AUSTRALIAN plant scientists have joined their global colleagues, academics and other crop biotechnology supporters to condemn the recent destruction of scientific field trials of Golden Rice by activists in the Philippines.
Anti-biotechnology activists destroyed the genetically modified (GM) rice trials on August 8 to subvert months of government funded research work, while sabotaging further data collection.
Golden Rice contains a gene which helps to produce Vitamin A and is seen as a means of helping to alleviate malnutrition for millions of people in developing countries like the Philippines.
Lack of vitamin A has been attributed to diseases which cause up to two million deaths and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness each year.
The activist attack has been challenged in an online petition initiated by United States-based geneticist Channapatna Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Dr Channapatna is aiming to gather 5000 signatures to help show policy makers and politicians in the Philippines the importance of continuing on with the plant research.
The petition collected 1000 signatures in the first 24 hours and had almost 3000 by Sunday night.
In an open letter accompanying the petition, Dr Channapatna said GM crops are “a critical resource in accelerating increases in crop productivity in general and enhancing their nutritional value to treat malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies”.
“In that context, Golden Rice is a critical resource in fighting the devastating consequences of widespread vitamin A deficiency in developing nations,” he wrote.
“Research on Golden Rice at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is part of their humanitarian work to reduce vitamin A deficiency, a serious condition of malnutrition mostly affecting women and children by causing sickness and leading, in many cases, to blindness and premature death of millions each year.
“Golden Rice, when it becomes freely available to farmers as planned, can substantially contribute to the alleviation of this important aspect of malnutrition.
“Not a single one of the many claims of negative health or environmental effects uniquely made against GM crops has withstood scientific scrutiny.
“It is an unconscionable criminal act to destroy a field trial conducted in accordance to international safety norms.”
The petition was signed by University of Canberra toxicology expert and former Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) risk assessment general manager Andrew Bartholomaeus.
In adding his signature to the list, Dr Bartholomaeus said, “I care about the health and prosperity of future generations”.
“As a toxicologist with 30 years of experience in food, cosmetics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals I know the claims about risks of GM food are disingenuous and reflect a political rather than moral position,” he said.
“The lives of millions are at risk from the mindless actions of ill informed anti-biotech activists.”
In signing the petition, Alex Taylor of Oxford in the UK said, “670,000 children under five will die this year because of Vitamin A deficiency, we can prevent that”.
Anastasia Bodnar of Rockville Maryland in the US said “Genetic engineering has the potential to do a lot of good in the world”.
“Increased nutrition, higher yields, reduced inputs - the only thing stopping us is activists who just refuse to consider the science.”
Former anti-GM activist and UK environmentalist Mark Lynas promoted the petition on his Twitter account, tweeting “Ignorance triumphs when good people say nothing”.
He also described comments by Greenpeace in a New Scientist article on the Golden Rice vandalism as “stupid”.
In outlining reasons for the activist attack in the article, Greenpeace’s Philippines based program manager Beau Baconguis said not enough safety testing was done on any GM crops.
She said the activists took matters into their own hands due to concerns about their crops being contaminated.
But experts from the IRRI dismissed any risks of contamination saying the confined field trials were fenced and covered and rice self-pollinated and was therefore unlikely to spread to other crops.
The petition was also backed by University of Georgia Crop Science Professor Wayne Parrott.
In an interview with Fairfax Agricultural Media in March, Professor Parrott said those who oppose crop-biotechnology based on anti-science views should spend a day living in impoverished countries and experience first-hand what impact their activism is having on lives.
He said most of his outreach work was conducted in Latin America, where food security needs are urgent.
He said anti-GM activists needed to live for one day as a Central American peasant to realise “just what it is they are denying the people who need the technology the most”.
“Food is an emotional issue,” he said.
“People are not always rational about their food.
“Therefore, the anti-GM lobby can yet kill the technology around the world.” The petition is at http://www.change.org/petitions/global-scientific-community-condemns-the-recent-destruction-of-field-trials-of-golden-rice-in-the-philippines