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How to Fight Childhood Blindness

fight childhood blindness

How to Fight Childhood Blindness

By Patrick Moore in The America
October 12, 2007

By embracing genetically modified ‘golden rice,’ says Greenpeace co-founder PATRICK MOORE, the world can help millions of people in developing countries.

It’s been seven years since a Swiss research team demonstrated that genetically enhanced “golden rice” could help prevent vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is responsible for roughly half a million cases of childhood blindness in developing countries each year. Indeed, golden rice was created by a German scientist named Ingo Potrykus to solve just this problem. Unfortunately, a number of activist groups such as Greenpeace have mounted public campaigns against it, trafficking in scare tactics and misinformation. As World Food Day (October 16th) approaches, we must renew our commitment to making available a food product that could vastly improve people’s lives and prevent thousands of needless deaths.

Unlike other rice plants, golden rice produces beta-carotene in its seeds, through genetics that Potrykus and his team imported from corn. Beta-carotene is the precursor of vitamin A, which is crucial for vision and disease resistance. Yet Greenpeace insists that the unknown future consequences for human health and the environment make golden rice too risky. (Never mind the half million children who go blind every year as a result of VAD.)

I am often asked why I broke ranks with Greenpeace after co-founding the group in 1971 and then spending 15 years in its leadership as a full-time environmental activist. One of the main reasons was that by the mid-1980s the environmental movement had abandoned science and logic in favor of scare tactics and sensationalism.

At the same time, I became aware of the emerging concept of sustainable development, which takes environmental ideas and incorporates them into the traditional social and economic values that govern public policy and our daily behavior.

Every morning, six billion people wake up with real needs for food, energy, and materials. The challenge is to provide for these needs in ways that reduce our negative impact on the environment, are socially acceptable, and are technically and economically feasible. I came to believe that seeking consensus among environmentalists, the government, industry, and academia was essential for sustainability.

But not all my former colleagues saw things that way. Many environmentalists rejected consensus politics and sustainable development in favor of continued confrontation, ever-increasing extremism, and left-wing politics.

The challenge is to provide for basic needs in ways that reduce negative impact on the environment…and are technically and economically feasible.

The case of golden rice provides a clear illustration. Some international agencies estimate that as many as 200 million people in the developing world—especially from countries in which rice is the dominant grain—suffer from VAD. Some of its adverse health effects include shorter lifespans, night blindness, corneal scars, blindness and measles among children, and night blindness among pregnant and lactating women.

There have been numerous scientific studies conducted on the potential effects of growing and using golden rice. They indicate that golden rice can indeed contribute, in a cost-effective manner, to the alleviation of VAD, thereby easing children’s suffering and, in many cases, saving their lives.

My old Greenpeace compatriots counter these findings not with their own science, but rather with Hollywood-style fictions about “killer weeds” and “Frankenfoods.” Their campaign suggests a complete lack of respect for science and logic. It is clear that the real benefits of genetic enhancement far outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by its detractors.

What possible risk could there be from a corn gene in a rice paddy? Even in the unlikely event that vitamin A spread into other plants, I can’t see how that would be harmful. On the other hand, the consequences of not planting and harvesting large quantities of golden rice are already obvious: a few million more children will go blind, and millions more will suffer. Yet Greenpeace activists threaten to rip the rice out of the fields if farmers dare to plant it. They have done everything they can to discredit the scientists and the technology.

But despite their opposition, some countries are using golden rice to combat malnutrition. Experts in the Philippines believe that by 2011 the first genetically enhanced rice will pass all Filipino regulatory requirements and make its much-awaited commercial debut. The country plans to release “three-in-one” golden rice, so called because it is fortified with vitamin A, iron, and zinc. This is a result of breeding golden rice into “PSB Rc82,” the technical name for the most popular variety grown all over the Philippines.

Overall, we need to do more to break through the misinformation and hysteria surrounding golden rice—not to mention other genetically modified foods—and provide a more balanced picture to the general public. The programs of genetic research and development now under way in labs and field stations around the world focus on both society and the environment. Their purpose is to improve nutrition, reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, increase the productivity of our farmlands and forests, and improve human health. Those who have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude toward genetic modification threaten to deny these many benefits.

An adviser to government and industry, Patrick Moore was a co-founder of Greenpeace and is now chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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