The Observer view: When modified rice could save thousands of lives, it is wrong to oppose it

<span>Golden Rice is a genetically modified crop which helps the body produce vitamin A.</span><span>Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters</span>
Golden Rice is a genetically modified crop which helps the body produce vitamin A.Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters

For a crop that was designed to save the lives of children, Golden Rice has had a disturbing, volatile history. Developed more than 20 years ago using the techniques of genetic manipulation, it provides consumers with the ability to make vitamin A, which is missing from many diets in developing countries. This is a deficit that can have grim consequences. Without vitamin A, infections among the young soar and it is estimated that the lives of more than 100,000 children are lost every year as a result.

The production of a food that could counter this deadly scourge might be expected to be greeted with global relief and gratitude. Sadly, this has not been the case. Although field trials of Golden Rice have shown it to be an effective source of vitamin A that is safe to grow and consume, the crop has yet to be grown commercially – thanks, in the main, to the green movement’s vociferous opposition to its cultivation. Led by Greenpeace, campaigners have attempted to block the growing of any genetically modified crop, regardless of any potential benefit it might possess, and Golden Rice has been a particular target for their attention. The organisation claims there are other more practical solutions to improve vitamin-A deficiency and accuses corporations of overhyping its efficacy to pave the way for approval of more profitable GM crops.

Last month that opposition reached a peak in the Philippines, which was about to become the first nation to cultivate Golden Rice on a commercial basis, a development that would have been a critical step in tackling the vitamin-A deficiency that afflicts its citizens. It was not to be. The country’s court of appeal was asked by a group led by Greenpeace and local farmers to revoke consent for the growing of Golden Rice in the country. The crop had not been shown to be safe, it was alleged, a claim that was eventually backed by the court. The decision was hailed as “a monumental win” by Greenpeace.

It is a dangerous mindset that risks causing widespread harm as scientists strive to develop crops that can withstand the worst impacts of climate change

This joy has not been shared by scientists who have described the blocking of the crop’s cultivation as a catastrophe that could result in the deaths of thousands of children in coming years. The Philippines government may yet overcome the court’s decision in its challenge, but the harm done could still be considerable. Other nations, including Bangladesh and India, were set to follow in preparing to cultivate Golden Rice. Most will now be viewing the chaos with alarm and be carefully re-assessing their hopes for the crop.

It is a depressing scenario that stems from a blanket refusal, shared by many groups, to accept that a particular technology is capable of producing benefits of any kind, in part fuelled by fears for farmers’ crops and their livelihoods. They insist that nothing of merit can ever come from genetic manipulation despite scientific evidence to the contrary. It is a dangerous mindset that risks causing widespread harm, not just in the Philippines but across the globe as scientists strive to develop crops and plants that can withstand the worst impacts of climate change, maintain food supplies in the face of global warming and protect threatened habitats across the planet.

The green movement has done much to help our world and deserves considerable credit for campaigns that have helped save threatened species and halted environmental degradation. This work should be encouraged. However, by turning its back, for ideological reasons, on technologies that can help save lives, and by refusing to consider the views of distinguished scientists, the movement is doing itself, and the planet, a disservice.

It is time for change. Ending opposition to the cultivation of a crop that could save thousands of lives would be a good place to start.