37% of all Living Nobel Laureates urged Greenpeace to stop anti-GMO campaigns

01/07/2016 - 5 minutes

The GMO debate is back into mainstream news, as 110 Nobel laureates (out of the 297 living) signed a ‘cease and desist’ open letter to Greenpeace. The target is its anti-GMO campaign, which they deem anti-scientific. And Golden Rice is the spearhead of the accusations…

How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”.

This is the question that over a hundred Nobel Laureates are asking, regarding what they call a campaign to block market access of genetically modified crops. The target is Greenpeace and its supporters.

The campaign behind the letter is Support Precision Medicine. It highlights that biotechnological innovation is key to answer the rising demand for food and that science supports the safety of GMOs.

Particularly, an important point is that the scientific evidence supports that genetic modifications in a lab are not more dangerous than other ways humans have modified crops. This includes traditional breeding – as the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy puts it, “We have always been biohackers“.

gmo selective breeding corn agriculture
Evolution of corn from teosinte, which now seems inedible to us. Crops and animals of modern agriculture were created by human during centuries of selective breeding. (Source: John Doebley)

This campaign was organized by Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs, and Phillip Sharp, 1993’s Nobel Laureate in Medicine. To date, an additional 110 Nobel laureates have signed the letter.

Randy Schekman is one of the supporters. He told the Washington Post:

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I find it surprising that groups that are very supportive of science when it comes to global climate change, or even, for the most part, in the appreciation of the value of vaccination in preventing human disease, can be so dismissive of the general views of scientists when it comes to something as important as the world’s agricultural future.”

There are numerous examples how genetic engineering can be used to make better crops, from making them more productive to helping them become resistant to pests (negating the need for chemical pesticides). Yet, what is spearheading the debate and accusations is the famous Golden Rice story. The letter states Greenpeace has led the efforts to block Golden Rice research and market access.

gmo golden rice gmo precision agriculture
The gene editing technology for Golden Rice. (Source: ISAAA.org)

It seems hard to oppose Golden Rice, a type of rice engineered to produce a precursor of Vitamin A. In regions where nutrition is mostly rice-based, many people have vitamin A deficiency (VAD). This is a leading cause of childhood blindness and UNICEF estimates the death toll of the disease to be up to 2 million children every year.

However, in a statement of its own, Greenpeace refuses responsibility for the failure of Golden Rice. It points out that the product was never available for sale, that it is only trying to pave the way to approve other profitable GMOs, that it was a ‘quick remedy‘ for a complex economic problem, and in the end a costly experience when the money could be used in other “safe and effective options”.

gmo crops golden rice nobel laureate letter
Why waste money on space exploration or GMO crops? The debate is also about the value of innovation. (Source: Pixabay)

However, I do believe Greenpeace’s stand is not completely empty. People have reasonable concerns about how GMOs are commercialized and how they can be used to monopolize agriculture, especially as companies are aggregating more and more. News of the Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta-ChemChina acquisitions weren’t exactly received with enthusiasm

And if science and technology can solve many problems, it’s also true that there are important economic and social factors at play. However, in their refusal to engage with the potential of GMOs and how the field is moving forward (for example with new technologies like CRISPR), anti-GMO campaigners are only burying this important part of the debate.

Bloomberg shows the new crop-chemicals world, with fewer and fewer players. (Credit: Bloomberg)

But the funny thing is, a similar point could be made about this pro-GMO initiative. It feels like we as a public should accept that GMOs are safe because Nobel laureates say so…

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Like any individual, scientists and Nobel laureates can defend outrageous things and arguments of authority are far from scientific. But this is not exactly a blind spot for the subscribers. For example, Martin Chalfie (who researched the green fluorescent protein) says:

Is there something special about Nobel laureates? I’m not so sure we’re any more special than other scientists who have looked at the evidence, but we have considerably more visibility (…) we feel that science is not being listened to, that we speak out.”

Which brings us back to why this letter is important. We should listen to evidence and facts, and society needs to trust the scientific community to research and interpret it as best as humanly possible. Nobel laureates represent just this.

That’s why all the signatures on this letter are an overwhelming demonstration that science is on the ‘yes’ side of GMO…

Feature Image Credit: GMO Fruit © weerapat (BigStock ID83131286)


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