110 Nobel Laureates to Greenpeace: Change Your Stance on GMOs

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Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine (1993), opened the press conference asking Greenpeace to reverse its stance on genetically engineered crops. Credit: Jenny Splitter

More than 100 Nobel Laureates are calling on Greenpeace to reconsider its opposition to GMOs. Yesterday, representatives of the group of Nobel Laureates, Sir Richard Roberts, Professor Martin Chalfie and Professor Randy Schekman held a press conference at the National Press Club to explain why 110 Nobel Laureates came together now to support transgenic crops and ask Greenpeace to reverse its long-held stance against GMOs.

Sir Richard Roberts, the scientist who organized the letter campaign, shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his team’s discovery of introns in genes. He opened the press conference with a brief explanation of “precision agriculture,” his preferred term for GMOs. Genetic modification of crops is nothing new, he noted, as for thousands of years farmers have used various techniques to select for desirable traits. “Everything is a GMO,” explained Roberts. Transgenic breeding is just more precise, and crucial for bringing nutritious food to the developing world. “Why wouldn’t you want this superior technology?” questioned Roberts.

Randy Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his team’s discovery of the machinery regulating vesicle traffic in cells, went on to describe the science behind golden rice, a transgenic crop enriched with beta-carotene. Golden rice was created by a non-profit with plans to distribute the rice for free in the developing world but, according to scientists, protests by Greenpeace have interfered with its development. Roberts accused Greenpeace of creating a culture of fear, and urged the environmental group to reverse its stance. Safety concerns about GMOs may have been prudent when the technology was first introduced, but now decades later it’s clear these concerns haven’t come to fruition. As Roberts quipped, “we’ve had forty years of GMOs now but Greenpeace is still living in the 80s.”

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Nina Fedoroff said that campaigns against genetically engineered crops have resulted in attacks against scientists. Credit: Jenny Splitter

According to Martin Chalfie, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the important Green Fluorescent Protein widely used in research, Greenpeace’s objections to GMOs are an ever-moving target. First the organization complained golden rice had too little beta carotene, then apparently too much. These objections, according to Chalfie, aren’t based on science at all. Schekman added that he’s baffled by Greenpeace’s decision to embrace scientific consensus on climate change but reject it for GMOs.

In addition to preventing important developments in agriculture, these scientists also expressed concerns for their vocation. Some scientists are afraid to come forward, Roberts noted bluntly. “All of us who use genetic engineering in our work have been concerned,” agreed Chalfie. Nina Federoff, professor of plant biology, added that the US Right to Know’s FOIA campaign has had a severe impact on many public scientists, noting in particular the break-in to Professor Kevin Folta’s office at the University of Florida just a few days prior to this conference.

As I left the press conference, two men, one from Greenpeace and the other from Food and Water Watch, stopped each attendee as they left the room, protesting that they weren’t allowed in to the press conference. “Are you with the press?” they asked each person who filed past them. Both Greenpeace and FWW have argued that the golden rice project has problems that have nothing to do with the anti-GMO movement, citing a paper critical of the project.

Greenpeace activists protest Golden Rice at the Philippine Department of Agriculture in Manila in 2008. Credit: Greenpeace/Luis Liwanag

Accusations that anyone is blocking genetically engineered ‘Golden’ rice are false. ‘Golden’ rice has failed as a solution and isn’t currently available for sale, even after more than 20 years of research. As admitted by the International Rice Research Institute, it has not been proven to actually address Vitamin A Deficiency. So to be clear, we are talking about something that doesn’t even exist.

Adrian Dubock, former project manager for the Golden Rice project at the International Rice Research Institute, has now written a response defending the work.

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) remains a killer in many parts of the developing world. And rice feeds half the world every day. Rice has to be polished for storage or it goes rancid, and polished rice contains no pro-vitamin A. There is no new data on the mortality reducing impact of providing a source of vitamin A to those that need it, as the positive effects are so clear in a research context that to withhold it would be unethical. And only Random Controlled Trials can and have isolated the one cause which relates to mortality: such data have demonstrated the 23 – 34% of global under 5 years child mortality can be prevented by an accessible source of vitamin A.

Many wonder why Greenpeace and others oppose the Golden Rice project so vociferously when its goals are free and life-saving food. As Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel tweeted — “Here’s the thing about Golden Rice. Don’t you want it to succeed?”

The text of the letter is below.

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The first 110 Nobel Laureates who signed the #Nobels4GMOs letter, collage by KJHvM. (alt version)

To the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects.

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.

Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.

Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 – 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;

WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace’s actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.

How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?

