Séralini retraction is black mark on scientific publishing – Georgetown professors

Hundreds of studies should be permanently removed from the scientific literature, but the Séralini study is not one of them, say two professors at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Rounding up scientific journals

Adriane Fugh-Berman and Thomas G. Sherman,  Bioethics Forum, Jan 10 2014

http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Bioethicsforum/Post.aspx?id=6684&blogid=140&utm_source=constantcontact&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=bioethicsforum20140110 (links to sources at the url above)

Scientific journal publishing reached a low point in November, when the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a study by Gilles-Eric Séralini and colleagues at Caen University in France. The study, published in November 2012, assessed the effect of feeding rats corn genetically modified to withstand treatment with Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup for two years (that is a lifetime in rat years). Small amounts of Roundup were added to the diet of one group of rats.

The purported advantage of genetically modified “Roundup-ready” crops is that herbicide can be spread directly on crops, killing weeds but not the crops. Most previous animal studies had found no ill effects of genetically modified crops, but Séralini found that animals that ate the genetically modified corn or ate Roundup itself developed more cancers and died earlier than control animals.

A sustained and vitriolic attack on Séralini’s paper began within hours of publication. Thirteen letters to the editor were published in the journal, accusing the authors of a multitude of errors including using the wrong strain of rats, using the wrong number of rats, and animal cruelty for allowing tumors to grow to a large size. Fraud was implied. The authors wrote a comprehensive, reasoned response, and that should have been that.

Instead, a year after publication, the journal announced that it was retracting the study.

According to SpinWatch, a European muckraking organization, 11 of the authors of letters to the editor slamming Séralini’s study had undisclosed financial relationships with Monsanto. In 2013, Paul Christou, the editor of Transgenic Research, coauthored an attack on Séralini and the FCT editors in his own journal, calling for a retraction of the study. Christou did not disclose his multiple conflicts of interest, including being an inventor on patents on GM crop technology, many of which Monsanto owns. Meanwhile, back at Food and Chemical Toxicology, a new position for an associate editor was filled by Richard E. Goodman, a University of Nebraska professor who previously worked for Monsanto, and who has a longstanding association with the industry-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Months later, Elsevier, FCT’s publisher, announced the retraction.

The quality of Seralini’s work aside, the process by which his paper was retracted reeks of industry pressure. The progression of science is not the least bit linear, but the process has to proceed unencumbered by censorship of unpopular or commercially disadvantageous results. The peer review process is imperfect – there are countless bad studies in the medical literature – but peer review works best when the efforts of reviewers and editors are devoid of conflicts of interest and outside pressures. The self-correcting nature of science can only work when industry does not taint the process.

According to the Committee on Publication Ethics, a group that advises medical editors and publishers on ethical issues, particularly, how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct:

Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  • they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  • the findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  • it constitutes plagiarism
  • it reports unethical research.

There are hundreds of studies that should be permanently removed from the scientific literature, but the Séralini study is not one of them. The FCT retraction announcement very clearly states: “Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data” – and then goes on to say, incredibly, that the study is being withdrawn because the journal’s own review of the primary data show that the results are inconclusive.

Inconclusive? Until a hypothesis is proven, all results are inconclusive.

It would have been perfectly appropriate for the journal to have written an editorial expressing its concerns. Instead, it seems the editors may have succumbed to industry pressure to do the wrong thing. The media coverage in the U.S. has been one-sided; criticism of Séralini’s study has been widely covered in mainstream press, while information about the conflicts of interest of critics have remained in the alternative press.

Anecdotally, we have heard several stories of journal editors being pressured by industry to suppress publication of papers that cast a commercial product in a poor light. How often does this intimidation occur? It would be a service for the editors and writers involved to make these stories public. Industry should not be allowed to intimidate medical and scientific journals, and journal editors need to have a united front against industry influence and a unified strategy on how best to combat it.

The retraction of the Séralini study is a black mark on medical publishing, a blow to science, and a win for corporate bullies.

