wider strategy to improve diets and encourage poverty reduction – aims which Greenpeace also says that it shares. To his credit, Greenpeace’s Doug Parr has also made clear that Greenpeace does not oppose biofortifiation in cassava (because it’s non-GMO).
It may seem strange coming from me, but perhaps a less polarised debate might be useful in utilising all the potential ways – including but not exclusively focusing on GM – that micronutrient deficiencies, restricted diets and poverty can be addressed. Wildly overdone statements such as those by Owen Paterson attacking Greenpeace surely do not help.