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Greenpeace out to sea on GM rice issue, bioethicist says

Greenpeace, perhaps best known for its battles at sea to protect whales and the oceans, has gotten itself involved in a huge controversy over genetically modified food.

The group is charging that unsuspecting children were put at risk in a “dangerous” study of genetically engineered rice in rural China. It’s a serious claim, because it is putting research seeking to put more nutrition into food at risk.

Genetically engineered rice has the potential to help solve a big nutritional problem—vitamin A deficiency.  A lack of vitamin A kills 670,000 kids under 5 every year and causes 250,000 to 500,000 to go blind. Half die within a year of losing their sight, according to the World Health Organization. I think Greenpeace is being ethically irresponsible and putting those lives at continued risk.

Research involving children is often highly controversial.  Putting children at risk when there us no certainty of benefit in the hope of gaining new knowledge is, at best, ethically dubious.  Research done on kids when the risk is great rightly sets all of our moral teeth on edge.

That is the charge Greenpeace is screaming ethical bloody murder about. They say Chinese children were given dangerous genetically engineered rice in a study without any consent from the kids, parents or the approval of the appropriate review bodies. 

Greenpeace does not favor the use of genetic engineering to modify food. It’s been campaigning for years against plans to introduce “golden rice” in China. The claim about the experiment, if true, would drastically slow the very research that will, if successful, lead to a lot more genetically modified food being eaten in China, the U.S. and the rest of the world. Is Greenpeace’s fear of GMOs protecting kids or potentially harming them? The latter seems, sadly, more likely.

As might be expected, the charges of research abuse are causing an explosion of reaction in China. Beijing has launched an investigation, a Chinese researcher has already been suspended and a whole lot of finger-pointing is going on within China. A couple of fingers are also pointing right at the USA, since the rice study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. 

If these accusations were true, this would be one of the worst research scandals of all time.  U.S.-funded research involving dangerous food made by big, greedy U.S. companies tested on poor, innocent kids in rural China with no consent— who could trust people willing to do that? The only problem with Greenpeace’s cry of scandal is that it is nonsense.

You can look at the paper on line that is setting off this international moral maelstrom.  It appears in the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  The title of the paper is “Beta-carotene in Golden Rice is as good as b-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children”.

Without even knowing what the heck this title means, it tells you something very important — this is an experiment that worked!  The engineered rice allowed the kids in the study to get more vitamin A, Guangwen Tang of Tufts University and colleagues report. 

The 68 6 to 8-year-olds in the study got either the “golden rice” or spinach.

The beta-carotene in the title is the substance in carrots that gives them their orange color.  It occurs naturally in other plants, including spinach.  But it does not exist in white rice.  B-carotene is used by your body to help make vitamin A.

If you live in a country that relies heavily on white rice and not much else for food, you may be vitamin A deficient.  The experiment involved tweaking the genes of rice so the plant produced more beta-caroten.  The paper reports that when kids ate this rice in the study, they got as much or more vitamin A then they did eating their usual diet or one supplemented with other sources of carotene.  The experiment worked.

Well, you may say, even if the experiment worked, it still is not right to put kids into a nutrition study without their parents’ knowledge or the proper review. True, but the study was neither risky nor lacking in review.

GMO food has been eaten by almost everyone reading this column for years.  No study has shown any health danger. The researchers who conducted the China study rightly did not worry about the safety of the rice.  The researchers only wanted to see if it helped put Vitamin A into the kids who ate it.  It did.

What about consent and review, which Greenpeace says did not happen? The paper says otherwise. 

“The study recruitment processes and protocol were approved by the Institutional Review Board–Tufts Medical Center in the United States and by the Ethics Review Committee of Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences in China. Both parents and pupils [children] consented to participate in the study,” the researchers wrote.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition may not be on your bedroom table for night reading but it is a respected journal that is widely read by leading scientists and doctors interested in nutrition.  Either the researchers have put into print before their peers the biggest flat-out lie since Bernie Madoff denied he was running a Ponzi scheme ,or the critics screeching about Chinese kids being used as “guinea pigs” have a whole lot of explaining to do.

Maybe, despite the researchers’ efforts, something went wrong in terms of families really understanding they were in a study.  Even if there were no reason to think children were ever at any real risk, that would be a problem. It’s worth checking out, if for no other reason to inform future studies and prevent stinks like this one.

The result of the study shows that there is another tool available to fight the death and blindness caused by diets poor in food that creates vitamin A. The world’s leaders need to be sensitive to fixing real, ongoing problems in trying to do research ethically when subjects are poor and vulnerable.  The world needs to tell organizations that have an irrational fear of GMO food even when it might help save kids lives and sight to head back out to sea.

Art Caplan, Ph.D., is the head of the division of medical ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center

Related links:

China investigating GMO rice study

Big Food girds for California GMO fight

Oregon farm group sues over GM canola