Greenpeace’s disinformation campaign against Golden Rice, and science, prevails in China

| December 10, 2012 |
agriculture

In late summer, the Asian arm of Greenpeace issued an alarming press release headlined: “24 children used as guinea pigs in genetically engineered ‘Golden Rice’ trial.”

“Big business hustling in of one the world’s most sacred things: our food supply,” Greenpeace warned in the release. The Philippines, it said, was the next ‘target.’

The Chinese press, which rivals Rupert Murdoch for sensationalism, jumped on the story, embellishing even the gross exaggerations of the original story. Reporters played the anti-American card, claiming that researchers at Tufts University in Boston, with the approval of the US Department of Agriculture, had conspired with Chinese scientists to carry out a secretive and unauthorized experiment to feed “potentially dangerous” modified rice to as many as 80 rural children, ages 6-8, in Hunan. The Chinese blogosphere, including Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, lit up with outrage.

Although no children were harmed—in fact they benefitted from eating vitamin-enhanced rice—this story has an unhappy ending. And it’s not because American or Chinese researchers “experimented” on children, as one of the world’s most anti-science NGOs (non-governmental agencies) claims. Chinese officials, in a panic fanned by its own media, decided last week to fire three officials from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences, which had coordinated the project and had been named in the Greenpeace report.

Golden Rice story

So-called Golden Rice—the genetically modified, vitamin A-enhanced version of white rice—has been in development for more than a decade. It is a dramatic improvement over the world’s most popular staple. In 1999, Swiss and German scientists used “open source” technology to develop Golden Rice, the first major genetically enhanced food in the new generation of bio-engineered grains, fruits, and vegetables that consumers actually eat directly.

The new rice variety was produced by splicing two genes (one from the daffodil, which gives the rice its golden color, and one from a bacterium that helps the process along) into white rice so it produces beta-carotene, which the body can convert to Vitamin A. Newer varieties have been tweaked to add iron, and to help the body more readily absorb the iron already in white rice.

According to the United Nations, more than half the world is vitamin deficient. White rice represents 72 percent of the diet for the people of Bangladesh and nearly as much in Laos and Indonesia; more than 40 percent in the Philippines, Madagascar and Sierra Leone; around 40 percent in Guyana and Suriname. Although white rice is a filling food and can be grown in abundance, it has a major drawback: it lacks Vitamin A.

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) weakens the immune system, increasing the risk of infections such as measles and malaria. Severe deficiencies can lead to corneal ulcers or blindness. It especially targets children and pregnant women. The World Health Organization notes there are more than 100 million VAD children around the world. Some 250,000 to 500,000 of these children become blind every year, with 50 percent of them dying. In Asia and Africa, nearly 600,000 vitamin A-deficient women die from childbirth-related causes.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken a lead role in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, to bring Golden Rice to market. Field trials are now underway in the Philippines and Bangladesh with the hope of introducing it to the market by 2015. Helen Keller International, a leading global health organization that reduces blindness and prevents malnutrition worldwide, joined the Golden Rice project to further develop and evaluate Golden Rice

Greenpeace and like-minded groups argue that tinkering with the genome of food or crops will unleash a genetic Godzilla that threatens the future of mankind. This is not hyperbole. They claim that Trojan-horse genes not subject to checks and balances in nature could be “released” into the environment causing untold havoc, and could physically harm children, as it said in its August news release.

Which is total hogwash.

Greenpeace’s “investigation” amounted to reading an August article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which published a summary of the four year old study by the joint Chinese-American team, which has been publically discussing the project for years. The Hunan trial was meant to determine whether a small bowl a day of the modified rice could effectively deliver enough Vitamin A and other nutrients to make a difference—and by all measures, according to the article, it was enormously successful—which was apparently enough of a reason to send Greenpeace’s disinformation campaign into over-drive.

Greenpeace’s fear campaign

“Food insecurity is brought about by lack of enough land, by decreasing rice production and decreasing incomes,” said one Golden Rice opponent. “Only through a genuine land reform which ensures farmers’ access to sufficient rice and other food sources will farmers start to become healthy again.”

Greenpeace is campaigning vigorously to block Golden Rice trials throughout Southeast Asia, instead promoting vitamin pills, organic gardening and political empowerment rather than readily available food—which of course does little for children going to bed hungry and malnourished each night.