Sincerely,

Zhores I. Alferov 2000 Physics
Sidney Altman 1989 Chemistry
Hiroshi Amano 2014 Physics
Werner Arber 1978 Medicine
Richard Axel 2004 Medicine
David Baltimore 1975 Medicine
Paul Berg 1980 Chemistry
Bruce A. Beutler 2011 Medicine
Elizabeth H. Blackburn 2009 Medicine
Gunter Blobel 1999 Medicine
Paul D. Boyer 1997 Chemistry
Sydney Brenner 2002 Medicine
Mario R. Capecchi 2007 Medicine
Thomas R. Cech 1989 Chemistry
Martin Chalfie 2008 Chemistry
Steven Chu 1997 Physics
Aaron Ciechanover 2004 Chemistry
Claude Cohen-Tannoudji 1997 Physics
Leon N. Cooper 1972 Physics
Elias James Corey 1990 Chemistry
Robert F. Curl Jr. 1996 Chemistry
Johann Deisenhofer 1988 Chemistry
Peter C. Doherty 1996 Medicine
Richard R. Ernst 1991 Chemistry
Sir Martin J. Evans 2007 Medicine
Eugene F. Fama 2013 Economics
Edmond H. Fischer 1992 Medicine
Jerome I. Friedman 1990 Physics
Andre Geim 2010 Physics
Ivar Giaever 1973 Physics
Walter Gilbert 1980 Chemistry
Alfred G. Gilman 1994 Medicine
Sheldon Glashow 1979 Physics
Roy J. Glauber 2005 Physics
Joseph L. Goldstein 1985 Medicine
David J. Gross 2004 Physics
Roger Guillemin 1977 Medicine
Sir John B. Gurdon 2012 Medicine
John L. Hall 2005 Physics
Lars Peter Hansen 2013 Economics
Serge Haroche 2012 Physics
Leland H. Hartwell 2001 Medicine
Harald zur Hausen 2008 Medicine
James J. Heckman 2000 Economics
Dudley R. Herschbach 1986 Chemistry
Avram Hershko 2004 Chemistry
Gerardus ‘t Hooft 1999 Physics
H. Robert Horvitz 2002 Medicine
Robert Huber 1988 Chemistry
Tim Hunt 2001 Medicine
Louis J. Ignarro 1998 Medicine
Elfriede Jelinek 2004 Literature
Daniel Kahneman 2002 Economics
Eric R. Kandel 2000 Medicine
Wolfgang Ketterle 2001 Physics
Aaron Klug 1982 Chemistry
Brian K. Kobilka 2012 Chemistry
Roger D. Kornberg 2006 Chemistry
Herbert Kroemer 2000 Physics
Finn E. Kydland 2004 Economics
Leon M. Lederman 1988 Physics
Yuan T. Lee 1986 Chemistry
Robert J. Lefkowitz 2012 Chemistry
Anthony J. Leggett 2003 Physics
Jean-Marie Lehn 1987 Chemistry
Michael Levitt 2013 Chemistry
Tomas Lindahl 2015 Chemistry
Rudolph A. Marcus 1992 Chemistry
Barry J. Marshall 2005 Medicine
Eric S. Maskin 2007 Economics
John C. Mather 2006 Physics
Craig C. Mello 2006 Medicine
Robert C. Merton 1997 Economics
Hartmut Michel 1988 Chemistry
James A. Mirrlees 1996 Economics
Paul L. Modrich 2015 Chemistry
William E. Moerner 2014 Chemistry
Mario J. Molina 1995 Chemistry
Edvard Moser 2014 Medicine
May-Britt Moser 2014 Medicine
Kary B. Mullis 1993 Chemistry
Ferid Murad 1998 Medicine
Erwin Neher 1991 Medicine
Ryoji Noyori 2001 Chemistry
Sir Paul Nurse 2001 Medicine
Christiane Nusslein-Volhard 1995 Medicine
Arno Penzias 1978 Physics
Stanley B. Prusiner 1997 Medicine
Jose Ramos-Horta 1996 Peace
Sir Richard J. Roberts 1993 Medicine
Bert Sakmann 1991 Medicine
Bengt I. Samuelsson 1982 Medicine
Randy W. Schekman 2013 Medicine
Brian P. Schmidt 2011 Physics
Richard R. Schrock 2005 Chemistry
Phillip A. Sharp 1993 Medicine
Hamilton O. Smith 1978 Medicine
Oliver Smithies 2007 Medicine
Thomas A. Steitz 2009 Chemistry
Joseph H. Taylor Jr. 1993 Physics
Daniel C. Tsui 1998 Physics
Harold E. Varmus 1989 Medicine
Sir John E. Walker 1997 Chemistry
J. Robin Warren 2005 Medicine
Arieh Warshel 2013 Chemistry
James Watson 1962 Medicine
Eric F. Wieschaus 1995 Medicine
Frank Wilczek 2004 Physics
Robert Woodrow Wilson 1978 Physics
Ada E. Yonath 2009 Chemistry
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Jenny Splitter is a freelance writer, storyteller and mother of two living in Washington, DC. Reach out on Twitter @jennysplitter and on https://www.facebook.com/ScienceSnark/.