Is Greenpeace really guilty of a "crime against humanity"?

Opinion - 5 July, 2016

This article first appeared in Le Monde, in French, on 4 July 2016.

At the moment, the press is shrieking about a crushingly authoritative open letter signed by a hundred or so Nobel Prize winners. So much ink is being spilt on the subject because the outrageous message it sends is proportional to the prestige of its signatories. In their opinion, the organisation Greenpeace is undeniably guilty of a "crime against humanity".

The story is as plain as a public relations message. Greenpeace is opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and, incidentally, to "Golden Rice" – a transgenic rice presumed to be capable of providing additional vitamin A. Now, the signatories remind us that, in southern hemisphere countries every year, vitamin A deficiencies cause as many as half a million young people to lose their sight or even to die. Therefore, Greenpeace is responsible for those deaths.

The Nobel Prize winners write: "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. They conclude with these terrible words: "How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this as a crime against humanity"?

Amalgam

Placed end to end, those few sentences form a kind of mental three card trick which needs to be stripped down. Firstly, they suggest that Greenpeace is guilty of blocking the marketing of golden rice, thus making itself responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of "poor people"; then, they construct an amalgam of biotechnologies and humanitarian action, forging the notion that the primary function of GMOs is to save lives. None of that is true.

Of course, for many years Greenpeace has criticized the efforts of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) – the not-for-profit organisation based in the Philippines and entrusted with working on rice varieties – to develop golden rice. The environmental association thus considers that Golden Rice is diverting attention away from the real problem (poverty and access to a diversified diet), that it will fail, that it has not been proved harmless and will open the door to commercial GMOs, and so on.

One might think that this attitude shows the NGO’s darkest and most dogmatic side: if the dissemination of this technology had even the slightest chance of improving the health of millions of people, why not try it?

Greenpeace in no way responsible

However, in order to try it out, golden rice would have to be available, and it is not. "In spite of what the Nobel laureates have been led to believe, golden rice is not being blocked by public opposition or by Greenpeace and never has been", explains the anthropologist Glen Stone, professor at Washington University, St Louis (United States), who for four years carried out research on the cultivation of rice in the Philippines. "Quite simply, golden rice is not yet fully developed".

In collaboration with the Philippines Rice Research Institute, the IRRI thus carried out a test on several plots of land in 2012 and 2013, but the golden rice "produced lower yields than the same variety which had not been genetically modified", says Mr Stone. Therefore the two institutes have not submitted the famous "golden rice" to the regulatory authorities for approval.

As regards the destruction of an experimental plot in 2013 (by local activists), Mr Stone specifies that "it happened after the test had been completed and concerned only one small test plot among dozens". Thus, Greenpeace does criticise GMOs, sometimes using arguments which are out of line with the scientific consensus, but is in no way responsible for the non-use of golden rice.

Manipulation

"This story seems more a matter of the manipulation of public opinion by the use of scientists who are ill-informed on the subject", concludes the American professor concerning the Nobel winners’ motion. For his part, the mathematician Philip Stark (University of California, Berkeley) says they include "one winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, 8 economists, 24 physicists, 33 chemists and 41 doctors of medicine". "Science is about evidence, not authority", he added on Twitter. "What do they know about agriculture? Have they done any relevant research?"

The organisation of the campaign also raises a few questions. The person in charge of the door to the launch press conference on 29th June at the National Press Club in Washington was none other than Jay Byrne, Monsanto’s former director of communications and now CEO of v-Fluence, a public relations firm. On being questioned, however, Mr Byrne gave the assurance that he "personally volunteered to help with the simple logistics of the press conference" and that he no longer has links of any kind with Monsanto.

In any case, the initiative has arrived at the best possible moment for the industry. Firstly, the debate on the labelling of transgenic foods is heated at present in the United States. Secondly, glyphosate – the herbicide which accompanies most GMOs under cultivation – has just been classified as "probably carcinogenic" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Lastly, discussions are ongoing to ascertain whether the next generations of GMOs will be subjected to regulatory constraints. On all those subjects, be careful what you say or write: according to the standards now in force, you could find yourself an accomplice in a "crime against humanity".

This article by Stéphane Foucart was published in French by LeMonde.fr on 4 July 2016. It is translated to English and reproduced here with paid authorisation from Le Monde.