Adriane Fugh-Berman MD and Thomas G. Sherman PhD are associate professors in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC). Dr. Fugh-Berman directs PharmedOut, a research and education project that promotes rational prescribing. Dr. Sherman chairs the Graduate Advisory Committee at GUMC and teaches medical and graduate courses in biochemistry, genetics and nutrition.

GM food harms pigs: New Research by Judy Carman

A groundbreaking new study [1] shows that pigs were harmed by the consumption of feed containing genetically modified (GM) crops.

GM-fed females had on average a 25% heavier uterus than non-GM-fed females, a possible indicator of disease that requires further investigation. Also, the level of severe inflammation in stomachs was markedly higher in pigs fed on the GM diet. The research results were striking and statistically significant.

Find a clear summary of the study here

Find the full paper here

Lead researcher Dr Judy Carman, adjunct associate professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia,[2] said: “Our findings are noteworthy for several reasons. First, we found these results in real on-farm conditions, not in a laboratory, but with the added benefit of strict scientific controls that are not normally present on farms.

Find all the background on this study and on Dr. Judy Carman here: www.gmojudycarman.org

“Second, we used pigs. Pigs with these health problems end up in our food supply. We eat them.

“Third, pigs have a similar digestive system to people, so we need to investigate if people are also getting digestive problems from eating GM crops.

“Fourth, we found these adverse effects when we fed the animals a mixture of crops containing three GM genes and the GM proteins that these genes produce. Yet no food regulator anywhere in the world requires a safety assessment for the possible toxic effects of mixtures. Regulators simply assume that they can’t happen.

“Our results provide clear evidence that regulators need to safety assess GM crops containing mixtures of GM genes, regardless of whether those genes occur in the one GM plant or in a mixture of GM plants eaten in the same meal, even if regulators have already assessed GM plants containing single GM genes in the mixture.”

The new study lends scientific credibility to anecdotal evidence from farmers and veterinarians, who have for some years reported reproductive and digestive problems in pigs fed on a diet containing GM soy and corn.[3]

Iowa-based farmer and crop and livestock advisor Howard Vlieger, one of the coordinators of the study, said: “For as long as GM crops have been in the feed supply, we have seen increasing digestive and reproductive problems in animals. Now it is scientifically documented.

“In my experience, farmers have found increased production costs and escalating antibiotic use when feeding GM crops. In some operations, the livestock death loss is high, and there are unexplained problems including spontaneous abortions, deformities of new-born animals, and an overall listlessness and lack of contentment in the animals.

“In some cases, animals eating GM crops are very aggressive. This is not surprising, given the scale of stomach irritation and inflammation now documented. I have seen no financial benefit to farmers who feed GM crops to their animals.”

Gill Rowlands, a farmer based in Pembrokeshire, Wales who is also a member of the campaign group GM-Free Cymru, said: “This is an animal welfare issue. Responsible farmers and consumers alike do not want animals to suffer. We call for the rapid phase-out of all GMOs from animal feed supplies.”

Claire Robinson of the campaign group GMWatch said: “Several UK supermarkets recently abandoned their GM-free animal feed policies, citing lack of availability of non-GM feed. We call on the public to visit the new citizens’ action website gmoaction.org, where they can quickly and easily send an email to the supermarkets asking them to ensure their suppliers secure certified GM-free animal feed. This will mean placing advance orders for GM-free soy from countries like Brazil.”

Study details

The research was conducted by collaborating investigators from two continents and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Organic Systems. The feeding study lasted more than five months, the normal commercial lifespan for a pig, and was conducted in the US. The pigs were slaughtered at the usual slaughter age of over 5 months, after eating the diets for their entire commercial lifespan.

168 newly-weaned pigs in a commercial piggery were fed either a typical diet incorporating GM soy and corn, or else (in the control group) an equivalent non-GM diet. The pigs were reared under identical housing and feeding conditions. They were slaughtered over 5 months later, at the usual slaughter age, after eating the diets for their entire commercial lifespan. They were then autopsied by qualified veterinarians who worked “blind” – they were not informed which pigs were fed on the GM diet and which were from the control group.

