What do the eco heretics mean for GM golden rice?
It’s an odd scenario whereby Greenpeace has been cast as villain by its own dropout, who protested outside the NGO’s London headquarters at the end of last month. Rewind four decades and a young Patrick Moore was among the founding eco-warrior members of the organisation until an abrupt change of heart in 1986. Since then he seems to have campaigned for all the things that Greenpeace and the like stand against, most notably perhaps GM golden rice.
GM golden rice is engineered so that the beta-carotene – a precursor of vitamin A – already occurring in the plant’s inedible leaves occurs in the grain also. The World Health Organisation estimates that 250 million preschool children are affected by vitamin A deficiency globally, which can lead to blindness, stunted growth and weakened immune systems. Supporters say the rice presents a realistic and long-term way to tackle the deficiency which is particularly prevalent in developing countries where rice is central to so many diets.
While concerns over corporate domination and biodiversity are to me real and reasonable, I cannot help but wonder if the warlike way in which these fears are communicated by some groups on both sides presents a dangerous obstruction on the path to progress.
The sensible environmentalist
In his vow against what he calls Greenpeace’s sensationalist and fear mongering tactics in the GM debate, Moore has proclaimed himself the “sensible environmentalist”. His departure, Moore told us, marked for him a move away from the politics of confrontation to that of consensus.
“Gradually Greenpeace, and much of the green movement, drifted into an anti-human stance where humans were seen as the enemies of the earth. I could not think this way. We are from the earth like all the other life and have evolved with it,” Moore said.
And Moore isn’t alone, GM advocates have somewhat smugly held up examples of the other eco dropouts as proof of our inevitable conversion. Jens Katzek, a former anti-GMO campaigner for Friends of the Earth serves as conversion poster boy in the concluding remarks of a statement from The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.
In 2005, early American environmentalist and writer Stewart Brand proposed that in the next ten years environmentalists will reverse their ideas on four core issues – urbanisation, population, nuclear power and genetic modification in an article entitled Environmental Heresies.
Perhaps more dramatically, in January last year environmental journalist and author Mark Lynas stood up at the Oxford Farming Conference and apologised for the years he spent ripping up GM crops and his part played in, “demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”
“In 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage,” he told the audience.
Mellowing with age
Personally I’ve always battled against the suggestion that I will mellow in lefty conviction with age, which is perhaps why Dr Moore’s case sits so uneasily with me. It’s this idea of inevitable compromise, of age and experience bursting an ideological bubble. A quotation often accredited to the ex-French President Georges Clemenceau goes: "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart, to be one at thirty is proof of want of head." Perhaps the same can be said for anti-GM sentiments.
Certainly it’s within these dropouts – and the uneasiness they provoke in those who have not yet made up their minds – that GM’s greatest leverage for public opinion lies.
Surely they will serve to plant a seed of doubt in other staunch anti-GMer’s minds. I don’t count myself among them but the idea of corporate funded research dressed up as a humanitarian project sits uneasily with me too, as does the (however unfounded) idea of unleashing a technology with as yet unknown consequences into the 'wild'. This process would be irreversible, and that seems scary.
But then that seed of doubt planted by the eco dropouts rears its head and asks if such incorporeal qualms can really justify cutting off a technology that holds such tremendous potential to improve global nutrition?