One-hundred-and-seven Nobel laureates have stepped together into the decades-old debate surrounding genetically modified food (GMOs). The laureates, all from the science and economic fields, signed a letter released this week that both voices support for GMOs in food and challenges the opposition of Greenpeace and other groups to GMOs.
The debate about GMOs, their safety and place in our food and agriculture, has been ongoing on the world and domestic stages. The implantation and consumption of GMO seeds and foods is strictly regulated by agencies such as the European Commission and the United States Department of Agriculture.
Genetic modifications entered into new territory with the 2012 invention and subsequent advancement of CRISPR technology, which allows scientists to zero in on specific genes to modify in an organism’s DNA with much more precision than previous gene technology.
However, this cutting edge technology was not at the heart of the Nobel laureates’ letter yesterday, nor was it mentioned at all. Instead the scientists focused on Golden Rice, a 1999 invention of biologists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, who aimed to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency among millions of malnourished children with a genetically modified rice plant.
The rice, it seems, has become a symbol of the beleaguered movement to make impactful humanitarian advances in GMOs amid government regulation and anti-GMO activism.
"We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against 'GMOs' in general and Golden Rice in particular," said the letter, signed by laureates across the fields of medicine, chemistry, physics, and economics.
The statement comes a little over a month after the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report saying that they found no evidence that genetically modified crops led to widespread health problems or had negative environmental impact.
The letter, addressed to leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and governments around the world, calls for the end of both the campaign against "the tools of modern biology" and the genetically modified Golden Rice.
Greenpeace responded on Thursday with a statement issued from Manila, saying that "the only guaranteed solution to fix malnutrition is a diverse healthy diet" and denying the capabilities of Golden Rice.
"This costly experiment has failed to produce results for the past 20 years and diverted attention from methods that already work," wrote Wilhelmina Pelegrina of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. "Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture."
What may be behind the scientists' decision to focus their letter on Golden Rice is the parallel between the product, which is still in trials and testing, and the potentially unexplored solutions in today's labs.
Richard Roberts, a chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs, who organized the letter campaign along with geneticist Phillip Sharp, the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, says that he was reacting to reports from fellow scientists that their genetic research was being restricted by anti-GMO activism.
"We're scientists. We understand the logic of science. It's easy to see what Greenpeace is doing is damaging and is anti-science," he told The Washington Post.
Golden Rice is a specific example of the hope of the signatories that genetic modification can help to alleviate world hunger and malnutrition. The rice, named for its hue, is genetically infused with beta carotene, which the human body turns to Vitamin A. The World Health Organization reports that 250 million preschool children worldwide are still affected by Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and death because of poor immune system development.
But since it was first produced in 1999, Golden Rice, whose research and development is now being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has yet to fulfill its goals. Instead, the rice remains in field testing in Bangladesh and the Philippines. It "will only be made available broadly if it is approved by national regulators and shown to reduce vitamin A deficiency for the world's poorest populations," says the Gates Foundation website.
"There's so much misinformation floating around about GMOs that is taken as fact by people," Michael D. Purugganan, a professor of genomics and biology and the dean for science at New York University, told The New York Times after a 2013 protest in the Philippines against the rice. Dr. Purugganan's research is not on genetically engineered modified crops, however having grown up in the Philippines he became involved in the conversation about Golden Rice.
"A lot of the criticism of GMOs in the Western world suffers from a lack of understanding of how really dire the situation is in developing countries," he said.
The opening line the laureates' letter references a United Nations finding that global production of "food, feed, and fiber" will need to approximately double by 2050 "to meet the demands of a growing global population."
As the world's available arable land stays static or decreases and populations (and world temperatures) continue to rise, sustainable and high-yield crops will be a challenge. Parts of that challenge could be faced with genetic modification, the scientists say.
That's not to say that the technology is not already in use: There are roughly 100 genetically modified plants in American agriculture, most of the cotton grown in India and China is genetically modified, as well as much of the world's soybeans and corn, reports Newsweek.
Given the presence of GMOs in American agriculture, recent domestic debates have been over labeling genetically modified food – the controversy was recently centered in Vermont, where legislators and advocates are working on a law requiring companies to label foods with GMOs.
But the issue, as it's framed in the letter, is not about whether or not people know what they are consuming, rather it's a question about whether the scientific community will be able use technology to try and address food insecurity.
Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, a cell biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post that the opposition to scientific advance in GMOs affects "the world's agricultural future."
While Greenpeace does not appear to have changed its stance, it remains to be seen how governments may react to the endorsement.