The GMO feed mix was a commonly used mix. The GM and non-GM diets contained the same amount of soy and corn, except that the GM diet contained a mixture of three GM genes and their protein products, while the control (non-GM) diet had equivalent non-GM ingredients. Of the three GM proteins in the GM diet, one made a crop resistant to being sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, while two were insecticides.


Claire Robinson, GMWatch, UK: claire@gmwatch.org To phone within UK: 0752 753 6923. To phone outside UK: +44 752 753 6923

Dr Judy Carman, Adelaide, Australia

Email: judycarman@ozemail.com.au

Mr Howard Vlieger, Maurice, Iowa

Email: studentofthesoil@mtcnet.net

Though Bt Brinjal banned, Bt Cotton still reaches Indian mouths

Though Bt Brinjal banned, Bt Cotton still reaches Indian mouths

 DNA | Feb 13, 2013, 05:47AM IST


Ahmedabad: The debate over genetically-modified (GM) crops has taken a nasty turn across the globe because a veteran anti-GM activist, Mark Lynas, has switched sides and is now campaigning in favour of the technology.
Indian consumers do not directly consume GM food as the government has not allowed such crops after Bt Brinjal debacle. But as Bt Cotton is present in the country, consumers are passively eating GM food through milk of an animal fed cottonseed meals and food cooked in cottonseed oil. Bt Cotton is not totally pesticide or insecticide-free. All mammals are indirectly vulnerable due to the pesticides used in cotton farming, say scientists.

The debate has gone public in the European Union as the European Commission’s Agriculture and Rural Development is conducting a survey. Noting that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are considered incompatible with organic farming, the survey asks participants whether they specifically buy organic products because they are “GMO-free”. It also asks whether consumers would put up with higher prices if it meant the accidental, low-level presence of GMOs in organic products was clearly labelled.

It should also be noted that though the direct use of Bt food is not allowed in the country, consumers are already exposed to their ill-effects indirectly because of the use of Bt cottonseed as edible oil. Of the total cottonseed production, 90% goes into expeller for production of cottonseed edible oil. What is left after the expeller process — the residue — goes as cottonseed meal which is a widely used as feed for animals.

“There is no doubt that use of pesticide has gone down after the use of transgenic variety but it is not completely free from pesticides. The number of sprays used to grow cotton has come down but it has not stopped attacks by sucking pests,” says Dr KR Kranthi of Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR).

Before the introduction of Bt Cotton, the fibre crop was susceptible to 162 varieties of pests and insects. In 1995, 54% of the total consumption of pesticide in the country was in cotton farming. The ratio had come down to 44% in 2001. After the introduction of two varieties of Bt Cotton seeds, the use of pesticide has further come down to 21%.

“Bt cotton does not need pesticides to protect the plant from bollworms pests. Bollworms were the key pests damaging 80% of the cotton losses in the country. Bt variety has an inbuilt mechanism to protect the plant from these pests. However, the problem of sucking pests is still there,” says agriculture scientist, Dr TL Dholaria.

According to various research studies, the total number of pesticide spray required for cotton has declined from 15 to 9 per crop season earlier.

“The number of spray needed has declined. It has also resulted in lowering the cost of farming. However, no one can claim that cotton farming has become completely pesticide free as farmers must continue to spray pesticide to control sucking pests,” said Dr Kranthi.

If one looks at the value chain of cotton farming, cotton seed is used for production of edible oil as well as cattle feed. Cottonseed is most widely used in cattle feed. These animals produce milk meant for human consumption. Consumption of cottonseed edible oil has also increased in the country.

“We all use milk and edible oil which may have some pesticides in it. As of now, we do not know the effects of this indirect consumption. However, we are also exposed to the consumption of hazardous chemicals used in manufacture of pesticides,” said Dr Dholaria.

