“New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge” says the editorial last week’s issue of the prestigious magazine Science . In this particular case the technology being referred to is a genetically modified rice variety “Golden Rice” that is labeled a genetically modified organism or GMO. It has been modified to produce β-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Severe vitamin A deficiency results in blindness, and compromises immune system function, exacerbating many kinds of illnesses. It is a disease of poverty and poor diet, responsible for 1.9 to 2.8 million preventable deaths annually, mostly of children under 5 years old and women. And this editorial was provoked by the destruction of the field trial crops at the International Rice Research, Manila by some anti-GMO activists.
As a scientist and an Indian I am deeply saddened by our collective inability to debate scientific issues scientifically and take forward programs that will do collective good to our people. The anti-GMO lobby is loud and successfully heard in our country, a country which has the distinction of having the highest number of deaths and preventable blindness in children due to Vitamin A deficiency. The scientific arguments are strong and the issues have been discussed in a recent center page article in the Hindu by Prof G Padmanabhan, one of our eminent scientists. There are, of course strong non-scientific, undercurrents to the opposition and the article in Open highlights the issues well. Whereas the perception that US R&D is only driven by profit may have some basis, our own scientists struggle hard, with far less reward than they should get. And if we cannot use their intellectual capital for the good of our own fellow Indians, their efforts are pointless. Every space launch by ISRO is highly applauded and deservedly so! But scientific interventions, be it enriched crops or new vaccines, that directly benefit millions of people need to reach them. Wider informed debate, greater voice to scientific argument and pragmatic decision making would go a long way to benefit our people.