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Potrykus Responds to Greenpeace Criticism of 'Golden Rice'

Following is the statement from Prof. Ingo Potrykus, creator of the 'Golden Rice' in response to Greenpeace's Internet release "GENETICALLY ENGINEERED 'GOLDEN RICE' IS FOOL'S GOLD" from 9 February 2001 (see below for that text).

From: Ingo Potrykus Potrykus@active.ch

I had the privilege of participating (with delay) in the Greenpeace press conference at the BioVISION conference at Lyon and my response includes also my conclusions from that public discussion with Benedict Haerlin (Genetic Engineering Coordinator, Greenpeace International) and Bruno Rebelle (Executive Director, Greenpeace France).

I am happy to acknowledge, that Greenpeace is arguing on a rational basis. I certainly prefer this to the spreading of rumors such as "that people, eating Golden Rice, will lose their hair and sexual potency".

I also acknowledge, that Greenpeace has identified a weak point in the strategy of using Golden Rice for reducing vitamin A-deficiency. I am glad, that even Greenpeace realizes, that this is the only argument left, because all the other standard arguments are, probably, no longer valid. We will know for sure of course only, when all the standard biosafety assessments have been performed. These assessments can, however, only be done in connection with field release experiments and I am, therefore, happy, that Greenpeace stated, that they will not interfere with field release and proper testing, and I understood, that also Greenpeace does not see any immediate environmental risk, which would justify to prevent field testing or to destroy test fields of Golden Rice.

I also acknowledge, that Greenpeace accepts a moral responsibility in context with the Golden Rice strategy, and that its major concern is with the proper handling and the effectiveness of the approach. And Greenpeace wants to be assured, that alternative, traditional interventions are not competed but rather complemented. I confirmed at the above mentioned press conference (and I repeat it here), that my views are identical to those of Greenpeace in this respect, and that I share Greenpeace's disgrace about the heavy PR campaign of some agbiotech companies using results from our experiments, which were exclusively done within public research institutions, and using exclusively public funding. I stressed, however, also, that I am grateful to all those companies, which donated free licenses of IPR's and TPR's to allow for the humanitarian use of Golden Rice in developing countries.

Now to the questions (raised in the Internet release), how much rice people would have to eat, and whether traditional interventions are effective enough (and the Golden Rice approach, therefore, useless).

For the first question we need far more data, than we have to date. Let me, therefore, first answer the second question: all statistical data available demonstrate, that traditional interventions leave us every year with 500 000 blind children and millions of death caused by vitamin A-deficiency. This would probably not change too much with an even larger financial commitment, because many of those, suffering from the deficiency can not be reached by the interventions. IFPRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute considers curing of the deficiency by improving the content in the missing micronutrients of the basic staple foods the most sustainable approach. Therefore: we need complementation and the Golden Rice approach is, obviously, the right one, especially because it is not restricted to rice, but will also be applied to wheat, cassava, sweet potato, banana, and further basic food security crops. It also includes already measures against iron deficiency, and hopefully soon, also against deficiencies in essential amino acids.

How effective is Golden Rice? We will know a correct answer only after having data from 1) the varieties bred by the plant breeders, 2) from bioavailability studies, 3) from nutritional studies with vitamin A-deficient people (the calculations of Greenpeace, using "daily allowance" values from healthy people and the concentration of provitamin A in the first experimental prototype, give not more than vague indications).

The calculations of Greenpeace are based on RDA-values, which, as nutritionists say, are to some extent luxurious recommendations, representing a "nice to have"-supply, which also considers the multiple effects of vitamin A and especially of provitamin A. The latter, besides being a provitamin, has one additional effect per se, which is to act as a free radical scavenger, thus preventing typical diseases in developed countries, such as diseases of the cardio-vascular system and some sorts of cancer. There is consent, that the amounts required in the prevention of those severe symptoms of vitamin A deficiency we are facing in developing countries are significantly lower than given by RDA-values. However, due to the lack of adequate studies, there are evidently no reliable data currently available about those doses and this will be subject of further investigations.

We want to provide rice, which has enough provitamin A, that it has a clear beneficial effect on vitamin A-deficient people - not 100% of the "daily allowance". Experienced nutritionalists tell us that this is a realistic goal with our approach, as we are, possibly, already in the 20-40% range of the daily allowance. (Using the Greenpeace argument for 100% would mean people would have to eat between 5-2.5 times 300 g of rice, which is 0.75 to 1.5 kg, not 9. Of course, our goal is to have an effect with 300 g).

Data to answer all these questions can now be produced, because we finally have solved the IPR/TPR problems which prevented, so far, handing out of Golden Rice seeds for field experiments. We are, of course, also working on an increase in provitamin A concentration, and there are several possibilities we are testing.

We have good reasons to believe, that the approach has a fair chance to be successful. We have to be patient for a few years, until this can be verified or falsified. In our collaboration with India all starts with a careful needs assessment, in which the pros and cons of Golden Rice are compared and related to all other possible interventions, in numerous different social and economic environments, and throughout the country. The decision, whether or not Golden Rice will be developed in India, will depend upon the outcome of this study. I would consider this a very responsible exploitation of a promising technology, and I could imagine, that even Greenpeace should be able to support that.

