Nobel laureate calls for education campaign against lies about GMOs

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Sir Richard J. Roberts, one of the two winners of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has called for strong government action in launching education campaign against lies about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In a recent email interview with Xinhua, Roberts, who spearheaded the effort, said since a strongly-worded letter signed by over 100 Nobel laureates in show support of GMOs was published at the end of June 2016, "a number of the anti-GMO groups, including Greenpeace, are a little less active than they were. Increasingly we are seeing less vitriolic comments coming from them as more GMO products are released."

The number of Nobel laureates who signed the letter, has increased from fewer than 110 at the end of June 2016 to 133 two years later.

A force for good

Supporters of GMOs such as Golden Rice, which contains genes from corn and a bacterium aiming to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD), argue that they are low-cost, high-efficiency vehicles for people, especially in the underdeveloped regions.

Golden Rice "has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency, which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia," said the letter, which also called on Greenpeace to reverse its long-held stance against GMOs.

According to the letter, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children aged under five in the developing world.

Based on statistics of UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), a total of one to 2 million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 - 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

However, despite the letter from the world's top scientists two years ago, only four countries have approved Golden Rice to this day, with the latest approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration in May. Prior to that Australia, New Zealand and Canada gave Golden Rice the stamps of approval.

Another example is the genetically modified Bt corn, Roberts told Xinhua, saying "it is desperately needed in African countries such as Zimbabwe and much of sub-Saharan Africa to fight the destruction being caused by the Fall Army Worm."

A consensus safety 

That fact that few countries have approved GMOs and citizens across the world are largely suspicious of GMOs is in stark contrast with the consensus of the international science community.

"Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity," said the letter.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general scientific society and publisher of the well-known journal Science, once summarized in a statement on labeling of GMOs that "the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe."

"The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques," the AAAS statement added.

Part of the problem that the public has yet to be on board with scientists' sweeping consensus, Roberts told Xinhua, is "that we are still not educating the public (or the politicians) properly and many of the plant scientists are still intimidated by the anti-GMO activists, which causes them not to respond to many incorrect articles that appear."

"Also, I would say that because the anti-GMO groups have money for advertising, which the Pro-GMO groups do not, the anti's have a financial advantage in spreading their message," Roberts added.

A need for education

With knowledge and understanding of GMOs still poor, more fact-based, science-based education is seen as key to sway public opinion.

"Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped," the letter said.

Mark Lynas, a professional science writer, used to be an experienced, outspoken activist against GMOs.

Last week, Lynas published a "Confession of an Anti-GMO Activist" on the Wall Street Journal, acknowledging that "genetically modified crops have been vilified and banned, but the science is clear: They're perfectly safe. And what's more, the world desperately needs them."

"I would love to see an education campaign started on the television and in the newspapers that specifically pointed out the lies that the anti's tell and promoting the successes of GMOs," Roberts told Xinhua.

"This is an issue where strong government action will be helpful to the people, especially the poor ones. As a start, Golden Rice should be approved as soon as possible. Small farmers should be encouraged and enabled to grow GM crops to improve their productivity and hence their livelihood," Roberts noted.

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