Patrick Moore’s article "The Blindness of the Greens" (The Age, 16 February), describes opponents of GE crops as “anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-human”. If Moore applied the logic that he claims is missing from the arguments of opponents of GE crops, he would realise that GE crops are no more "science" than refrigerators, nuclear weapons or washing machines. GE crops are commercial products that result from the application of one specific technology from within a much broader field of scientific inquiry. GE crops are commercial products – not science; and contrary to what his paymasters would like to think, there are sound scientific reasons for opposing them.
For the record, Greenpeace does not have a campaign against "biotechnology in general", as Moore asserts. Greenpeace is opposed very specifically to the deliberate release of GE organisms into the environment where their impacts cannot be fully predicted. We are not opposed to biotechnology research and are certainly not opposed to scientific advances such as molecular-assisted selection/breeding, which utilise knowledge of plant genomes for plant breeding, without resorting to GE techniques.
Moore states in his article that: “In 2001, the European Commission released the results of 81 scientific studies on genetically modified organisms conducted by more than 400 research teams at a cost of $US65 Million”.
What the European Commission actually did in 2001 was to identify 81 EC-funded research projects on GE organisms that were (and some still are) in progress. Most of these studies have not yet been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature.
A more accurate assessment of the status of peer reviewed studies on the human health risks of GE foods can be found in Pryme & Lembcke (Nutrition and Health, vol. 17, pp. 1-8, 2003).This paper concluded that, despite having been released into our food chain for more than seven years, there have been only 10 peer reviewed “in vivo” studies examining the possible health consequences of GE foods and feed. Only five of these were independently funded, while the remainder was at least partially funded by the biotechnology companies themselves. The authors concluded that more scientific effort and investigation was necessary before GE foods can be considered unlikely to cause long term human health problems.
Similarly, the number of peer reviewed studies into the environmental impacts of GE crops is less than would be expected if the usual standards of scientific rigor had been applied to the issue.
This lack of scientific examination of the risks of GE foods and crops displays a poor respect for science. Under normal circumstances, if a new study shows a set of results that are surprising, or that bring into question assumptions that a product is benign, a respect for science would indicate that further research should be conducted. The study should be replicated and the methodology subject to further peer review. Why does this not seem to occur when it comes to GE foods and crops?
Science is not immune from bias – be it ideological or the result of financial influence. When those who raise questions about GE foods are lambasted for being ideological, "anti-science", or "anti-human", one has to ask why; and also why the proponents of GE foods manage to avoid being tarred with the same brush despite repeatedly overstating the benefits of GE foods and systematically understating the risks.
The example of Golden Rice is a case in point. Golden rice has been genetically engineered to contain pro-vitamin A. Its proponents state that this GE rice would solve the problems of vitamin A deficiency (which includes blindness) in developing countries. According to Moore, the lead researcher, Dr Potrykus, claims that his variety of "golden rice" is now "ready for planting". "Ready" seems to exclude the requirement for any understanding of the health or environmental impacts.
The reality is that "golden rice" is a research project. It has not undergone safety tests and its claims to solving health problems are extremely optimistic, bordering on fantastic. Using data published in the journal, Science by Dr. Potrykus, Greenpeace estimated that an extraordinary amount of rice would need to be eaten in order to give the World Health Organisation recommended daily intake of vitamin A for an adult woman. This quantity amounts to approximately 9 kg when cooked. But even this is beside the point.
Blindness is not caused by a lack of vitamin A in rice, just as starvation is generally not caused by a lack of food production. Malnutrition and starvation are the result of a lack of access to a balanced diet - a problem of poverty, which in turn is caused by problems of economics and politics.
The proponents of GE crops and foods are only too quick to promote the alleged benefits of "golden rice" (or whatever other panacea happens to be the flavour of the month), often with little real understanding of the problem they are purporting to solve. However, GE crops pose real risks to the health of humans and the environment. This has recently been recognised by the recent Belgian decision recommending a refusal to grow herbicide-tolerant GE canola because of the difficulty in controlling cross-pollination. This is a concern that isn’t being adequately reflected in the regulation of GE canola in Australia.
Moore’s attempt to characterise his own proselytising on behalf of industry as "consensus politics" stretches credibility. The reality is that the issues of environment and development are complex. Combining the desire to minimise human impacts on our biosphere, while trying to promote a basic level of equity and social justice on a global basis is a challenge beyond anything human society has ever faced. Over the past 30 years, we at Greenpeace have learned that there is no one way of approaching environmental issues. Co-operation, rigorous science, political work, economics and, yes, confrontation, all play a role in the process of achieving change towards a green and peaceful future.