|Response to Greenpeace|
How have people responded to our Letter to Greenpeace?
As of December, 2016, 123 Nobel Laureates and more than 10,000 other individuals have signed the letter calling on Greenpeace to follow the science and cease their indefensible opposition to biotechnology and precision agriculture, in general, and golden rice in particular.
The response to the Nobel Laureates Open Letter to Greenpeace has been broadly positive and widespread, with very little pushback even from groups opposed to GMOs. The story was picked up by more than a thousand newspapers worldwide, including a major positive article in the Washington Post and a scathing editorial against Greenpeace in USA Today. Additional samples of the media response to the letter can be found here.
There has been some negative response and pushback from Greenpeace and their collaborators, all of which follow similar lines. The main points of these counter-arguments are summarized and addressed below.
Some opponents claim Dr. Roberts and the other Laureates are pursuing this campaign for financial gain
One unfortunate aspect of the public discourse on GMOs is that rather than engaging with the data, opponents routinely resort to attacks on the character of those with whom they disagree. Instead of re-examining their own presuppositions and testing them against data, when challenged by the Nobel Laureates, Greenpeace responded with denigration and disparagement, denying our expertise and impugning our integrity with allegations of financial conflicts of interest.
It is worth noting that I, Dr. Roberts, initially contacted and invited each of the Nobel Laureates to sign onto this letter, and have a long record of similar independent actions to advance social justice and promote human welfare, including organizing:
My employer, New England Biolabs (NEB), is a leading and trusted provider of high quality enzymes and biological reagents to the life sciences industry. Their products are clearly described at https://www.neb.com/about-neb. NEB's customers are primarily researchers in research institutions and universities. While it is true that some work in plant biology and some of these in biotechnology companies, NEB has no direct links to or involvement in directing the research that these individuals perform nor does it receive any direct return from these studies, beyond supplying the same products that it makes available to all of its customers.
- A similar campaign, endorsed by 119 Nobel Laureates, to request Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy to end the unjust imprisonment and fraudulent mock trial of medical professionals wrongly accused of spreading AIDS http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v444/n7116/full/444146a.html
- A similar letter, signed by 219 Nobel Laureates, to the Burmese junta urging them to cease the persecution of and free 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Burmese political figure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
- A similar campaign, signed by 155 Laureates, through a letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping requesting the release of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, and to free his wife Liu Xia from house arrest http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/nobel-12042012075021.html
NEB is also known for its pioneering approach to environmental stewardship and its dedication to social justice. With an emphasis on community-based projects they have funded research in conserving biological diversity (terrestrial and marine); sustaining cultural diversity (linguistic diversity, as well as traditional knowledge systems and practices); maintaining ecosystem services (water, soil, and carbon sequestration); supporting food sovereignty and economic vitality of local communities; sustaining healthy reefs and fisheries in the marine environment; and in coastal communities along the North Shore of Massachusetts and supporting projects in the area of artistic expression and use of the arts for social justice. NEB also founded and is a major supporter of the Ocean Genome Legacy (http://www.northeastern.edu/ogl/), which is dedicated to collecting and preserving of the DNA from endangered marine organisms.
Some claim the campaign is underwritten by major support from the agribusiness companies.
Neither myself, my fellow Nobel Laureates, nor my employer, New England Biolabs, has any direct financial involvement nor financial relationship with any agri-business companies. The campaign has benefitted from modest support (coverage of travel and hotel costs to participate in the National Press Club event announcing the letter) from philanthropist Matt Winkler. Winkler was offended by Greenpeace's misrepresentations on Golden Rice and the resulting, unnecessary human toll. Winkler is a former professor and biomedical company entrepreneur from Austin, TX. Winkler's first company, Ambion, developed and sold RNA based molecular biology products for biomedical research. His subsequent companies have been devoted to cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. Neither Winkler nor myself have any connection or involvement with any companies developing or selling plants or their seeds improved through biotechnology.
The only direct response to our June 29th 2016 letter to Greenpeace arrived on October 14th and is included below:
GREENPEACE RESEARCH LABORATORIES
INNOVATIONS CENTRE - PHASE 2 - RENNES DRIVE - UNIVERSITY OF EXETER - EXETER EX4 4RN
TEL: +44 (0)1392 247920 | FAX: +44 (0)1392 247929 | greenpeace.to/greenpeace | email@example.com
Sir Richard J. Roberts Ph.D. F.R.S.