Four years after the end of the trial, no health problems have been reported. Nonetheless, to quell the outcry, local government officials last week paid each of 25 families, whose children were in the study 80,000 Yuan ($12,800). According to China Daily, parents claim they were told their children were eating nutritionally enhanced rice but it was not specifically explained to them that the rice had been enhanced through modification. Tufts University says it is looking into those claims, but both Chinese and American researchers say the research was transparent.

China is the world’s top rice producer and consumer and supports agricultural biotechnology. It has approved one locally developed strain of genetically modified rice, known as the Bt rice, but has not yet begun commercial production. Its capitulation to the hysteria campaign has disappointed scientists around the world.

Greenpeace’s campaign is a “crime against humanity, says Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace who broke with the NGO over its GM policy and now serves as Chair and Chief Scientist with Greenspirit Strategies in Vancouver, Canada.

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year specifically dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

Jon Entine, senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication, is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project.

  • Charlotte Cowell

    so you’ve focused on this rice, but what about the GM products that have been shown to cause terrible defects in lab animals, crops that have detrimental effects on bees and other wildlife – compared with the ‘superbees’ that only pollinate GM crops – food seeds that huge corporations are trying to patent and all kinds of other crimes against the natural order or the world? No wonder so many regions and countries have outlawed GM crops – they’ve seen the light – although it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to buy them isn’t it? I appreciate the fact that the scientific community needs to pander to big industry in order to get funding, but why on earth are we feeding people genetically engineered food when natural food is FREE and people REALLY need to be shown how to farm organically for themselves in order for this world to become a more sustainable, happy and healthy place?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Entine/547229912 Jon Entine

      Charlotte: Your post, while well meaning, is filled with misconceptions about agricultural technology. First, GM products have not been shown to cause terrible defects in lab animals. There have been dozens of stories on lab animals and only two studies–both by the same scientist Eric Seralini, who is a “campaigning’ scientist–has shown any serious health impacts. Seralini’s studies have been reviewed now by dozen’s of independent science bodies and have been widely discredited. Seralini is just not considered a serious researcher by mainstream geneticists. There is no evidence–zero–that gm crops have a detrimental impact on bees. There are no such things as “superbees” that only pollinate GM crops (like humans and animals, bees cannot tell the difference between a crop whose seeds were conventionally grown or developed through targeted biotechnology). There are no crimes against the “natural world.” Check your sources. If it’s not the National Academy of Sciences or the European Food Safety Administration, or a similar independent science body, it’s not credible. Finding reference to a “study” or event a link to a study, on NaturalNewsl.com, or some anti-GMO site is not science. They feed hysteria–and the kind of misinformation represented in your post. I know you mean well, but stick to empirical, science journals, and look to what’s called “weight of evidence.” In other words, don’t endorse a random study to try to make an ideological point. When there have been dozens or hundreds of studies, and 98% of them indicate GM crops are environmentally benign and cause no health issues related to the technology/process, and a few show something different–and those that show something different had a pre-determined viewpoint before they embarked on their study…then your bullshit meter should go into high gear.

      • Stefan Thiesen

        John – you make an absolute statement, i.e. that there were only two feeding studies with GM products showing serious health effects on lab animals, both by Séralini. That absolute statement is wrong. I shall point out at least one other, almost classic, study that comes to mind: Ewen, S and Pusztai, A: Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus niv alis lectin on rat small intestine, the Lancet, Vol. 354, Oct. 1999. I shall, without compromise, only trust GMO safety studies conducted without independently – entirely independently – of industrial influence, be it direct or indirect (there also is considerable pressure even in public universities fearing for their precious external funding).

        Something to consider: why should we need safety studies for food in the first place? Food is, by definition, edible and safe. If there is any doubt that makes us require lengthy laboratory studies shaded by questionable economic incentives, something very fishy is going on indeed.

  • Samuel Leuenberger

    Having looked for this figures to no avail, I would like to know what are your sources for the $2.6M and $7M ? Thanks for the clarification.

  • Stefan Thiesen

    The scientific credibility of this article dies the moment it states “White rice can be grown in abundance”. White rice isn’t grown. White rice is the result of industrial rice processing. White rice is the result of peeling and polishing processes that remove most nutrients, leaving behind what amounts to empty carbohydrates. I also have trouble believing that companies like Syngenta do anything that is not driven by profit and control motivations. We look upon the topic from the outside and cannot judge what is discussed within the closed circles of company doors. Which technologies are involved? Which untried methods are tested? Which patents are touched? What about cross-germination with wild or non-patented cultivated species? The patent wars with Monsanto in the US should be common knowledge by now. I don’t trust mega-corporations any further than I can through the yacht of their CEO…

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Well, that’s an astute fact based analysis. Paranoia and conspiracy theorizing is not a replacement for empirical analysis.