“Insecticide costs as a proportion of total costs declined perceptibly in the post-Bt Cotton period, from 8.30% in 1996 to about 5.86% in 2008,” a study by Bhartiya Krishak Samaj and Council for Social Development concludes.


150 scientists raise concerns about GM crops, write to Natarajan

NEW DELHI: More than 150 scientists have written a letter to the environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan on Saturday raising concerns about genetically modified (GM) crops. Their primanry concern is that Ministry of Agriculture is allegedly making a case for GM crops by stating that the technology is ‘absolutely needed’ for India’s food security.

They referred to a recent affidavit filed by the ministry of agriculture in the Supreme Court claiming that nation’s food security will be jeopardized without GM crops. “It also argues that open-air field trials of GMOs are absolutely essential for this.”

The scientists in their letter said that there are “many serious scientific and policy fallacies” in the argument made by the Ministry of Agriculture. This affidavit was filed in response to a Supreme Court appointed technical committee report on GM crops which had advised a ten year ban on GM crops because of its unpredictable impacts on the environment. It had also said that we have not conducted adequate research to confirm the safety of GM food crops.

On Saturday, the scientists and the GM free coalition of organisations also celebrated the third anniversary of a moratorium on transgenic Bt Brinjal which was imposed when Jairam Ramesh was environment minister and urged Natarajan to make sure that the moratorium is not lifted.

In response to Agriculture ministry’s argument, the letter said: “An overwhelming majority of countries worldwide do not grow GM crops. They are grown on a mere 160 million hectares that comprise 3.2% of the global agriculture land. Just four crops cover 99% of the area under GM crops: soybean (47%), maize (32%), cotton (15%) and canola (5%).” It also summarised the experiences of various countries including the US who have commercialised GM food crops.

They quoted US Economic Research Service’s report for 2011, which says: 17.9 million households were food insecure at some point in the year. “This means that an unprecedented 50.1 million people (1 in every 6 Americans) live in food insecure households in this nation that has the largest area under GM crop cultivation in the world, after having begun commercializing crops with this controversial technology way back in 1996.” It said.

The letter also tries to dissociate the issue of food production with shortcomings of distribution. “Food security, is a problem not only of production but of distribution and access/purchasing power. Today India’s paradox of overflowing godowns/rotting grains, with 320 million people going hungry is well-known. The world over and in India, most of the hungry people are ironically partaking in the food production process. Clearly hunger is a more multi-faceted problem than what can be fixed by using a particular seed or cocktail of chemicals,” it explained.

The letter recommends various other approaches to resolve food insecurity in the country and urges MOEF to stress on agro-ecological approaches with low external inputs.



National Safe Food Day being celebrated throughout the country, on 3rd anniversary of Bt brinjal moratorium

Download the letter 130209 TRANSGENIC CROPS & FOOD SECURITY

(Please read this press release of the Coalition along with this letter : http://indiagminfo.org/?p=540)

New Delhi, February 9th 2013: On the 3rd anniversary of a moratorium on Bt brinjal in India, in a letter to the Minister for Environment & Forests (MoEF), more than 150 scientists from across the country pointed out that food security arguments around GM crops are baseless and fallacious, both from the scientific and global experience point of view. These scientists expressed disappointment that the MoEF, responsible for regulation of transgenics, allowed the Ministry of Agriculture to step into the Supreme Court PIL on GMOs on behalf of the Union of India. In their letter, they pointed out that Food Safety is an integral part of Food Security. Earlier in November 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture had argued in the SC that transgenic crops are essential for food security and that India’s transgenic regulatory regime was sound and robust.

The third anniversary of the moratorium on Bt brinjal, being marked as the National Safe Food Day, is witnessing dozens of events and activities around the country. Three years ago, Jairam Ramesh, the then MoEF placed an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal stating that as being “responsible to science and responsive to society”.


