BERKELEY (CBS SF) — Bay Area scientists are among the 100-plus Nobel laureates urging Greenpeace to halt its campaign against the use of genetically engineered Golden Rice to address Vitamin A deficiencies in developing nations.

Randy Schekman, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California at Berkeley and 2013 Nobel laureate, signed the laureates’ open letter to Greenpeace, the United Nations and international governments, released last week.

Schekman told CBS San Francisco via email Thursday that Greenpeace is “responsible in large measure for delays in the development and distribution of Golden Rice, through their concerted effort to challenge the application of biotechnology to any use in the agricultural sector.”

The laureates who signed the letter maintain that genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also known as genetically engineered foods, could help solve world hunger and malnutrition.

Stanford University chemistry professor William Moerner, a 2014 Nobel laureate, told CBS San Francisco that as a chemical biophysicist he understands the general issues regarding genetically engineered Golden Rice and said:

“The key point for me is that genetic engineering has the ability to alter just one gene to produce a favorable change, which in the case of golden rice, is to cause the rice to store beta-carotene, a precursor to a crucial vitamin, Vitamin A. This type of specific change is in contrast to changes that occur in thousands of genes that are altered all at once in the usual approach of crossing plants, which [has] been done for centuries.  When one gene is changed, the situation is ideal for assessing what occurs with this one change, as this kind of precision agriculture can be turned on and off at will.  Since this modification is beneficial to people who do not get enough of this nutrient in the developing world, there should not have been roadblocks erected to the dissemination of golden rice to people who need it. The general method of generating GE foods has been proven to be safe by a huge number of scientific organizations, but in each case, of course the specific results can be tested using the scientific method. I am fully in favor of the Nobel Laureates’ petition and hope that it will help dispel the irrational fears that have appeared as a result of misleading efforts by Greenpeace and other organizations.”

According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Program, global production of food, feed and fiber will need to more than double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population.

The letter, signed by 110 Nobel laureates argues that Greenpeace is leading the opposition campaign to “modern plant breeding” and went on to “urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’ in general and Golden Rice in particular.”

But Greenpeace maintains that it is not blocking Golden Rice and claims even the International Rice Research Institute – a nonprofit group which has developed Golden Rice – has not found it to sufficiently address Vitamin A deficiency.

The group of laureates, however, say genetically engineered foods are safe and that there isn’t a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome from consumption of GMO foods.

“Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped. How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”? the laureates write in the letter.

In a rebuttal, Greenpeace said in a statement: “Accusations that anyone is blocking genetically engineered ‘Golden’ rice are false. ‘Golden’ rice has failed as a solution and isn’t currently available for sale, even after more than 20 years of research.”

March 24, 2014: Greenpeace, Organic farmers, and consumer groups rallied in front of the Department of Agriculture to urge Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala not to approve the genetically modified Golden Rice for commercial consumption. (Luis liwanag/Greenpeace)

March 24, 2014: Greenpeace, Organic farmers, and consumer groups rally to urge the Philippines’ Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala not to approve genetically modified Golden Rice for commercial consumption. (Luis liwanag/Greenpeace)

Schekman said one reason for the letter to Greenpeace was to counter the organization’s claims that scientists are divided on the benefits and potential dangers of GMO foods. Schekman maintains that the “vast majority of professional life scientists … actively support this work and its use in solving the world’s pressing needs.”

According to the World Health Organization, around 250 million people suffer from Vitamin A deficiency globally and about 40 percent of those people are children under five years old in the developing world. Vitamin A deficiency is also the leading cause of childhood blindness, from which between 250,000 and 500,000 children suffer globally each year, WHO reports.

But skeptics of GMO agriculture, such as Prof. Marcello Buiatti with the Department of Genetics at the University of Florence cite concerns about the unknown long-term effects of using GMOs, such as the unknown implications of GMOs leaking into the environment through cross-pollination.

Other critics say the International Rice Research Institute may be heavily influenced by the private funding they have accepted from agricultural biotechnology corporations, including Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta.

In addition, the International Rice Research Institute’s Golden Rice program was run from 2003 to 2013 by former Monsanto executive of 20 years, Gerard Barry.

The laureates’ letter came just two days before Vermont became the first U.S. state to require all GMOs be labeled as such.

While Vermont’s 2014 law took effect on Friday, federal legislation pending in Congress, if passed, could override Vermont’s labeling requirement with a more lenient national labeling standard.

By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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