Saturday, January 15, 2005

500,000 a year become blind and up to 6,000 die per day

{In developing countries 500,000 per year become blind and up to 6,000 per day die from vitamin A-malnutrition. And this is despite enormous efforts from public and philanthropic institutions to reduce this medical problem with the help of traditional interventions such as supplementation, fortification, encouragement for diet diversification, etc. This heavy toll poor people in developing countries are paying to vitamin A-malnutrition will continue year by year, if we do not find a way to complement traditional interventions by sustainable and unconventional ones.}

This is a must-read article: "Experience from the Humanitarian Golden Rice Project: Extreme Precautionary Regulation Prevents Use of Green Biotechnology in Public Projects," by Ingo Potrykus, Professor emeritus Plant Sciences, ETH Zuerich, Switzerland.

Highly recommended. It gets thick with technical terminology at times, but I assure you it is well worth the effort.

The point? Extreme regulation of genetically modified crops is preventing a miraculous plant, Golden Rice, from reaching those who need it most. The result? Every year this boon to mankind is delayed, 500,000 go blind and many thousands more die from vitamin A-malnutrition.

Let's be perfectly clear about this: a genetically engineered plant has been produced, Golden Rice, that could prevent a half million cases of blindness a year and thousands of deaths per day from vitamin A-malnutrition, and it cannot be given to the malnourshed poor who need it.

{Experience, after more than 20 years with transgenic plants and their practical application on 50 million hectares farmland as well as from many hundreds of "biosafety" experiments in which bio-safety questions in context with transgenic plants have been carefully studied, led to numerous original publications and reports from academic institutions which all come to the conclusion, that there is no specific risk associated with the technology, which would exceed risks inherent anyhow to traditional plant breeding or natural evolution.}

Why is such a safe, beneficial technology opposed? Because of something most of us aren't even aware of: the Precautionary Principle. What's the Precautionary Principle? Its a nice package used by anti-globalists and anti-capitalists and radical environmental groups to prevent scientific advances such as Golden Rice from reaching those it can help the most.

The Precautionary Principle, as its promoters state it, goes something like this: any new technology must prove that it has no harmful effects on the environment and man, no matter how remote, miniscule or distant in time. The idea of the Precautionary Principle appeals to the rich, comfortable inhabitants of develped nations because they have plenty of food and do not suffer from the debilitating effects of endemic infectious diseases such as malaria.

However, the Precautionary Principle hides the true political agenda of its promoters and implies many derogatory and false ideas about man and technology: that any new technological advance is just a continuation of man's savaging of the earth; that man is just a parasite on the earth who has no right to make the environment fit his needs for nutritious food and protection from disease; that capitalism, which produces almost all of the technological advances enjoyed by mankind, is evil and should be opposed; that the lifestyle of the West is unsustainable and should be curtailed and other countries discouraged from following the same path; that the environmental stress caused by human population growth worldwide will only get worse if developing countries attempt to adopt the technologies that will afford them the lifestyle of the developed countries.

The Precautionary Principle is merely a rhetorical device used by cunning manuplators for political advantage or to promote their organization -- from which they recieve substantial salaries. The true nature of this "principle" should be evident to all but the indoctrinated and can be confirmed by many of the statements made by those promoting it, but it can shown another way: it should be obvious that the Precautionary Principle is merely obstructionist because it can never be satisfied. Someone can always come up with another implausible, potentially harmful scenario that requires more testing.

{...the next 5 years will have to be spent on the required "bio-safety assessments" to guarantee that there is no putative harm from Golden Rice for the environment and the consumer. Nothing speaks against a cautious approach, but present regulatory praxis follows an extreme interpretation of the "precautionary principle" with the understanding that not even the slightest hypothetical risks can be accepted or left untested, and at the same time all putative benefits are totally ignored. Looking at Golden Rice and the problem of environmental risk assessment discloses how irrational the present system operates : The author has, over the last four years, not found any ecologist, including those from the "professional GMO-opposition", who could construct a half-way realistic hypothetical risk from Golden Rice to any agronomic or wild environment. This is not surprising because the entire biology of the system - low amounts of additional -carotene in the endosperm in plants which are loaded with -carotene in every organ except for the root - does not provide for any selective advantage in any environment, and therefore can not pose any substantial risk. Despite this fact Golden Rice is still awaiting the first permission for the first small-scale field release, in which environmental risks have to be studied experimentally! So far to the "risk" side of the equation. And the "benefit"? Golden Rice could prevent blindness and death of hundreds of thousands of children but can not do so, so far, because risk assessment notoriously is ignoring a risk-benefit analysis!}

The hidden agenda of those who insist on singling out such technologies as genetic engineering for overly-burdensome regulation based on the dictates of the Precautionary Principle condemn tens of thousands to blindness, disease and death every year that they succeed in delaying such important humanitarian products from reaching those who need it.

{What are the consequences of the extreme precautionary regulation of green biotechnology for public research towards food security in developing countries? There are numerous scientists and institutions in developing countries who have the capacity, motivation, and often even funding to work towards scientific progress in the areas of pest-, disease-, drought-, heat-, cold-, saline-, heavy metal resistance with the potential to rescue harvests and to expand agricultural productivity to hostile environments; to improve photosynthetic efficiency and to enhance the exploitation of natural resources to increase productivity; to enhance nutritional content to reduce malnutrition with regards to micro-nutrients such as vitamin A etc. Very few of those, however, have the financial and mental capacity to transform a scientific success into an applicable "product", which is the first prerequisite for benefit of the poor from a scientific advance. Probably no scientist nor institution in the public domain, however, have the resources, experience, and determination to carry a single GMO product across the hurdles of to days extreme precautionary regulatory procedures. Regulatory authorities in developing countries are less experienced, more insecure, and therefore, more stringent than their colleagues in developed countries. Even with support from the experienced private sector deregulation of a novel GMO product has become a gigantic task. It is, therefore, very obvious that, if we continue with the present regulatory standards, the potential of green biotechnology will not reach the poor.}

And if we stand by and do nothing, we are not blamessless either. Dr Potrykus relates the following story:

{In the early 19th century a Thai princess celebrated her 18th birthday. She fell into the palace pond and drowned in front of hundreds of witnesses. Why? It was "taboo" to touch a member of the "divine" royal family!}

And then he ponders the implications...

{We believe we would have saved the princess, however in the early 21st century 500,000 children per year become blind and 6,000 per day die from vitamin A-malnutrition. This could be prevented with GMOs. However GMOs are "taboo" for our society which prefers to trust "phantom risks" instead of scientific evidence.}

Are we really beyond such superstitious beliefs? Or have we just dressed up the pig of superstition in the latest paris-knockoff dress called Junk Science and the gaudy cosmetics of the Precautionary Principle?

No matter how we try to dress it up, its still a pig and it still stinks.

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