Scientists are frequently reminded to take over responsibilities for their work. It is my believe that with the structures and collaborations being now in place we have done all that is possible to ensure the safe and cost-free introduction of Golden Rice to the benefit of people who most urgently need it. In this context I also appreciate very much that Greenpeace seems to be willing now to take over similar responsibilities for their actions as well. This has not been evident in the past in the case of Golden Rice.

Prof. Dr. Ingo Potrykus
Im Stigler, 54 CH-4312 Magden, Switzerland

Statement from Greenpeace:


9 February 2001

Manila/Amsterdam: Genetically engineered "Golden Rice" containing provitamin A will not solve the problem of malnutrition in developing countries according to Greenpeace. The Genetic Engineering (GE) industry claims vitamin A rice could save thousands of children from blindness and millions of malnourished people from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) related diseases. But a simple calculation based on the product developers' own figures show an adult would have to eat at least twelve times the normal intake of 300 grams to get the daily recommended amount of provitamin A.(1)

Syngenta, one of the world's leading genetic engineering companies and pesticide producers, which owns many patents on the "Golden Rice", claims a single month of marketing delay of "Golden Rice" would cause 50.000 children to go blind.(2)

Greenpeace calculations show however, that an adult would have to eat at least 3.7 kilos of dry weight rice, i.e. around 9 kilos of cooked rice, to satisfy his/her daily need of vitamin A from "Golden Rice". In other words, a normal daily intake of 300 gram of rice would, at best, provide 8% percent of the vitamin A needed daily. A breast-feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kilos in dry weight, converting to nearly 18 kilos of cooked rice per day. (3)

"It is clear from these calculations that the GE industry is making false promises about "Golden Rice". It is a nonsense to think anyone would or could eat this much rice, and there is still no proof that it can provide any significant vitamin benefits anyway," said Greenpeace Campaigner Von Hernandez in the Philippines, where the first grains of the genetically engineered rice had been delivered to the International Rice Research Institute last month for breeding into local rice varieties. "This whole project is actually based on what can only be characterised as intentional deception. We recalculated their figures again and again, we just could not believe serious scientists and companies would do this."

In addition, one of the main sponsors of "Golden Rice", the Rockefeller Foundation, has told Greenpeace the GE industry has "gone too far" in its promotion of the product. While upholding its principal support for the project, Rockefeller Foundation President Gordon Conway, wrote to Greenpeace: "[*] the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far. The industry's advertisements and the media in general seem to forget that it is a research product that needs considerable further development before it will be available to farmers and consumers."(4).

"The European markets have resoundingly rejected GE products, consumers worldwide don't want them in their food, and the industry is desperate for alternative markets. "Golden Rice" has been presented as a quick fix for a global problem. It isn't, and the cash-driven propaganda about the product is swamping attempts to enforce existing effective solutions, and carry out further work on other sustainable, reliable methods to address the problem," added Hernandez.

Genetically engineered rice does not address the underlying causes of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a more diverse diet. For the short-term, measures such as supplementation (i.e. pills) and food fortification are cheap and effective. Promoting the use and the access to food naturally rich in provitamin A, such as red palm oil, will also help addressing the VAD related sufferings. The only long-term solution is to work on the root causes of poverty and to ensure access to a diverse and healthy diet. (5)


For more information: Von Hernandez, Greenpeace GE campaigner in the Philippines, Mob: +63 917 5263050; Isabelle Meister, Genetic Engineering Campaign, Greenpeace International, Tel: +41-1-4474195; Greenpeace International Press Office, Sara Holden, Tel: +31-20-5249592

Pictures available from Greenpeace International Photo Desk, Tel: +31 20 55249580.

Notes to Editors United Nations' World Health Organisation/Food and Agriculture Organisation and the US National Academy of Science recommendations on daily vitamin A intake.

Dr Adrian C Dubock, of Zeneca Plant Science (now Syngenta): "The levels of expression of pro-vitamin A that the inventors were aiming at, and have achieved, are sufficient to provide the minimum level of pro-vitamin A to prevent the development of irreversible blindness affecting 500.000 children annually, and to significantly alleviate Vitamin A deficiency affecting 124.000.000 children in 26 countries." "One month delay = 50,000 blind children month." at a conference on "Sustainable Agriculture in the New Millennium" in Brussels, May 28-31, 2000.

Greenpeace briefing paper "Vitamin A: Natural Sources vs Golden Rice" and "The false promise of GE rice" and the letter to Greenpeace UK , January 22nd, 2001 are available at: www.greenpeace.org/~geneng.

(5) Nutritionists have pointed out that numerous problems converge to cause vitamin A deficiency. In a recent letter to the New York Times, Dr. Marion Nestle noted that "conversion of beta carotene to vitamin A, and transport in the body to the tissues that use vitamin A, require diets adequate in fat and protein. People whose diets lack these nutrients or who have intestinal diarrheal diseases - common in developing countries - can not obtain Vitamin A from Golden Rice."