“We urge Ms Jayanti Natarajan, Minister for Environment & Forests, to show the scientificity and independence that her predecessor showed in placing a moratorium on what would have been India’s first GM food crop, Bt brinjal. In fact, the situation on the regulatory front is worse than it was thought to be during the time the nation-wide public consultations led to the moratorium in 2010. The Bt brinjal moratorium decision has set a good precedence in terms of a precautionary approach. The debate then raised questions around capabilities of biosafety review in an independent and scientific manner, apart from the need for long term independent testing.

It also highlighted the much-required element of needs assessment and assessment of alternatives, before going in for the GM option, which is absent in the current system. This has been pointed out time and again, starting with the Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology, headed by Dr M S Swaminathan in 2003, the report of which was formally accepted by Govt of India in 2004. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in its report tabled in August 2012, has captured the various nuances to the issue of transgenic food crops in great detail and had asked for a biosafety law to be brought in (instead of the BRAI Bill). The Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council (PM-SAC), listing the key characteristics of an effective regulatory system highlighted the need for sound scientific expertise within the (regulatory) organisation, through independent panels, as well as processes that ensure transparency and freedom from conflict. The Sopory Committee, commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, had pointed out serious and objectionable issues with regard to our transgenic research and regulation, where crores of rupees of taxpayers’ funds have been expended. It also confirmed GM contamination. The Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court (SC TEC) also made recommendations on similar lines. It is no coincidence that so many inquiry processes are saying similar things. However, it is surprising that the Ministry of Agriculture ignores all of the above and continues with its biased and unscientific stand on GM crops. The Ministry of Agriculture’s continued aggressive promotion of GM crops is unacceptable and we want the Minister for Environment & Forests to be responsive to society and responsible to science. Therefore, we expect the Environment Minister to accept the first set of recommendations by the TEC”, said Sridhar Radhakrishnan, Convenor, Coalition for a GM-Free India.

Explaining that food security is not connected with faulty techno-fixes like transgenic crops, Kavitha Kuruganti, Member, Coalition for a GM-Free India added: “The attached letter being sent by scientists from around the country to Ms Jayanti Natarajan clearly shows that non-transgenic solutions exist for increasing productivity in agriculture, if the belief is that it is a supply-side problem. However, it is important to realize that today, food security is not about food production, but poverty, livelihoods and development.

“Further, no transgenic crops have been created to increase intrinsic yield potential; as regards operational yields, it is a mixed and unimpressive picture. In the USA, it has been found that in corn, of the 28 percent increase in corn productivity between 1996 and 2008, about 24 or 25 percent was due to factors other than GE. This is about 86 percent of the total increase in yield in corn in those years. GE contributed to a mere 14% of the total yield increase between 1996 and 2008. In the case of soybean, it has been found that the herbicide tolerance gene provided no clear yield advantage, while based on USDA data, yields went up about 16 percent from 1996 – 2008, due to (conventional) breeding and agronomy.

“In India, yield growth of cotton was most impressive in the years prior to the expansion of area under Bt cotton. Yield increases are attributed to many other reasons (other than Bt technology of Bt cotton) by none other than the CICR Director (and state governments too).

“One of the most important things that the scientists’ letter highlights is that from 1995, when 12% of the US population was food insecure, America (the country with largest GM crop adoption) has moved to a situation in 2011 where 15% of the population is food insecure, the same period that they went from zero to the current level of adoption of GM crops. Brazil (the second largest grower of GM crops) continued to see a decline in its hunger profile. However, the pace of decrease has decelerated in the years when GM area expanded (Between 1999-2001 and 2004-06 (which is the pre-GM era), the percentage of undernourished in total population reduced from 12.1% to 8.7%; From then to 2010-12, it decelerated from 8.7% to 6.9%). Argentina, the third largest grower of GM crops, has seen no significant difference in its hunger situation, during the years of expansion of GM crops. Paraguay, which grows GM crops on 65% of its arable land, saw population experiencing hunger spiral up from 12.6% in 2004-06 to 25 % in 2010-12. Countries like Peru and Venezuela have on the other hand experienced tremendous improvement in their hunger situation even though they have not adopted GM crops. It is clear that GM crop adoption has not meant greater improvements in food security. GE, as several scientists have said, is a costly distraction for the solutions that we are seeking in farming. It is time that the Ministry of Agriculture became scientific in its outlook and analysis; it is also important that the MoEF does not allow itself to be misled”.

