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/.

  • mem_somerville

    A press event? And an informative web site? That seems so civil.

    https://twitter.com/mem_somerville/status/748609191317737472

  • Jason

    Tamar Haspel tweeted — “Here’s the thing about Golden Rice. Don’t you want it to succeed?”

    THAT is the truth. /mic drop

  • David Josephson

    Which corporate will own the GMO patent variety of rice? Who will benefit from the GMO patented rice the most? The children, the farmer or the corporate who owns the patent?
    What happens currently in India and other countries where farmers have purchased GMO rice and other crops and want to plant seeds the following year?
    Since when has round-up ready crops been good for the environment?
    The world is a complex ecosystem, what happens when you start playing with it. What happens to the choice of people who do not want GMO food? Do they get a say, or do GMO crops pollute the non-gmo crops.
    There are surpluses of rice (and other crops) around the world, GMO is not necessary to feed the population. Vitamin A can be addressed by other means, GMO crops (golden Rice) is not the only option left??

    • Rickinreallife

      I suspect that you will flat dismiss this, but here is some suggested reading by the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. [http://goldenrice.org/Content3-Why/why3_FAQ.php#Commercial_interest] Here is a more detailed explanation of the licensing arrangements. [http://goldenrice.org/Content1-Who/who4_IP.php]

      • David Josephson

        Thanks, I will read.

      • JustMe2013

        Yes, so helpful. Lets feed people empty calories (rice is already hardly a ‘complete’ food) and, to make it worse, we will invent entirely new versions for which their digestive system and our biosphere is totally and completely unprepared for. This should be fun.

        • Rickinreallife

          The Golden Rice Humanitarian Project did not select rice as a staple. History, culture, climate, soils, topography, and practicality did that. That would be the case whether ge existed or not. Fortification is not a novel concept, nor does it preclude whatsoever alternative strategies you might envision. Unless you can adopt the lifestyle of a impoverished subsistence farmerl, you have no moral or intellectual authority. Nothing more than naive, privileged 1st world holier than thou nonsense. You are a lightweight I’m intellect and morality.

          • JustMe2013

            Your last sentence shows that in dramatic form.

            You are shrill and have, at best, convergent intelligence that has resulted in a myopic worldview. Nevermind your limited writing skills. Perhaps you are dealing with malnutrition.

            • Rickinreallife

              I am sorry if you are offended. I get so sick of the inane accusation and condescension that emirates from both sides in these threads, and yes including to ge skeptic side. And maybe I overreacted this time, but the skeptic community is every bit as guilty of hubris and arrogance, so maybe I have come to expect that as motivation.

              I”m sorry, but you came across as snarky. If i misjudged, i apologize.

              • Rickinreallife

                As for the last sentence, yes I see the sentence structure was confusing. That has more to do with not catching an incorrect autocorrect my phone applied as I was typing.

              • JustMe2013

                Thank you. Honest replies such as yours are no so common here. Apology accepted. And offered in return for my harsh rebuke.

          • JustMe2013

            Normally, I don’t see the need for this kind of aggression but it seems to be your language of choice; and so I am simply attempting to establish rapport by matching your shrill and objectionable tone.

            In short, I will simply say your very holier-than-thou response was way off the mark. I have lived with subsistence farmers in a variety of African countries. I have watched what the ‘sharing’ of surplus grains as done to the people on that continent.

            I have also lived with people at a pre-farming level of society only to watch, in the past few years, their health decay as misguided western missionaries introduce them to wheat, corn, maize and rice. They are now in the last or second-to-last generation, thanks to ‘us’.

  • Ray Kinney

    All the while, organic markets are increasing rapidly.

    • Well, yes, the organic folk are master propagandists and ruthless capitalists who have used lies and deception to build market share. As well as duping the middle class, they have also duped some poor people into paying twice as much for food so they have less money left over to house, educate and clothe their children. How do the organic crowd sleep at night?

  • Ray Kinney

    I’m one of the less impressed. I do see that genetic engineering has a great potential to do a lot of good for a food future, yet has seemingly significant potential to do substantial harm as well. Current GMOs are around 85% pesticide-ready, which to my way of thinking is pushing pretty far over onto the more dangerous end of the continuum. I do not agree that there has been enough toxicologic research done for unintended consequences and potential harm to overall public health… not to mention environmental health for wildlife, from pesticides.

