by Angelika Hilbeck and Hans Herren
The recent Nobel laureates’ letter accusing Greenpeace of a “crime against humanity” for opposing genetically modified (GMO) golden rice reveals a deep division not only between civil societies and some science circles but also within the science community – a division in the visions for our common future and which path to take for our joint development. A division we see growing and escalating. A strong indication of this division is that among the Nobel laureate signatories, there seems to be hardly anybody with a solid scientific track record in agriculture, food production, development, or the socio-ecological and political causes of poverty and hunger. Others with notable competence – at least in the economic and social domains of development, poverty, and hunger – are not among the signatories. Signs of escalation also include the emotional, accusing language in the letter and the ample use of scientifically unsubstantiated claims. What is missing in the letter and among the supporters and developers of GMOs is the recognition and scientific analysis of some tough facts.
Fact no. 1: Still no functioning vitamin A rice despite unlimited resources
No functioning vitamin A rice has been produced in over 20 years of research. This is despite full support at every level: financial, institutional, political, and corporate. By ‘functioning’, we mean farmer’s rice varieties that reliably and stably express sufficient amounts of beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A, the precursor of Vitamin A) over many generations of seed saving. These seeds must continuously express beta-carotene at a level that has been documented to be efficiently convertible to Vitamin A in mammals and, most importantly, can (statistically) significantly relieve the symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency in hungry people. None of this is scientifically trivial but that’s what has been promised.
The first golden rice, GR1, was unsuccessful and is long gone. Golden rice 2 (GR2) is a patented pro-vitamin A GM rice developed from scratch by the multinational biotech firm Syngenta and still in the field trial stage at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at least one decade after it’s creation.
The vast majority of scientists in the world will never see such comprehensively generous support for their research – yet they still deliver, and must deliver if they ever want to renew funding for their research. This is more than can be said for the golden rice project.
Fact no. 2: Lack of recognition of real reasons for failure to deliver
A quick evidence check is sufficient to reveal the simple reason why golden rice is not in farmer’s fields: it is still not ready because it is not performing agronomically. Furthermore, it is far from being medically documented to relieve symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency. Neither Greenpeace nor the destruction of a test plot in the Philippines by local activists can be held responsible for this lack of scientific achievement.
Fact no. 3: Questionable conceptual underpinning
Leaving aside its scientific aspects, the very concept of golden rice – and all other similar conceptual approaches as solutions to malnourishment – remain doomed from the start as similar approaches have failed repeatedly. The problem lies in the underlying reductionist (disembedded) approach. Combating hunger and malnutrition one vitamin and mineral at a time is a failed ideology, no matter which vitamin or mineral one starts with and which kind of delivery system one chooses. Malnourished people do not suffer from single-vitamin-deficiencies added up. They suffer from hunger, as in ‘lack of food’. This is compounded by poverty and a myriad of contributing factors working simultaneously together. That means they lack regular access to real foods containing the necessary variety of ALL essential nutrients, which, in conjunction, make up a healthy diet.
These contributing factors differ according to culture, place and time. There exists a huge amount of research and analyses to read for anybody who cares about the real causes of hunger and the real solutions (we list some old and new references at the end – or just check out the United Nations World Food Program website. For the golden rice project, we recommend for starters, the recent analysis by Stone and Glover who locate its failure in its ‘disembeddedness’ and ‘placelessness’.
Consequently, hunger and malnutrition with its complex, ‘place-based’ causes cannot be battled by a uniform, de-contextualized and placeless one-vitamin-at-a-time approach which is what GMO golden rice has to offer.
This reductionistic approach to hunger is matched by similar reductionism in the genetic engineering world where organisms are viewed as the sum of their genes and proteins. Genes are added one at a time as blueprint construction instructions for lego-like products and many more projects of this kind are underway, e.g. vitamin A banana and cassava, or iron-fortified cassava, or whatever lies within their technical reach. Stone and Glover describe this as “a preoccupation with the molecular scale” that “favors a form of reductionist thinking that conceives of traits of interest as being governed primarily by genetics rather than through interactions with the environment or management” (Stone and Glover 2016).
