“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).
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)