Say what you will about Greenpeace, the organization has always had a flair for publicity. From its early days of dodging harpoons and Japanese whalers in outboard motor boats, it has used media savvy and an aptitude for political theater to become a $360 million-plus per year behemoth with offices in more than 40 countries.
But what few members of the public know is that Greenpeace isn't just about saving whales and other appealing sea creatures. Its PR machine is now spearheading an effort to deny millions of children in the poorest nations the essential nutrients they need to stave off blindness and death.
The targets are new plant varieties collectively called "golden rice." Rice is a food staple for hundreds of millions, especially in Asia. Although it is an excellent source of calories, it lacks certain micronutrients necessary for a complete diet. In the 1980s and '90s, German scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer developed the "Golden Rice" varieties that are biofortified, or enriched, by genes that produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency is epidemic among poor people whose diet is composed largely of rice, which contains no beta-carotene or vitamin A. In developing countries, 200 million-300 million children of preschool age are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which increases their susceptibility to illnesses including measles and diarrheal diseases. Every year, about half a million children become blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency and 70% of those die within a year.
Golden rice could thus make contributions to human health on a par with Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. Instead, antitechnology groups such as Greenpeace have given already risk-averse regulators the political cover to delay approvals.
Genetically modified food has been a bête noire of left-wing groups for years, perhaps because it combines the evils of being somehow "unnatural" and often comes from corporate research labs. Greenpeace hasn't been swayed by the scientific consensus about the safety of genetically engineered crops—a consensus that is the result of hundreds of risk-assessment experiments and vast real-world experience. In the United States alone, approximately 85% of all corn and 91% of all soy grown is genetically engineered, and in almost 20 years of consumption around the world not a single health or environmental problem has been documented.
Greenpeace has variously alleged that the levels of beta-carotene in golden rice are too low to be effective or so high that they would be toxic. But feeding trials have shown the rice to be highly effective in preventing vitamin A deficiency, and toxicity is virtually impossible. So with no science to support its antagonism, the organization has been forced to adopt a new strategy: try to scare off the developing nations that are considering adoption of the lifesaving products.
In August, Greenpeace issued a press release stating that 24 children had been "used as guinea pigs in [a] genetically engineered 'golden rice' trial." The reference was to the results of a 2008 study conducted by Chinese researchers and Tufts University and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health.
The 2008 study demonstrated that the new varieties of golden rice did indeed deliver sufficient vitamin A and were superior to spinach for that purpose. As to the ethics of the study, the journal article states clearly: "Both parents and pupils [subjects] consented to participate in the study."
The Greenpeace press release nonetheless produced a furor in China. Chinese news agencies inaccurately reported that the researchers had conducted dangerous, unauthorized experiments on poor children, and within days Chinese police had interrogated the researchers and coerced statements disavowing the research.
While Tufts is cooperating with the Chinese and responsible organizations in the U.S. to conduct a review, for the time being Greenpeace has achieved its aim of significantly delaying, if not actually eliminating, further development of golden rice in China.
Greenpeace is also taking its scare campaign on the road to other nations. In the Philippines, where field trials of golden rice are under way, Greenpeace is warning that "the next 'golden rice' guinea pigs may be Filipino children," and it has persuaded the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the highest Catholic authority in that country, to weigh in against Golden Rice.
It has never been clear why Greenpeace—which has also raised money and its profile by bragging about sabotaging efforts to test insect-resistant crops that need less pesticide—persists in some of its campaigns. But none is likely to be more harmful for the world's children than its assault on golden rice.
Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. His most recent book is "The Frankenfood Myth" (Praeger, 2004).