    Much of the public objection to GMOs relates to the pesticide issues and to unintended chemical trespass onto neighbors in many ways and incidences. Of course, pesticide applications are not specific to GMOs, it just happens that currently, they are tied closely together. This is bad publicity for GE potential. When the scientific method is followed by researchers, they often omit the essential edict… that just as much effort needs to be put into trying to disprove a hypothesis as is used in trying to demonstrate adequacy. Funding sources usually mandate that only part of the scientific method is usually funded and followed. This omission has resulted in a whole slew of historic woes for society, and causes a whole lot of thinking folk to pause before accepting current assurances by industry of sufficiency of care in the process utilized by GMO and GE science. IMHO

    • I do not agree that there has been enough toxicologic research done for unintended consequences and potential harm to overall public health …

      Of course you don’t Ray. You are on the organic side of the debate and you will never be satisfied no matter how much science is done.

  • Dr.K.SParthasarathy

    I e-mailed the following questions to Greenpeace International, UK.

    1. The Nobel Prize winners said in part: “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” (emphasis added).

    If your organisation has any paper in a peer-reviewed journal showing that GM crops and foodstuffs are unsafe, I would like to get a soft copy. How do you react to the emphasized statement?(“There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption”)

    2. How do you explain the stand taken by 110 Nobel Laureates against the anti-GMO activities of Greenpeace? Admittedly, not all of them have the right academic qualifications. But many of them are physicians or physicians specialised in select areas.

    3. Mark Lynas and Stephen Tindale were two ardent supporters of Greenpeace. How did they turn against it?

    I requested written replies to avoid controversy..They could not provide any.Mr Paul Johnston of Greenpeace International UK was willing to talk to me on phone.He said he was unable to give written replies till Monday( after over 3 days!).Mr Jason Schwartz, a Media officer of Greenpeace gave me some inputs including the names and qualifications of the Nobel Laureates and suggested how I should use the inputs diligently. He also could not provide written replies to my questions.

    He wrote: ” Unfortunately, this is not a Greenpeace USA campaign, and we do not have PhD-level expertise in this hemisphere to respond to your inquiries at this time.”Can you give me a sense for your deadline on this? How much time do we have to mobilise our overseas experts? We are eager to respond but want to do so in a level appropriate to your organisation’s needs” I was grateful to the officials of the Greenpeace for their efforts. I waited long enough. I did not get any reply.
    I sent a few questions to Sir Richard Roberts, the Nobel Laureate who led the letter-campaign against the Greenpeace.He replied promptly.I wrote an article on the topic. Here is the link: http://thewire.in/48074/nobel-laureates-slam-greenpeaces-opposition-to-golden-rice/

  • JustMe2013

    Surprise. They want permission and funding to keep on playing God with evolution.

    Just about ever single time a genetically foreign organism has been imported to a new land, it has either died quickly or screwed up the new environment.

    When we ‘modify’ an organism we are creating a new life; a life with no natural predators or natural controls. Good luck with that.

    • You do not know what you are talking about. Brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens and half a dozen other distinctive vegetables were all developed over two millenia from a single species, the weed like Brassica oleracea. Humans produced them by playing “God with evolution” and they have not “died quickly or screwed up the environment”. Almost every fruit and vegetable you eat is the product of “playing God with evolution” yet here you stand, in blissful ignorance, biting the hand of the farmers who feed you. I sometimes think farmers should go on strike and let ungrateful and spoiled city folk starve.

      • JustMe2013

        Why do people have to be so aggressive? You are, of course, entitled to your opinion but there is no need to be either nasty or arrogant.

        As it happens, I actually do know what I am talking about.

        And, in case you are really interested, consider this:

        I think we can probably agree that there are three types of genetic modification:

        1) Natural Selection: Very, very slow.

        2) Selective Breeding: Must faster. (Such as you have described.)

        3) Instant. (What most people think of as ‘GMO’.)

        The cow is a GMO version of the Aurochs. It took us, say, 30,000 years to genetically modify this animal from a naturally evolved 4% body fat, with a roughly 40/60 unsat/sat fat ratio to an animal with 40% body fat with the reverse ratio. (With much of that ‘improvement’ coming in the last few hundred, once selective breeding was fully understood.)

