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Greenpeace Claim to Have "Prevented" GM rice is Erroneous

by Vicki Brower
BioMedNet News
20 April 2001

The environmental lobby Greenpeace has not, as it claims, "prevented" release of genetically modified rice in the Philippines, BioMedNet News confirmed today. Rice researchers there say it would take that long to complete their research in the first place.

The claim followed Greenpeace's 19 March visit to the public International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. The headline of Greenpeace's press release marking its visit stated that the release of GE [genetically engineered] Golden Rice is "prevented for next 5 years."

Not so. "We remain committed to the continued safe and sustainable development of Golden Rice, and there will be no change to our plans as a result of the Greenpeace visit," IRRI Director General Ronald P. Cantrell confirmed, the day after Greenpeace's meeting, in an information bulletin.

Golden rice is being developed to contain high levels of beta carotene to help fight rampant vitamin A deficiency and resulting blindness in developing nations. According to the United Nations, one million children die each year worldwide, and a half-million develop blindness, due to vitamin A deficiency.

The IRRI received the Philippines' first research samples of Golden Rice in January, at which time IRRI said it would be starting an "investigation into its use as a potential solution to vitamin A deficiency," predicting that three to four years of research would take place before field trials could begin and at least another two before it could reach farmers. Thus Greenpeace's "victory" is no more than IRRI's research forecast.

Greenpeace's recent visit to the IRRI represents part of its escalating campaign in Asia to block the development and use of genetically modified food. Greenpeace's Von Hernandez calls Golden Rice "fool's gold," "an empty promise," and "a quick fix." It stresses that it only produces "very low levels of beta carotene" - less than is needed to fight vitamin A deficiency.

The group maintains that the rice is being developed irresponsibly in the interests of big business, whereas "there are cheap and proven solutions and technologies available to fight against vitamin A deficiency," said Hernandez, who is Greenpeace's Southeast Asia campaign director. "The main problem is lack of political will to see these solutions through and the inadequacy of resources to enforce them."

"These activists are afraid that Golden Rice is a part of biotechnology that will be successful," commented C.S. Prakash, director of Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama, and the president of the AgBio World Foundation.

Golden Rice was developed by two European scientists, Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany, in a public- and charity-funded research program focused on addressing malnutrition in developing nations.

The agbiotech giant Syngenta, which held some patents on rice genome technology, has made it available to subsistence farmers without royalties or technology fees, as have Potrykus and Beyer, said Cantrell. In an article in Science on 13 October 2000, IRRI scientists noted that because most rice farmers are poor, rice production has been greatly ignored by the private sector and remains relatively underdeveloped. Cantrell and associates called for a public-private model of rice development similar to that seen with the Human Genome Project.

Golden Rice is at the "proof of concept" stage, said its two creators, Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freyburg Germany, as part of a public- and charity-funded research program focused on addressing malnutrition in developing nations.

"Golden Rice is not supposed to provide 100% of the vitamin A supply, but to help cross the borderline between malnutrition and sufficient vitamin A supply by complementing other dietary components," said Potrykus. "According to a rough estimate, it should supply 50% of the daily intake." One of IRRI's priorities is to work toward endowing golden rice with a higher vitamin A content. "It must also be safety-tested because of its antibiotic marker genes, and because of potential allergenicity," Prakash told Biomednet News. Other foods can also be modified to increase vitamin A, such as sweet potatoes, a project on which Prakash said he is working at Tuskegee. (Note from CSP: This is in error. My work is not on pro-vitamin A in sweetpotato, but on increasing the protein content)

Vitamin A deficiency is such a serious problem worldwide that no one claims one technology or food capable of fixing it, Prakash emphasized. "But the development of Golden Rice has brought the world's attention to this problem," he noted. "What is Greenpeace doing to distribute such supplements?" he added.

In the meantime, Greenpeace is continuing its offensive in Asia. The organization stated in early April that the Thai government has stopped growing all GE crops. Contrary to that press release, Dow Jones reported a week later that Thailand (the world's largest rice exporter, according to Prakash) has no policy for prohibiting imports of raw material and goods containing GMOs, according to the Thai director-general of the Commerce Ministry, Boontipa Simaskul. While it is considering manditory labeling of all edible goods, and does not permit GMO seeds to be imported commercially or grown, Thailand does permit them to be imported for research. IRRI has already done so in Thailand.