1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine
Chief Scientific Officer
New England Biolabs
240 County Road
Ipswich, MA 01938-2723 USA
14th October 2016
Dear Sir Richard:
Thank you for sending your letter to us via fax on June 29, 2016. We would like to
apologize for any delay in our response to you. As news of your campaign broke,
we responded to your key questions publicly but were not able to respond
immediately for the following reason: we are not accustomed to receiving
queries such as this via fax, without an accompanying e-mail as well. The fact
that the fax was addressed to "whom it may concern" meant that its importance
was not immediately recognised and it was not forwarded
accordingly. In short, the team best qualified to respond to your questions did
not see this faxed query from you until recently. Therefore, we are only now
responding to the points you raise in your facsimile message.
Following the launch of your campaign, we subsequently received information from a Nobel
Laureate who did not sign your letter and who contacted us. We have received
and evaluated your initial e-mail solicitation to the Laureates where you
state, "I am organizing a Pro-GMO campaign against the Green parties to try
and convince them to change their position on GMOs, which I see as seriously
damaging the developing nations and which in the long run is simply untenable
for all of us."
After assessing this, we now have a clearer idea as to the aims of the campaign that
you have embarked upon and are responding with this letter.
Firstly, we wish to make it clear that we are not opposed to the use of GMOs for the
production of pharmaceuticals or fine chemicals provided that this is carried
out in completely closed and contained systems. Synthetic insulin would be a
good example. Nor do we oppose the use of GMOs in closed systems for scientific
research purposes. We also support genomic techniques used in the acceleration
of conventional plant breeding methods, specifically Marker Assisted Selection
A key assertion that you make in support of your campaign, that Greenpeace
opposition to "golden rice" is a "crime against humanity", seems to us to be
misleading, dishonest and not a little hyperbolic. Despite more than 20 years
of research, Golden Rice is not yet available. No application for regulatory
approval has been submitted, and we do not know when that will happen. It is
still unclear whether 'Golden' rice can address Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) in
undernourished children, and whether it can do so under realistic conditions,
such as long storage times between harvests, or traditional cooking methods
common in remote rural locations. The only realistic solution to fix malnutrition
is a diverse healthy diet. In the Philippines, work is ongoing to give people a
more balanced and nutritious diet. Dietary changes have in fact contributed
much to alleviating VAD in the Philippines. Access to vitamin-rich food not
only provides Vitamin A more efficiently but also delivers all the other
nutrients that people suffering from VAD need. Against these achievements,
Golden Rice can be seen as a costly distraction from these efforts. The
situation with GM rice may be contrasted with Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato
produced using conventional breeding techniques and MAS and which is now in use
widely in Africa.
Far from opposing beneficial developments in agriculture, Greenpeace's campaign
promotes, and asks governments to adopt, ecological farming methods that
respect the environment and that supply people with nutritious food. After more
than 20 years of commercialisation, we now know that
GM crops have not lived up to the expectations widely advertised by both
developers and sellers. Viewed in this way, genetic engineering can in fact be
seen as an obstacle to widespread adoption of ecological farming practices.
This is one of the key reasons (of many) why Greenpeace remains opposed to the
use of GM crops. Greenpeace considers that the history of GM agriculture is
essentially one of 20 years of failure.
In your cover letter you are asking us to "be honest". This can be addressed from
your direction also. According to the Washington Post you said that you had "no
financial interest in GMO research", an assertion repeated in a recent JAMA
article. We doubt the truth of this statement and ask you to be honest and
disclose to the press the interest that you and the company you work for, New
England Biolabs Inc., have in the research into, and commercial application of,
genetically modified organisms, agricultural or otherwise.
In addition, we are asking that you disclose the identity of the financier behind
your campaign to the press. You said in your solicitation letter to the Nobel
Laureates that your campaign is "funded by a biotech entrepreneur who prefers
to keep a low profile." We have now confirmed his identity and we know that he
too has an interest in the advancement of GM technology. The honest thing for
you to do would be to disclose to the press the manner in which you solicited
your Nobel signatures and who is underwriting your efforts.