        Then… America hits boom-time in the fifties and the population starts eating beef daily, instead of, say, weekly or monthly.

        The difference: Surgeons that were active in both World War II and Vietnam noticed a marked increase in arterial plaque build up in the MUCH younger Vietnam War soldiers. So much had changed in only 30 years. And now, Heart Disease is the number one killer in America. Due, in no small part, to GMO aurochs.

        And now we can change species in an instant, with no thought to what might happen when we produce a new life form with no natural predators.

        Not to mention that the digestion of food is also an evolved process. Animals evolve both the dependance upon, and the ability to process, certain foods. And that takes a very long time. And now we are messing with that. Creating new organic substances that, well, our digestive systems don’t understand. Some may be fine. Some may be, well, catastrophic.

        • None of what you have just said makes any sense and clearly you just made it all up. Naturally you haven’t provided any peer reviewed evidence to tell me why a GMO would be more likely than a cultivar produced by some other method to cause what you call “catastrophic digestive problems”. You also confuse matters by telling us that GMOs are “instant” then contradicting yourself by telling us that the cow is a GMO!

          Can you not comprehend how utterly tedious it is for people who take science seriously to be bombarded by half-baked cock and bull stories invented by anonymous nobodies with no science credentials? I will stick with the scientific consensus on GM, take seriously the opinions of Nobel laureates while continuing to feel physically repulsed by the keyboard worriers who consider themselves underappreciated science geniuses.

      • JustMe2013

        Your have made my point for me:

        Try growing any of the GMO-through-breeding plants you mention in the wild…. They will not survive. Or, if any of them do, they will thrive in the absence of predation… And reek havoc on their surroundings. (The latter outcome being the significantly less likely outcome.)

        • You are babbling. We have tens of millions of acres planted with GM crops and none of them are reeking havoc with the environment. Nearly all food crops need extra TLC to survive and are not well adapted to survive outside the farm system. The plants that “reek havoc” are usually pasture grasses, horticultural imports and inadvertent imports.

          Your use of the term “playing God” to describe GM development is childish and unhelpful. I think the Nobel laureates are offering a much more interesting, informed and considered point of view than yours.

    • mem_somerville

      Just about ever single time a genetically foreign organism has been imported to a new land, it has either died quickly or screwed up the new environment.

      That’s not the case at all. And food is the best example of that. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/13/481586649/a-map-of-where-your-food-originated-may-surprise-you

      Can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes? Crazy talk. The world is a much more tasty place because we swap plants around so much.

      • JustMe2013

        Yes, it is. There are countless examples including your beloved tomatoes. Try growing them in the wild… And the re-read my sentence.

        “Just about ever single time a genetically foreign organism has been imported to a new land, it has either died quickly or screwed up the new environment.”

        • Rubbish. The tomato and hundreds of other fruit and veg have been imported to new lands and they have not died quickly or screwed up the environment. Most do not survive well outside the farming system.

  • Ray Kinney

    Well, I admit that I don’t know much about Golden Rice, but has it not been the case that widespread use of arsenical pesticides on agricultural land has contaminated vast acreage of cropland? And, that rice has a particular ability to incorporate the arsenic contamination into its physiology? What are the realities of arsenic adverse toxicologic accumulative effects of chronic low dose outcome for public health from rice intake from polluted cropland? Do you really think that adequate science has been done to ultimately understand the risks and benefits? How much cropland has had legacy contamination spread on it from industry deciding to dispose of the toxic waste created in their smoke stacks (that they were having to pay to get rid of under government rules) by finding the loophole in regulation that allowed the toxic waste to become reclassified into being a ‘soil amendment’ rather than toxic waste?
    We are continually damaging our soils, bodies and brains by underestimating the toxicology of what we produce, and the wastes from that production. Why is the current state of agricultural science so damned sure that there are no adverse effects yet undiscovered with the current state of GMO production? Skepticism is the hallmark of scientific method, why does current agricultural science not seem to have a healthy self-awareness of the scientific methodology? Is it because the profit motive is so strong that it dictates that there is only funding for supportive science, while not funding unsupportive science? Should ‘scientists’ that only provide predominantly supportive results really be called scientists???