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Nobel laureates’ letter on GM crops punches hole in Greenpeace propaganda

Scientists are finally attempting to take back the reigns of morality from fraudulent and delusional activists whose craft is in manufacturing fear

columns Updated: Jul 11, 2016 23:04 IST
Activists who have successfully vilified a science are indeed responsible for the malnutrition of millions and the worsening poverty of a majority of world’s farmers, who are small land-holders and would have benefitted from biotechnology.
Activists who have successfully vilified a science are indeed responsible for the malnutrition of millions and the worsening poverty of a majority of world’s farmers, who are small land-holders and would have benefitted from biotechnology.(File)

Would you believe 110 Nobel laureates if all of them say the same thing? In a letter to the world they say that the propaganda against genetically modified organisms (GMO) is a “crime against humanity”.

If you are suspicious of the kind of people who win the peace, literature or economics Nobel, let me assure you that only 10 among the laureates are recipients of those political awards. It is significant though that even that many have come out in support of biotechnology because the writers, activists and compassionate economists whom Scandinavian distributors of acclaim admire usually do not rate science over breast-beating. The rest 100 on the list of laureates who signed the letter are from the precise sciences — medicine, chemistry and physics. They constitute one-third the number of Nobel winners who are alive, and probably half the number of living science laureates. As far as endorsements go, this is as good as it gets.

A few days ago they signed a brief note addressed to the governments of the world, United Nations and Greenpeace, that amusing NGO which does not let facts ruin a perfect lament. The note stated that the only way to feed the world’s poor in the future, and feed them nutritious food, is through biotechnology, which includes a procedure that genetically alters an organism to create a new organism that is more nutritious or more resistant to pests or withstands the onslaught of nature better or has a higher yield, or all these.

For years activists have scared most of us into believing that such procedures are dangerous. For years, thousands of reputed scientists have claimed that such fears either have no basis in science or are wild exaggerations, and that man has been genetically modifying plants for centuries. In fact, nothing we eat is wild, which is the activist definition of “natural”. Everything we and the activists eat has been genetically modified by farmers. When genetic modification is done by scientists in a lab it does not create poison. Laboratory plant genetics, the Nobel laureates have said in their letter, is as safe as or safer than conventional methods of food production.

Read | Ignorance and regulatory hurdles derailing promise of GM crop technology in India

They have a particular interest in ‘Golden Rice’, a form of genetically modified rice that actually does not exist but soon would. Golden Rice is extremely significant for India. If you have seen the typical meal of the poor, it is likely that you would have noticed a mountain of rice and very little of anything else. Vegetables, meat and eggs, which contain crucial nutrients, are expensive. Rice is cheap. But rice is a lousy food. It fills the belly with what should have been glue in a post office.

Now, you don’t have to argue with me about the glory of rice. I am from the South. In fact, once a Tamil restaurant in Kochi tried to dissuade me from entering the place because of the amount of rice I could consume. (Restaurants in Kerala have to, by custom, serve unlimited rice.)

Among the things the rice grain does not contain is beta-carotene, a hydrocarbon that is a progenitor of Vitamin-A. Millions of Indians, because of their poor and almost entirely grain diet, are deficient in Vitamin-A, hence at risk of acquiring fatal diseases and night blindness. Golden Rice is produced by inserting two genes into conventional rice, which cause the accumulation of beta-carotene in the grain.

Read | GM mustard to be Centre’s acid test for commercial use of GM crops

Greenpeace has responded to the letter with their usual set of spurious arguments including the claim that GMOs would contaminate the environment. These arguments have been rubbished several times by scientific studies.

Disgusted by the quackery of activists the Nobel laureates “call upon governments of the world…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?’”

Read | Economic Survey 2016 backs hybrid seeds in boost for GM food crops

The letter of the Nobel winners is extraordinary. It is a portent of an intense moral war to come. Scientists are finally attempting to take back the reins of morality from fraudulent and delusional activists whose craft is in manufacturing fear.

The Indian media largely ignored the news of the letter. While it is true that the liberals of Indian journalism have been trained for years to be suspicious of lab genetics, the miss was not deliberate. Sometimes very significant science news slip through the cracks.

The language of scientists, even when they write for lay people, is often precise. When they imply that the propaganda against GMOs is a “crime against humanity” they are not employing drama. Activists who have successfully vilified a science are indeed responsible for the malnutrition of millions and the worsening poverty of a majority of world’s farmers, who are small land-holders and would have benefitted from biotechnology.

Read | Time we gave science its fair due when it comes to GM crops

Activism often begins as a valiant humanitarian resistance against a rogue capitalist or scientific idea. In response, and in self-interest, capitalism and science work hard to become safer. But activism does not end because the activists who received acclaim for their initial resistance do not want their glory and vocation to end. Without their activism they are nothing.

Read | After instant noodles row, activists question research on genetically-modified crops

They succeed in influencing the general population for a number of reasons. People resent the rich, the bright and the successful and are willing to believe the worst about them. Also, most people are not trained to absorb science, as a result they are dependent on captivating capsules provided by activists whose appeal very few scientists can match because most scientists are not trained in communication. Influential columnists and television anchors do not have the time to invest in understanding a contentious science, or they do not find the courage to go against the conventions of their friends and constituencies. The most painful consequence of questioning an entrenched ethical belief is the loss of friends and goodwill.

As a result, some children would continue to eat a mountain of starch.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Twitter: @manujosephsan
The views expressed are personal