Dr Paul Johnston, Principal Scientist
Below is some additional material that further clarifies the
issues raised in Greenpeace's response:
- Greenpeace enjoys wide support for its history
of courageously confronting threats to the human environment and trying to help
society find better ways to address them. But in their opposition to modern
breeding methods they have strayed from this praiseworthy path.
- Biotechnology "GMOs" offer some of the greenest
tools we can imagine for improving the sustainable production of agricultural
products and decreasing their environmental impact. It is the incarnation of
exactly the approach Rachel Carson advocated in the final chapter of her book, Silent
"A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives
to the chemical control of insects is available Some are already in use and have achieved
brilliant success. Others are in the
stage of laboratory testing. Still
others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists,
waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on
understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole
fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are
contributing - entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists,
biochemists, ecologists - all pouring their knowledge and their creative
inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls."
-- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Chapter 17 ("The Other Road") paragraph 3. Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1962.
- Greenpeace claims they are unfairly accused;
that they do not oppose all GMOs, but only those released into the environment,
because they claim we do not know enough about their impacts, and they don't
- Greenpeace defines GMOs in a way that nature
contradicts. They claim GMOs are organisms created in a lab in ways that could
never happen in nature. But everything scientists do in the lab to create GMOs
involves using molecules and processes discovered in nature, brought into the
lab, and used to replicate the kind of genetic changes we find everywhere we
have looked in nature. The "GMOs" produced in the lab are based directly upon
and modeled after those we find in nature, produced with the same methods of
gene exchange, applied in the same way Mother Nature has done for billions of
years. Nature thus demonstrates that we are all GMOs, every living thing on
planet Earth is a GMO.
- The argument that "we don't know enough" is
contradicted by the data. So-called GMOs are produced with modest changes to a
small number of genes (usually one or two) that are specifically targeted. The
changes sought are predictable, predicted, and thoroughly screened over many
years of field trials to ensure there are no surprises before commercial
distribution can follow. By contrast, a large percentage of the "natural" seeds
Greenpeace favors, including thousands of varieties planted and grown by
organic farmers, have been produced by radiation mutagenesis. This changes a huge
number of genes in entirely random and completely unpredictable ways. Radiation mutagenesis has been a mainstay of
conventional plant breeding since the end of World War Two. The inherent
unpredictability and uncertainty with this method, blithely accepted by Greenpeace
and organic farmers around the world, has actually created some safety problems;
well-known examples include both celery and potatoes.
- However, traditional breeding methods of the
sort Greenpeace espouse fall far short of producing the type and number of
agricultural innovations we need to face the challenges of sustaining humanity
in the 21st century, which can be met more easily, quickly, and safely with
modern molecular breeding.
- Greenpeace's argument that GMO crops have been a
failure is blatantly false. No technological innovation in the entire history
of humanity since the dawn of agriculture and human civilization has been taken
up by farmers more rapidly and more widely than seeds improved through biotechnology
(see http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/51/default.asp). As noted elsewhere on this website, the demonstrated safety of these innovations has been made abundantly clear in the scientific peer-reviewed literature
and in the experience of millions of farmers on billions of hectares over the
past two decades. The dramatic environmental and economic benefits have been
and abundantly clear. Indeed, if GMOs were the failure Greenpeace claims
there would be no need for their worldwide propaganda and fund raising
campaigns in opposition, as GMOs would have failed in the marketplace. Farmers
do not re-purchase seeds that do not deliver value. In claiming that GMOs are a
failure Greenpeace asks us to believe farmers are ignorant and incapable of
making rational decisions about their own welfare.
- Greenpeace also presents a false choice between
organic or agro-ecological approaches they prefer, and the use of seeds
improved through biotechnology. The fact is that biotech improved seeds can
easily be grown with the approaches Greenpeace favors. Further, the use of
biotech insect resistant crops on a substantial fraction of the world's
agricultural lands has already led to very large decreases in the use of
synthetic chemical pesticide sprays, more than organic farming methods have
delivered on the limited area they've been grown in their entire history. Further,
through improved yields, biotechnology tools help save more wildlands from
being turned over to food production, and biotechnology tools are enabling the
broad-based adoption of practices like conservation tillage helping to save
topsoil and improve water quality at rates significantly higher than anything
being produced using the organic methods Greenpeace alternatively promotes.