The Coalition pointed out that citizens are keen to have an informed debate on the subject and it does not help to have a unilateral view presented by the government that too using taxpayers’ funds. On National Safe Food Day, numerous events are being organized by dozens of groups across the country, ranging from public debates, to lectures, to colorful rallies, to poster exhibitions, to film screenings and safe food festivals. The coalition urges citizens to join the events nearest to them and engage with the issue of food safety. More information is available at: http://nationalsafefoodday2013.blogspot.in/

For more information, contact:

Sridhar Radhakrishnan: +91-99953-58205

Kavitha Kuruganti: +91-93930-01550

After 30 years, is a GM food breakthrough finally here?

Golden rice, a new strain that boosts vitamin A levels and reduces blindness in developing countries, is about to be sown in the Philippines – and is the new battleground crop


 Protesters destroy GM crops.
Protesters destroy GM crops. Photograph: David Hoffman Photo Library / Al/Alamy

Scientists say they have seen the future of genetically modified foods and have concluded that it is orange or, more precisely, golden. In a few months, golden rice – normal rice that has been genetically modified to provide vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world – will be given to farmers in the Philippines for planting in paddy fields.

Thirty years after scientists first revealed they had created the world’s first GM crop, hopes that their potential to ease global malnutrition problems may be realised at last. Bangladesh and Indonesia have indicated they are ready to accept golden rice in the wake of the Philippines’ decision, and other nations, including India, have also said that they are considering planting it.

“Vitamin A deficiency is deadly,” said Adrian Dubock, a member of the Golden Rice project. “It affects children’s immune systems and kills around two million every year in developing countries. It is also a major cause of blindness in the third world. Boosting levels of vitamin A in rice provides a simple, straightforward way to put that right.”

Recent tests have revealed that a substantial amount of vitamin A can be obtained by eating only 60g of cooked golden rice. “This has enormous potential,” said Dubock.

But scientists’ satisfaction over the Golden Rice project has been tempered by the fact that it has taken an extraordinarily long time for the GM crop to be approved. Golden rice was first developed in 1999, but its development and cultivation has been opposed vehemently by campaigners who have flatly refused to accept that it could deliver enough vitamin A, and who have also argued that the crop’s introduction in the developing world would make farmers increasingly dependent on western industry. The crop has become the cause célèbre of the anti-GM movement, which sees golden rice as a tool of global capitalism.

This view is rejected by the scientists involved. “We have developed this in conjunction with organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a way of alleviating a real health problem in the developing world,” says Dubock. “No one is going to make money out of it. The companies involved in developing some of the technologies have waived their licences just to get this off the ground.”

This view is shared by Mark Lynas, an environmental campaigner and one of the founders of the anti-GM crop movement. He has publicly apologised for opposing the planting of GM crops in Britain. “The first generation of GM crops were suspect, I believed then, but the case for continued opposition to new generations – which provide life-saving vitamins for starving people – is no longer justifiable. You cannot call yourself a humanitarian and be opposed to GM crops today.”

Golden rice was created by Peter Beyer, professor for cell biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland, in the late 1990s. They inserted genes for a chemical known as beta-carotene into the DNA of normal rice. In this way they modified the rice genes so that the plants started to make beta-carotene, a rich orange-coloured pigment that is also a key precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A.

By 2000 the plant was ready for trials. However, it took another five years before test fields were grown, such was the resistance to the idea of introducing GM plants in many countries. These trials showed golden rice could stimulate vitamin A uptake but at a low level. New research was launched to create varieties that would provide enhanced amounts of the vitamins.

