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expert reaction to Owen Paterson’s comments about Golden Rice in The Independent

The front page of The Independent newspaper lead with the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’ comments about opponents of genetically engineered Golden Rice.

 

Prof Tom Sanders, Professor of Nutrition & Dietetics at King’s College London, said:

“Vitamin A deficiency remains a major problem in South Asia contributing to increased childhood mortality from infectious diseases such as measles as well as being a major cause of blindness.  Rice is the staple cereal in most of those countries and golden rice, which contains the precursor of vitamin A, beta-carotene, has been shown to be effective at improving nutritional status with regard to vitamin A.

“There are none of the hazards associated with vitamin A supplementation with golden rice because it does not use retinol esters of vitamin A (which can be toxic in excess) but uses beta-carotene.  However, to be well absorbed the golden rice will need to be eaten with oil, i.e. fried rice “nasi goreng” which is a popular dish.  A major hurdle to overcome is to ensure that golden rice is accepted by the people who will benefit from eating it.  Unfounded scare stories by well-fed people living in developed countries suggesting that genetically modified rice might be harmful help nobody.”

 

Prof Joyce Tait, Scientific Advisor at the ESRC Innogen Centre, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The near-impossibility of having a rational dialogue around the important questions relating to the role of biotechnology in food production is a major concern for democratic decision making in Europe and beyond.  GM and a range of related technologies need to be used intelligently as part of an integrated effort to meet the current and future challenges of feeding the world. 

“I agree with the opponents of GM crops that societal initiatives like better food distribution, alleviating poverty and eliminating wars are also an important part of the overall picture, but so far we have been singularly unsuccessful in these areas.  On the other hand the technologies we have developed to date, despite their acknowledged defects, have had a positive impact on our ability to feed the world, and if allowed to evolve in future they could improve on the positive side while eliminating at least some of the defects.

“We need to create a series of spaces for dialogue that start from the perspective of the challenges to be resolved and focus on what combination of societal and technological initiatives can best be combined to address these challenges.  The most extreme and strident elements among commentators on these issues will not disappear, at least in the short term, but their role in shaping future food production systems needs to be balanced by inclusion of a wider range of societal voices, including those who grow our food, those who supply the inputs and those who process and distribute it.

“It seems highly unlikely that such spaces for rational dialogue can be created in the blogosphere, twittersphere or any of the other media spheres that we are exhorted to contribute to for as long as impact is determined by number of ‘hits’ rather than quality of inputs.”

 

Prof Denis Murphy, Head of Genomics and Computational Biology Research Group at the University of South Wales, and Biotechnology Advisor to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said:

“Golden rice was developed 20 years ago by a Swiss-German group of university researchers and it is now being trialled in The Philippines at the International Rice Research institute – a public crop improvement organisation funded by charities.  Golden rice is aimed at poor farmers & their families in Asia where vitamin A deficiency is relatively common.  It is not a commercial venture and is not owned by Western multinationals like Monsanto or Bayer.  There is much public support for golden rice in Asia but unfortunately some western NGOs have recently influenced local activists to destroy some of the field trials in The Philippines, which is very regrettable.

“Interestingly, another form of improved rice called NERICA was developed recently in west Africa by highly artificial cell culture and embryo rescue methods.  This produced an unnatural hybrid of two different species that is now feeding millions of poor farmers in West Africa.  For some reason there has been no outcry about NERICA despite its unnatural origins whereas golden rice has been stigmatised simply due to its GM origins.

“It seems that many critics of golden rice fail to understand that much of modern breeding is very artificial and technology dependent – but without it we would certainly be facing famine on a global scale.”

 

Prof Mark Tester, Center for Desert Agriculture, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia, said:

“I strongly endorse Minister Paterson’s stance.  Over a decade ago, during the Fields of Gold controversy, I was clear in referring to anti-GM campaigners as ‘immoral’ and my position remains unchanged. 

“It is heartening to see that there is a prominent government minister with the bravery and leadership to decry the misguided stance of the anti-GM extremists.  Campaigners claim that there are more effective solutions to vitamin A deficiency – but what are these solutions, and why have they not yet materialised to beat the world’s biggest health issue, that of micronutrient deficiencies? 

“The use of GM to increase the nutritional value of rice provides a unique opportunity, a potential new tool to tackle Vitamin A deficiency.  From what I have heard, the best on offer from the anti–GM brigade is that people should just eat their greens.”

 

Prof Joe Perry, Chair of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) GMO Panel said:

“It is important to recognize that in this, and in the previous speech Owen Patterson made on GM crops, he stressed the importance of safety based on a proper scientific assessment of the risks.  He is definitively not suggesting any diminution or relaxing of regulation.  What he seems to be suggesting is that decisions on authorization need to be based on the outcome of the regulatory safety assessment; not, as at present, on political considerations.  I see no reason why such a stance should not be supported. 

“It is strange that certain organizations on the one hand vilify those that go against the scientific consensus on climate change but simultaneously refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on GM food safety.  Any organization that supports the ripping up of regulatory trials designed to inform us about food or environmental safety is denying the public the data on which to make an informed decision; this goes against all the principles of transparency.”

 

Prof Huw Jones, Research Group Leader at the Centre for Crop Genetic Improvement, Rothamsted Research, said:

“There are three key issues:  Is it safe?  Is it effective?  And will there be informed choice in the grower/consumer communities?  If the answer to all is yes, then it is a no-brainer that GR should be part of the solution to malnourishment in Asia.  The field trials must be done and let’s let the local communities decide.”

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