June 21, 2024

Scientists have warned that a court decision to ban the cultivation of the genetically modified (GM) crop golden rice in the Philippines can have catastrophic consequences. Tens of thousands of children could die in the wake of the ruling, they argue.

The Philippines has become the first country – in 2021 – to approve the commercial cultivation of golden rice, which was developed to combat vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of disability and death among children in many parts of the world.

But campaigns through Green peace and local farmers last month persuaded the country’s appeals court to overturn and withdraw that approval. The groups argued that golden rice had not been proven to be safe and the claim was upheld by the court, a decision hailed by Greenpeace as “a monumental victory”.

However, many scientists say there is no evidence that golden rice is dangerous in any way. More to the point, they argue that it is a lifesaver.

“The court’s decision is a catastrophe,” said Professor Matin Qaim, of Bonn University, and a member of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, which promotes the introduction of the crop. “This is completely against science, which has found no evidence of any risk associated with golden rice, and will result in thousands and thousands of children dying.”

The decision will be contested by the Philippine government and agricultural experts say it is likely to be reversed sometime in the near future. But the backlash is still likely to have a big impact. Other countries such as India and Bangladesh – where vitamin A deficiency is also widespread – have considered planting golden rice, but are now likely to be deterred.

“The situation is extremely worrying,” said Adrian Dubock, another council member. “Planting golden rice was not done for profit. No one tried to control what farmers grew or control what people ate. It was done to save lives.”

Vitamin A is found in most foods in the west, but is conspicuously lacking in diets in developing countries, a deficiency that is “associated with significant morbidity and mortality from common childhood infections, and is the world’s leading preventable cause of childhood blindness ,” according to the World Health Organization. Estimates suggest that it causes the death of more than 100,000 children a year.

As a solution, Peter Beyer, professor of cell biology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland, started working in the 1990s using the new technology of genetic manipulation. They inserted genes into the DNA of normal rice to create a variant that can make beta-carotene, a rich orange-colored pigment that is also an important precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A.

It is golden rice, which has been an effective source of vitamin A in humans ever since. Countries including America, Australia and New Zealand have ruled that golden rice is safe. Yet three decades after its development, it has yet to be cultivated commercially – thanks to the green movement’s vocal opposition to the cultivation of any GM crop, regardless of any potential benefit it may have.

“Golden rice was the first transgenic crop created that benefits people, not companies or farmers, but its use has been blocked from the beginning,” Potrykus told the Observer last week. “I am extremely concerned about the decision of the Philippine court, not only for its impact on the uptake of golden rice, but its effect on the cultivation of other transgenic crops.”

This view is shared by many scientists. In 2016, more than 150 Nobel laureates signed an open letter attacking Green peace for a campaign against golden rice and other GM crops. Greenpeace misrepresented “the risks, benefits and impacts” of genetically modified food plants, they said. “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption.”

However, Greenpeace remains steadfast. “There are specific problems with golden rice,” Wilhelmina Pelegrina, head of Greenpeace Philippines, said last week. “Farmers who brought this case to us – along with local scientists – are currently growing different varieties of rice, including high-value seeds that they have worked with and controlled for generations. They are rightly concerned that if their organic or heirloom varieties are mixed with patented, genetically engineered rice, it could sabotage their certification, reduce their market appeal and ultimately threaten their livelihoods.

Pelegrina added that relying on a single cropping system to alleviate malnutrition has reduced resilience and increased vulnerability to climate impacts – a serious problem in one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. “If things don’t work out, it’s the farmer and the consumers who pick up the slack.”

There are also more practical, proven solutions to tackling vitamin A deficiencies, such as food supplementation programs and supporting people to grow a range of crops, including those rich in vitamin A, she claimed. “That should be where attention and investment is focused.”

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