“All the time, opponents to golden rice insisted, year after year, that it would not be able to produce vitamin A in those who ate it,” said Beyer, golden rice’s co-creator. “For example, it was alleged by Greenpeace that people would have to eat several kilograms of the stuff to get any benefit.”

Two studies, both published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demolished this claim. The first, in 2009, was based on a group of healthy adult volunteers in the US and showed that golden rice’s beta-carotene was easily taken up into the bloodstream. The second trial was carried out by American and Chinese researchers and published last year. It was carried out on Chinese children, aged between six and eight, and showed that a bowl of cooked golden rice, between 100g and 150g, could provide 60% of the recommended intake of vitamin A for young people. The study also revealed that golden rice is better than spinach at providing vitamin A.

“Given that normal rice has no vitamin A to speak of, that shows the importance of what has been achieved,” said Dubock.

The latter study has since been immersed in controversy after it was claimed in a Greenpeace press release that the parents of the Chinese children had not been informed they were being given GM food and had been used as guinea pigs. An investigation by the Chinese authorities led to the sacking of the three Chinese scientists named by Greenpeace, which described the incident as “another example of big business hustling in on one the world’s most sacred things: our food supply”. For his part, Lynas has described Greenpeace’s actions as “immoral and inhumane” because it deprives “the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away”.

The reactions of bureaucracies to golden rice were also described by Beyer as “hard to believe”. “We have had to undergo endless trials and tests and endure endless amounts of bureaucracy. Yet new breeds of standard crops have no such problems, even though they are often created by exposing them to doses of radiation. This is done to create new mutant breeds which you can then grow to see if any have features you like. None of the regulations that we had to meet in creating golden rice were imposed on these plant breeders. Yet this is the standard means by which new crops, including organic crops, are created. It is manifestly unbalanced.”

This point was backed by Dubock. “All the time we have been required to show that there are no risks associated with growing golden rice, but at no point did we get a chance to point out its benefits. Everything is about risk assessment and nothing is about benefits assessment.” Of course, some doubts about the technology still remain, as my colleague John Vidal makes clear here.

Nevertheless, a warning about consequences of imposing regulations on GM crops and not others was provided by Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre in Norwich. “At institutes like ours, we can prioritise research to bring new consumer health benefits and environmental benefits to market [via GM], as long as the regulatory process is not prohibitively expensive for publicly funded organisations.”

The fate of golden rice is therefore important, as Professor Jonathan Jones of the John Innes Centre points out. “When I started making GM plants 30 years ago I did wonder if there might be unknown unknowns. But the evidence now is clear. GM food and crops are as safe as non-GM food and crops.”

The prospect of further delays preventing future life-saving GM plants going to the field because of carefully orchestrated campaigns of opposition is therefore viewed with concern.

The Golden Rice project has had one beneficial knock-on effect, however. It has triggered a series of similar crop modification programmes that aim to tackle vitamin A deficiency through use of other GM foodstuffs. One example is provided by the golden banana, which has been created by scientists led by Professor James Dale of Queensland University in Australia.

“In Uganda, where the banana is a key source of nutrition, there is considerable vitamin A deficiency and also iron deficiency in diets,” he said. “The former not only causes blindness but leaves children less able to fight disease which, in Africa, is particularly serious. The latter, iron deficiency, causes blood disorders.”

To put this right, Dale and his team have found ways to boost beta-carotene levels in bananas. Now they are working on boosting iron levels as well. The team expects to have developed a golden banana, that will raise both iron and vitamin A levels, by the end of the decade.

“People in Uganda eat up to a kilogram of mashed banana a day, so we don’t need to get a great deal of beta-carotene in our bananas,” said Dale.

The result of the team’s work will be similar to golden rice: peeled, the pale fruit will be carrot-coloured. And if that sounds strange, it is worth noting that carrots were not originally orange. In the 17th century they were mostly yellow or purple, but were bred to be orange by Dutch farmers in tribute to the ruling House of Orange.