Vitamin A blindnessUniversity of IowaGolden Rice has been genetically enhanced to produce vitamin A as way to prevent millions of deaths and cases of blindness annually in poor countries where the grain is the chief food staple. Back in August, some Filipino "farmers" rampaged through the fields where the non-profit International Rice Research institute was growing out the Golden Rice variety. The "farmers" were actually anti-biotech activists who have worked with Greenpeace in the past to block other biotech crop varieties.

Frankly, the scientific community has been too passive for way too long in confronting anti-biotech groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Union of Concerned Scientists for their campaigns of lies against the safety of biotech crops. But the Golden Rice outrage has finally aroused researchers. Last week, Science magazine published a strong editorial, "Standing Up for GMOs," condemning activists for their anti-scientific attacks on crop biotechnology. From the statement:

If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a strain that is genetically modified by molecular techniques (and therefore labeled a genetically modified organism or GMO) to produce β-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is an essential component of the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin in the eye. Severe vitamin A deficiency results in blindness, and half of the roughly half-million children who are blinded by it die within a year. Vitamin A deficiency also compromises immune system function, exacerbating many kinds of illnesses. It is a disease of poverty and poor diet, responsible for 1.9 to 2.8 million preventable deaths annually, mostly of children under 5 years old and women...

The rice has been ready for farmers to use since the turn of the 21st century, yet it is still not available to them. Escalating requirements for testing have stalled its release for more than a decade. IRRI and PhilRice continue to patiently conduct the required field tests with Golden Rice, despite the fact that these tests are driven by fears of “potential” hazards, with no evidence of actual hazards. Introduced into commercial production over 17 years ago, GM crops have had an exemplary safety record. And precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity.

New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations. We, and the thousands of other scientists who have signed the statement of protest, stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances such as Golden Rice that have the potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.

Hooray! It's great that researchers have finally called out Greenpeace and other anti-biotech activist groups for peddling and profiting from their lies. The research community needs to form an international committee of correpondence with the goal of responding with authoritative letters to the editor/producer and blog comments whenever and wherever anti-biotech activists spread their disinformation.