Golden Rice and Scientific Consensus

Carmelo Ruiz | 07.15.2016

“The GMO debate is over! The alarmist activists have lost and science has won!”

Well – that’s the impression one gets when reading journalist Joel Achenbach’s Washington Post article detailing the open letter that 107 Nobel laureates signed on to, which attacks the environmental group Greenpeace for its opposition to GMO crops (1).

The letter specifically defends GMO vitamin A-enhanced ‘golden rice’, which according to biotech supporters, is needed to alleviate the suffering of millions of Asians who suffer from vitamin A deficiency (2). Ultimately, the text suggests that Greenpeace is the one obstacle preventing the wonder rice from addressing the needs of the world’s poor and hungry.

“We’re scientists. We understand the logic of science. It’s easy to see what Greenpeace is doing is damaging and is anti-science,” said scientist Richard Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel in medicine and the open letter’s main author. Roberts told the Washington Post that “Greenpeace initially, and then some of their allies, deliberately went out of their way to scare people. It was a way for them to raise money for their cause.”

Achenbach writes that the consensus among scientists is that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not present new or novel risks, and refers to a US National Academy of Sciences report on the subject published in May (3). The Post article acknowledges that Greenpeace is not alone in its critical position on GMOs, but it does not mention who else is in the opposition, and defines the debate as one between “mainstream scientists and activists.”

However, not all scientists and experts are impressed with the letter. Far from it.

“The laureates’ letter relies for its impact entirely on the supposed authority of the signatories. Unfortunately, however, none appear to have relevant expertise”, said Claire Robinson, of the UK-based non-governmental organization GM Watch (4).

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Statistics professor Philip Stark, associate dean of mathematics and physical sciences at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, questioned whether the signatory Nobel laureates have any real agricultural expertise: ““1 peace prize, 8 economists, 24 physicists, 33 chemists, 41 doctors”. According to Stark, science is “about evidence, not authority. What do they know of agriculture? Done relevant research? Science is supposed to be ‘show me’, not ‘trust me’… Nobel prize or not.”

Food First board member Devon G. Peña, anthropology professor at Washington University in Seattle and expert in indigenous agricultural systems, considers the open letter “shameful”. According to Peña, the signatory Nobel laureates are “mostly white men of privilege with little background in risk science, few with a background in toxicology studies, and certainly none with knowledge of the indigenous agroecological alternatives”. (5)

By declaring as if it were an uncontested fact that there is a scientific consensus in favor of GMOs, the Post ignores another declaration of scientists on the subject issued in 2014. The document, produced by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), categorically states, citing ample scientific references, that there is NO scientific consensus on the safety of GMO organisms, crops and foods:

“As scientists, physicians, academics, and experts from disciplines relevant to the scientific, legal, social, and safety assessment aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is ‘over.’

We feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigor and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment.” (6)

The letter has been signed by over 300 scientists.

As for alternatives to ‘golden rice’ and GMO crops in general – Greenpeace and agroecology advocates have been presenting them for years.

According to Silvia Ribeiro of the Canada-based ETC Group, “common vegetables like carrots, cabbage, spinach and many types of leafy edible herbs that accompany campesino crops and traditional culinary cultures, contribute much more vitamin A than that (GMO) rice, without side effects and without paying the transnationals.” (7)

In response to the Nobel laureates’ letter, Greenpeace declared:

“The only guaranteed solution to fix malnutrition is a diverse healthy diet. Providing people with real food based on ecological agriculture not only addresses malnutrition, but is also a scaleable solution to adapt to climate change.

We’ve documented communities across the Philippines that continue to express concerns about using GE ‘Golden’ rice as a solution. It is irresponsible to impose GE ‘Golden’ rice as a quick remedy to people on the frontlines and who do not welcome it, particularly when there are safe and effective options already available.

Greenpeace Philippines is already working with NGO partners and farmers in the Philippines to boost climate resiliency. There’s a real chance here for governments and the philanthropic community to support these endeavours by investing in climate-resilient ecological agriculture and empowering farmers to access a balanced and nutritious diet, rather than pouring money down the drain for ‘Golden’ rice.” (8)

Biotech advocates proclaim with some regularity, citing some study or declaration of experts, that the debate over GMO safety has ended and that their side has won.

Expect them to declare victory over and over again in the future.

For more information on the ‘golden rice’ debate, click here



3) For more information on the NAS report:






Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author and journalist. Since 2004 he directs the Biosafety Blog  He is a visiting professor at the Institute for Social Ecology and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. You can follow him on Twitter @carmeloruiz.