Supplying vitamin A or any other nutrient in isolation only works for a transitional period of time, curing a symptom at best, while work progresses on the underlying place-based causes of hunger – lack of access to food, money, education and secure living conditions. Under those circumstances, as in parts of the Philippines, cheap vitamin A pills do the job much better, in a more targeted, controlled, and effective way than any patented GM crop could ever do.
Fact no. 4: A missing roll-out plan
But even if the golden rice researchers do eventually manage to get some GM pro-Vitamin A rice varieties to perform agronomically, there seems to be no roll-out plan to ensure that it gets to those who need it. Those reasons have nothing to do with regulations and everything to do with logistics, institutions and finances.
Will the golden rice developers truck their harvest into the urban slums and remote rural areas of Asia or Africa, or at least the Philippines, every day? Will they bring with them also the fat that malnourished people need to eat along with the rice to ensure they absorb the beta-carotene and convert it to vitamin A? And if they can do that, why aren’t they bringing existing foods into those areas already? Why wait until a patented GM food is ready for delivery? There is no shortage of vitamin-rich foods on this planet and beta-carotene is one of the commonest molecules in nature.
Frequently, vitamin A-rich food exists in abundance and rots in storage or under trees not that far away from the places where people suffer from malnutrition. An alternative already in the field is, for example, a non-GMO orange sweet potato, a root crop compatible with improved crop rotations whose developers have been awarded the 2016 World Food Prize. Without a massive and expensive roll-out plan, golden rice will not even leave the field station of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which is overseeing the golden rice project.
If their plan is to cross the pro-vitamin A trait into the rice varieties that farmers grow in hunger-stricken areas, they face an uphill logistic, financial, scientific and institutional battle. How will they get the transgenic trait reliably expressed in all of these varieties at the necessary concentrations over many generations of rice plantings and seed recycling? Who will pay for this epic endeavour?
If they decide instead to only put the pro-vitamin A trait into a handful of, say, IRRI rice varieties (which we believe is the most likely plan – if there is a plan in the first place), many will fail because they will not perform in different local conditions and they typically require fertilizers and pesticides. If the plan is to switch farmers to growing a handful of patented biofortified varieties all over Asia and Africa, how will this be implemented? Who will deliver the seeds and accompanying chemicals to farmers – year after year, everywhere where it’s needed, for free? And is this a sustainable solution?
And what will happen to the thousands of existing ecologically and culturally well adapted varieties? The genetic diversity of crops and animals is our life-support system.
Furthermore, have they asked the rice producers and consumers of Asia and Africa if they want many of their rice varieties to be yellow forever – even in times when the food shortages and nutrition deficiencies are over?
Unresolved patent and ownership issues
According to the website www.goldenrice.org., a resource-poor farmer will be allowed to grow golden rice without license fees as long as his/her income is less than $10,000 per year. But, in practice, who decides which farmers are eligible? Who decides which income limit is appropriate in what country or region, and who enforces it on what authority and criteria? What about those farmers whose incomes exceed $10,000 per year? Who will decide when to collect fees, from whom, and for how long? How will the finances be arranged between Syngenta, which owns GR2, the seed multipliers and distributors, and the government? And if all this can be settled with Syngenta – how about the next-in-line patented, biofortified GM crops? In case of dispute, will there be free access to lawyers for the resource-poor farmers?
In their weekly column Schaffer and Ray (2016) reported about a meeting with an employee of the US State Department and discussing the benefits of GM crops for farmers and consumers in the Global South and whether or not farmers would have to pay a technology fee and purchase, for example, the golden rice seed each year. The State Department representative stated that the companies that own the patents would be willing to make the golden rice (or virus-resistant cassava) available at no cost provided that the countries adopted US patent regimes to protect other GM crops. From a policy perspective, such a ‘humanitarian’ license agreement would thereby present a highly profitable transaction, a means to ‘encourage’ developing countries that often do not even have patent laws of their own to accept the US patent regime and so ensure the profits of US companies and patent holders in perpetuity. In corporate agriculture it seems, nothing is really for free.
