“Human guinea pigs”, “gambling with health” and “shadowy research project”—the terms came thick and fast in Greenpeace’s revelation about Golden Rice earlier this year.
Referring to something it “discovered” four years previously, the environmental pressure group issued a press release at the end of August revealing that a team of scientists from the United States had “fed a group of 24 children aged between six and eight years of age a potentially dangerous product” in Hunan Province, China. It encouraged readers to be “pretty outraged”.
Greenpeace’s allegations were levelled against researchers from Tufts University in Boston, who had been working on a long-term and well-documented study on rice that could produce beta-carotene, which when eaten is converted into vitamin A.
The new rice variety was created by splicing two genes into white rice, and scientists have since found a way to include iron in newer varieties. Together it adds up to a pretty useful package when you consider that a full one-half of the world’s population is vitamin deficient, according to the United Nations.
Work on Golden Rice actually began nearly a decade before the Hunan research took place. A team of European scientists had, in 1999, used open-source technology to develop the strain into what would become the first major genetically enhanced food in a new generation of bio-engineered produce that could be eaten directly by the consumer.
It might be the case that the Hunan researchers cut some corners, as Greenpeace alleges, and a Tufts ethics committee is currently looking into that. But to say that Golden Rice was “potentially dangerous” is tantamount to over-egging the flan with every yolk in China.
The trial was meant to find out if the addition of a small amount of Golden Rice into the food of young Chinese children would deliver enough added nutrients to have a significant impact on their development. According to an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—the report on which Greenpeace based its “discovery”—the results of the research were extremely positive.
China, as the world’s largest rice producer, had hitherto been a proponent of genetically modified research and supports agricultural biotechnology. Indeed, authorities in the country have approved Bt rice, a locally developed strain of engineered rice, although it is not yet in production.
But the country has reacted heavy-handedly since Greenpeace’s “findings”, not least due to the ensuing public outcry. Rumours shot across the Internet, through the Chinese social media site Weibo, claiming that the rice would make the children impotent in later life, among other scare stories. Naturally, those villagers whose children were involved in the trial were outraged, as one would expect them to be as they lacked the benefit of informed judgement.
The Chinese media, meanwhile, sensing an opportunity to hurl dirt at the United States, continued to fan the flames with its own hysterical outrage, claiming that the research was part of a scurrilous conspiracy between the American government and local scientists to carry out a secretive experiment on its country’s unwitting children.
The three Chinese scientists implicated by Greenpeace, as FoodNavigator-Asia reported last week, paid for their involvement by forfeiting their jobs. However, both the American and Chinese researchers continue to assert that all studies were transparent, and claim they informed all parents involved that their children would be eating nutritionally enhanced rice.
And here is the bone of contention. While the parents do not deny the scientists’ assertions, their outrage stems from the terminology: that the “nutritionally enhanced” rice was never referred to as “genetically modified”.
As a result, local government officials paid compensation—substantial by local standards—to the parents. All the while, research that is meant to help the 100m children with vitamin A deficiency across the globe is now under a shadow in the world’s most populous nation.
Greenpeace has made no bones about its opposition to modification, even as a means to secure food supplies and enhance the meagre produce available to the poorest and most deprived. Instead, it champions vitamin tablets and organic farming—worthy indeed, but not much use for those living hand to mouth.
It all goes to show how much emotive power the letters G and M have, even to those who cannot define what they mean when put together. Rather than join in with the lynch mob, as it has done, the Chinese government and others like it should instead be acting to inform those in need of the true benefits of the technology it has already approved.
Greenpeace might have said: “We're... seeing a huge amount of time, energy and talent being wasted on what is essentially yet another example of big business hustling in of one the world's most sacred things: our food supply.” But the reality is that it is guilty of wasting the same resources on these unnecessary PR coups.
Editor's note: What is your opinion on this controversy? Has Greenpeace overplayed its card or is GM rice a danger, in spite of its known benefits to the world's poor? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.