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Golden Rice

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 17 October 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to support the introduction of “golden rice” to help alleviate childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency.

My Lords, golden rice is being developed by the independent, non-profit, International Rice Research Institute. The UK is providing £120 million of core funding over three years to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, of which IRRI is a member. The Government are also providing up to £30 million of support for the CGIAR’s Harvest Plus programme, which researches nutritionally improved or bio-fortified food crops.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and for the robust and principled attitude that I believe Her Majesty’s Government are taking in this matter. The World Health Organisation estimates that half a million of the world’s poorest children go blind every year, and half of those children die every year because of vitamin A deficiency. Against that background, should we not all agree that we should welcome the philanthropic and scientific work that has gone into the development of golden rice, enriched by vitamin A? Should we not be prepared to challenge the opposition of those who fight its introduction on a basis of ideology and zero tolerance to anything that has the initials GM against it, regardless of the cost in children’s lives?

I so agree with the noble Baroness. It is worth quoting from Professor Tom Sanders, who is Professor of Nutrition & Dietetics at King’s College London, who said:

“Vitamin A deficiency remains a major problem in South Asia contributing to increased childhood mortality from infectious diseases such as measles as well as being a major cause of blindness. Rice is the staple cereal in most of those countries and golden rice, which contains the precursor of vitamin A, beta-carotene, has been shown to be effective at improving nutritional status with regard to vitamin A”.

My Lords, will my noble friend warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his remarks? As for the NGOs, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth do much good work and have noble aims. However, their total disregard of the overwhelming evidence in favour of genetically modified crops, which has been available for more than 15 years, means that, on balance, they have probably done more harm than good. Will he ask the Secretary of State to show the same robust approach and transfer the millions of pounds that are available for conversion to organic farming, whose claims are also unfounded, and perhaps make those funds available to our first-class research institutes such as Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre for their excellent work on genetic modification?

My Lords, there is quite a lot in that question. There is increasing evidence that the development of golden rice is being blocked by anti-GM NGOs, perhaps because they fear that its successful deployment might generate broader public acceptance of a technology against which they actively campaign. As my noble friend said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State recently drew attention to the damaging impact that such opposition can have, particularly in those parts of the world where its benefits would be most keenly felt. On my noble friend’s point about funding, our recently announced agrotech strategy will go a long way towards achieving the objectives that he desires.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the lengthy, mischievous and misconceived opposition in this country to GM modification of foods has done considerable harm? Does he also accept that there is no conceivable scientific evidence to suggest that the current techniques used in genetic modification have any damaging effect on human health, and that in fact GM modification improves many foods and therefore should be pursued? Finally, will he try to persuade his colleagues in the European Union to reverse and abolish the ban that they imposed on GM modification in the Union?

My Lords, I say a very strong yes to every aspect of the noble Lord’s question. I will also say that what the opponents of this technology have done and are doing is a cause of huge disappointment. We have consistently said that we will need all the tools in the box to feed the global population as it grows to 2050. To deny this will be to deny desperately poor people in developing countries a nourishing diet, and potentially life itself.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there is no real difference between genetically modified crops and F1 hybrids, which have been with us for decades?

My noble friend is entirely right that there are a large number of technologies, of which GM is but one, all of which are what I describe as tools in the box.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that vitamin A rarely occurs in isolation, and that it is necessary to have a substantial amount of fat in the diet for it to be absorbed? What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to promote a good, all-round diet for these children, in order for the vitamin A to be made useful?

My Lords, of course the noble Countess makes a really important point. However, we have to say that developing countries are capable, and are proceeding and doing a lot of work themselves to feed their populations. We are talking specifically about how we can help them in the area of genetically modified food, which will increase the vitamin A that is so necessary, in particular to reduce blindness.

Does my noble friend accept that the exciting new technologies owe much to research in this country, and does he therefore accept that funding research here is a very effective way for us to tackle the urgent issue of food security around the globe?

Does the Minister agree that golden rice is part of a much larger problem? Climate change will exacerbate the difficulties that we already have in supplying food to the growing number of people we will have to deal with. This is best addressed by creating drought-resistant and other kinds of crops into which, with surgical precision, we can put the relevant genes, as distinct from what are regarded by the opponents of GM as natural crops, which have been produced by irradiation and picking things out in a much more Frankensteinian process? Does this topic not stand for a much larger issue?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord. I focused on golden rice because the Question encapsulated it. Of course, the noble Lord is absolutely right.