These are just a few of the tough questions that have never been addressed or even acknowledged by promoters of golden rice or any other such projects. Shooting genes into nuclei and getting a few varieties to express a transgene is the easy part – although even that has proved elusive so far for GR2.
Fact 5: Colonial mindset
Blaming Greenpeace for the failure of not only golden rice but other patented products of genetic engineering has been an irrational (or maybe calculated) obsession of some proponents and developers since the discussion began decades ago. Yet, it also reveals more subtle issues. Farmers and indigenous people are outraged when gene technology proponents accuse them of being instructed or manipulated by big Western NGOs like Greenpeace. They say that promoters of golden rice and other techno-solutions offered by developed countries rarely ask for or listen to their views and, thereby, reveal their lack of respect and comprehension.
This attitude towards peasant farmers and indigenous peoples is typical of the still prevailing colonial, Western mindset – hidden or open. It assumes that the peasant farmers are ignorant people without the relevant knowledge entitling them to make informed decisions based on their own values and visions for their future. Sadly, the letter signed by Nobel laureates appears to be a continuation of this way of thinking. It reveals an attitude of supremacy over, and disrespect for, traditional and indigenous knowledge and peoples who want to have a say in their lives and communities and which path to take to ‘development’.
Take-home message: Hungry (and poor) people deserve better. And Nobel laureates can do better!
Bohle, Hans G., Thomas E. Downing and Michael J. Watts (1994). Climate change and social vulnerability – Toward a sociology and geography of food insecurity. Global Environmental Change 1994 4 (1) 37-48.
This reference on the complexities of causes of hunger is as old as the idea of golden rice. Yet promoters of golden rice have never addressed any of the issues raised by it.
Moore Lappé, F. and J. Collins. 2015. World Hunger: 10 Myths– October 6, 2015
Kimura, Aya Hirata (2013). Hidden Hunger – Gender and the Politics of Smarter Foods. Cornell University Press. http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100834350
Schaffer, Harwood D. and Daryll E. Ray (2016). More unresolved GMO issues.
Sen, Amartya (1982). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya (1998). Development as Freedom. Anchor.
Stone, G.D. and D. Glover (2016). Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines. Agriculture and Human Values. Online first: 1-16.
Dr Angelika Hilbeck is Chair, European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER). She is a researcher and lecturer on biosafety and agroecology at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) who has worked closely with farmers and civil societies in many developing countries for more than two decades, including the Philippines, the country targeted for the rollout of GM golden rice. She is a member of the Board of Directors of ‘Bread for All’. She was a lead author of the International Assessment of Agricultural Sciences, Knowledge and Technology for Development (IAASTD)
Dr. Hans R Herren, Agronomist/Entomologist (ETHZ) who worked in agricultural research and development for 27 years in Africa. Member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, President and Founder Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development www.biovision.ch, president and CEO www.Millennium-Institute.org.
Laureate: Sustainability Prize, Germany 2016, Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize 2013; One World Award 2010; World Food Prize 1995; Kilby Award 1995; Brandenberger Prize 2002; Tyler Prize 2003.
Foreign Associate of the US Academy of Sciences 1999; Member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) 2005
Co-Chair International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Member CGIAR Science Council (2005-2010)
 “On 13 August 2013, after farmers had got nowhere in their arguments with the Philippine government, they uprooted an experimental field of Golden Rice in Pili, Camarines Sur, where trials were taking place. By taking this action, they sent a clear signal that they would not tolerate the advance of GMOs. However, the Filipino farmers were outraged when the media, accusing them of ‘vandalism’, made it appear that the uprooting had been orchestrated by international NGOs which had supposedly made use of the farmers to uproot the rice. Farmers explained that it was their decision to turn to civil disobedience to defend rice, a crop that is central to their diet, their livelihood and their culture. While the funders and supporters of Golden Rice carry on with their goal of commercialising the crop in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh in the near future, Filipino farmers continue to mobilise and protest, vowing that they will go on opposing the advance of GMOs.”
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