The Annals of Irrational Fear, GMO Division. The New York Times reports:
ONE bright morning this month, 400 protesters smashed down the high fences surrounding a field in the Bicol region of the Philippines and uprooted the genetically modified rice plants growing inside.
Had the plants survived long enough to flower, they would have betrayed a distinctly yellow tint in the otherwise white part of the grain. That is because the rice is endowed with a gene from corn and another from a bacterium, making it the only variety in existence to produce beta carotene, the source of vitamin A. Its developers call it “Golden Rice.”
FrankenFoods. Playing god. It ain’t natural. Yuck.
Not owned by any company, Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.
So maybe, just maybe, destroying the field trial crop isn’t really such a brilliant idea.
The destruction of the field trial, and the reasons given for it, touched a nerve among scientists around the world, spurring them to counter assertions of the technology’s health and environmental risks. On a petition supporting Golden Rice circulated among scientists and signed by several thousand, many vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fears of genetic engineering in both the developing and the developed worlds. Some took to other channels to convey to American foodies and Filipino farmers alike the broad scientific consensus that G.M.O.’s are not intrinsically more risky than other crops and can be reliably tested.
And another thing: there are “risks,” known risks, in a diet that’s deficient in vitamin A. To repeat:
Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.
That’s a little more significant than “yuck” reactions to GMO foods.
At stake, they say, is not just the future of biofortified rice but also a rational means to evaluate a technology whose potential to improve nutrition in developing countries, and developed ones, may otherwise go unrealized.
“There’s so much misinformation floating around about G.M.O.’s that is taken as fact by people,” said Michael D. Purugganan, a professor of genomics and biology and the dean for science at New York University, who sought to calm health-risk concerns in a primer on GMA News Online, a media outlet in the Philippines: “The genes they inserted to make the vitamin are not some weird manufactured material,” he wrote, “but are also found in squash, carrots and melons.”
But god put the genes in the squash, carrots, and melons, but god didn’t put the genes in rice. Therefore the genes being put in the rice makes the whole thing gross and creepy and blasphemious!
Mr. Purugganan, who studies plant evolution, does not work on genetically engineered crops, and until recently had not participated in the public debates over the risks and benefits of G.M.O.’s. But having been raised in a middle-class family in Manila, he felt compelled to weigh in on Golden Rice. “A lot of the criticism of G.M.O.’s in the Western world suffers from a lack of understanding of how really dire the situation is in developing countries,” he said.
Privilege. That’s a classic example of privilege at work. It’s the same with vaccines – we have the privilege of having grown up in a world with vaccines, so unless we know something about history or otherwise investigate the subject a little, we are clueless about what it’s like to live in a world where an infectious disease can pounce on you and kill you at any moment. That is privilege. It’s privilege and it leads to horrendous irrational phobic ideas that, if followed, would lead to the reversal of much medical and technological progress. Yes progress. Being sniffy about the idea of progress is another example of privilege.