      • Samuel Leuenberger

        Hello Jon, nice to see your following up on this thread, would you have a bit of time to source your figures as I asked below ?

    • Samuel Leuenberger

      I read “white rice” as a simple way to differentiate it from “golden rice”, and this article do not pretend to be a scientific paper but a mere summary of the actual situation. As for white (processed) rice lacking most nutrients, you obviously are unaware of parboiling, a technique also used at a small scale by many farmers.
      So, nice strawman, but it does not cover your following conspiracy theories when all your questions about patent, safety, and gene flow have been addressed years ago. You would know that if you had checked the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board website (goldenrice.org) instead of naively believing the scare stories of anti-gm activists.

      • Stefan Thiesen

        Economic incentives are “conspiracy theories”? Massive global economic concentration and the related lobbying of large corporations is a “conspiracy theory”? Asking which patent laws are touched and whether there might be hidden agendas is a conspiracy theory? On the planet I live all these things are common place. People even throw bombs and kill other people for occasionally rather dubious reasons, you know. Calling everyone who is critical a “conspiracy theorist” is a bit of a worn out roll-eyes type of argument. Demanding the same safety standards (independent testing bodies carrying out safety tests according to industry gold-standards) for everyone is paranoia? Learning from history is a conspiracy theory? The critique is fundamental and goes far beyond the release of a single GMO species and far beyond science alone. The vast majority of EU citizens do not want to feed GMOs to their children. Period. As long as we live in democracies and not corpocratic oligarchies that is to be respected. A balance has to be found between paralyzing extreme precaution and haphazard leaps into the darkness with internalized corporate profits and externalized corporate costs. Is it a conspiracy theory again that corporate networks and “think-tanks” (aka ideological lobby organizations) are involved in the writing of and occasionally even supply complete blueprints for legislation? The EU environment agency published two comprehensive reports about the precaution issue, the latest in 2013: Late Lessons from Early Warnings. Here be the link: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/late-lessons-2

        I also don’t see the “Genetic Literacy Project” as any more neutral than Greenpeace. Both have deeply ideological affiliations.

        • Samuel Leuenberger

          Being critical mean knowing what you are talking about, this is obviously not the case. Saying that there are patent, health or gene flow issues with GR like you did in your previous post mean that you are either completely ignorant of the topic (did you read the link I provided ?) or that you are believing in conspiracies by all the scientists, NGOs and governments involved in this project.
          As for the neutrality of this Website, I don’t care, I’m a fact checker and so far everything I saw on Greenpeace website is full of blatant lies (or plain ignorance but it is not an excuse for an organization well funded like Greenpeace having a lot of resources at its disposal to do basic fact-checking).

        • archerb

          There are no patent laws in Golden Rice. It’s open source.

          • Stefan Thiesen

            Entirely wrong. Patents are a major factor in the equation, and just about every major GE corporation with their vested interests is involved, and a large number of publicly held patents were handed over to corporate control as part of the deals; Keyword “AstraZeneca Deal” (1). We are talking about a web of conditional licenses, which is not exactly the same as “Open Source”. Strategically the main interest of the corporations may well be to open up the distributional pathways for GE seeds, to take away control of seeds from farmers and communities and hand it over to corporations and institutions. Whether or not the public wants it, whether or not the farmers want it, is secondary once “acceptance” is gained by decision makers in government and relevant institutions. The involved corporations want control, as it once was expressed quite clearly by Monsanto’s Robert Fralay “What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain”(2).

            By there very nature corporations do not mainly care about improving the world, improving livelihood of human beings. It usually requires considerable outside pressure on them to even treat their own employees decently. I am surely not the only person on Earth with fundamental suspicions whenever multi national conglomerates of for-profit companies and their lobby moles in governments and public institutions advertise activities for the common good. The points in the “Grains of delusion” article should be systematically addressed. Grain is a decent organization that won the right livelihood award and the article is sober and realistic. Please be so kind and point out what the article is getting wrong.

            (1) Grains of Delusion, http://www.grain.org/article/entries/10-grains-of-delusion-golden-rice-seen-from-the-ground, there: “Freedom to operate or an excuse to corporate?”

            (2) Robert Fraley, co-president of Monsanto’s agricultural sector 1996,
            in the Farm Journal. Quoted in: Flint J. (1998) Agricultural industry
            giants moving towards genetic monopolism. Telepolis, Heise.)