Prominent Plant Pathologist Lashes Out at GM Critics

Robert Ziegler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, has mounted an angry and impassioned defense of genetically modified foods, saying that “as an intellectual direct descendant of the architects of the Green Revolution, it is heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor.”

Last August, 300 Filipino radicals attacked a 1,000 square meter experimental rice plot in Bicol, where the institute was seeking to develop so-called “Golden Rice,” a genetically modified plant that hopefully would help to eliminate irreversible blindness in millions of malnourished children by combating Vitamin A deficiency. The Golden Rice strain is being developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created by the billionaire Microsoft founder. It is estimated that as many as 50 million children each year lose their sight because of Vitamin A deficiency.

IRRI, as the institute is widely known, pioneered the so-called Green Revolution through the famed IR8, the rice that revolutionized rice production and saved the lives of millions of people in India and other countries. IRRI was established in 1960 with the support of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the Philippine government with a remit to attempt to combat widespread starvation, which was then threatening large parts of the world. The famed Norman Borlaug worked with the institute to develop dwarf rice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970 for his work in driving up the productiveness of rice, wheat and other grains. Since that time, IRRI has been at the forefront of scientific research on improving rice production.

Unlike major seed producers, who patent their improved seeds and sell them to farmers with the proviso that they can’t reproduce from existing crops every year, IRRI does not patent its discoveries. Instead, hundreds, perhaps thousands of new strains have been developed that have gone into production to attempt to combat global starvation.

“I know that, if we continue to listen to the shrill cries of anti-technology zealots, we will be distracted from taking on and solving the most serious problems that face us and our grandchildren,” Zeigler wrote in the current edition of Rice Today, the institute’s in-house magazine, in an article titled “Bitter harvest from a noble cause.”

“As a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaïre (now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo), I saw close-up the havoc unleashed by an epidemic in the cassava crop,” he wrote, saying he witnessed the ecological destruction as villagers desperately slashed and burned swaths of tropical forest in the effort to find immediate alternative food needs.

“I was preparing myself for a career in plant ecology, but the misery caused by crop diseases was clear. They could be triggered by human mistakes and ecological disruptions, but they could also be tackled through human ingenuity and science.”

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the shortcomings of the early phase of the Green Revolution were becoming clear, with IR8 facing troubles because of the overuse of pesticides and fertilizer and the inevitable transformations of the rural sector, where many gained but some, especially those in marginal environments, lost out.

“A backlash began among leftist academics who viewed the Green Revolution as a way for capitalist governments and multinational corporations to subjugate small farmers.“ the plant pathologist wrote. “This view was helped by the fact that some oppressive West-leaning governments were avid champions of the Green Revolution.”

With the undeniable problems of side effects of the Green Revolution becoming apparent, environmental concerns became part of the mainstream consciousness, culminating ultimately in the United Nations Rio conference of 1992, which laid out 27 principles seeking to govern the environment and sustainable food production

But, Zeigler writes, “that conference framed a false dichotomy that continues to this day, between a healthy environment and idyllic, contented farmers on one side and a high-yielding agriculture on the other.” His first-hand experience with impoverished small farmers in the developing world “was placing me at odds with my ideological brethren. Our understanding of genetics and the ability to proactively manipulate how plants behaved and responded to the environment was becoming a reality. Many of us saw this as a way to reverse the negatives of the Green Revolution and open the way for, in the words of Sir Gordon Conway, a “doubly green revolution.”

It had become possible, he said, to understand that scientists could engineer into crops resistance to insect pests and pathogens that would eliminate the need for spraying toxic chemicals that sickened every organism they touched.

“Even better, we could now help the people left behind because they lived on lands plagued by droughts or floods that wouldn’t support modern crop varieties. I have seen this dream validated. India’s untouchable communities (the lowest class) often farm on marginal flood-prone land. IRRI’s flood-tolerant rice is most useful to these farmers and promises to transform the lives of millions. In short, we saw modern biology as a driver for transforming agriculture into a tool for protecting the environment, meeting food needs, and reversing millennia of injustices that condemned certain segments of the population to the worst land.”

But while scientists were working to accomplish engineering those goals into place and make their dreams a reality, a “strange brew of anticorporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture, and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash.”

In fact, he writes, the extreme regulations for genetically modified (GM) crops demanded by self-proclaimed protectors of the environment have had the perverse result that only the largest multinationals could afford to develop such crops.

“Predictably, this resulted in the same camp denouncing the growing domination of agriculture by multinationals. As costs for developing crop varieties escalated, the few seed companies that could afford the work focused only on areas with large markets. Marginal farmers were once again excluded.”

“This time, who is to blame?” Ziegler asked, an indictment of what he perceives as almost superstitious opposition to scientific efforts to improve food production.