GMO activists have launched a campaign to get EU approval for genetically engineered crops, staging a protest outside a Brussels office of environmental group Greenpeace today (23 January).

A few protesters gathered outside one of the Greenpeace offices in Brussels at 11 a.m. and held up banners describing the environmental group’s position against GM crops as a “crime against humanity”. The aim was to use the environmental NGO's own tactics against it.

The protest was led by Patrick Moore, one of the founding members of Greenpeace, turned pro-GMO activist. Moore argues that the potential for GM crops such as 'Golden Rice', a vitamin A enriched form of the dietary staple, could prevent millions of deaths as well as blindness from malnutrition in the developing world.

Moore is a controversial figure among some environmental circles. He left Greenpeace 28 years ago though he still refers to his ties with the organisation in speeches about the benefits of GM crops. Moore has denied that humanity has played a large role in climate change and has advocated the logging of tropical rainforests.

Yesterday, the British environment minister, Owen Paterson, Moore and members of the GMO industry said that the EU was missing out on the potential of GM crops at a conference in Brussels.

“I firmly believe in the benefits of GM crops to the consumer, farmers and the environment,” the conservative minister said, while he conceded that they were “not a panacea”.

At the conference hosted by the bio-tech industry association EuropaBio, Paterson said the EU risked “sending a message that we’re anti-science, anti-innovation” by not approving GM crops for cultivation.

Paterson has said that the EU risks becoming a “museum of world farming” without making use of genetic engineering.

The minister condemned the destruction of Golden Rice test crops in the Philippines by people associated with Greenpeace last August.

“Scientific trials must be allowed to continue,” he said. “They trashed a genuine scientific trial. That was wicked.”

Moore told EurActiv that scientists were working hard to produce GM crops that had only benefits, such as Golden Rice, and that “every GM has to be treated on its own merits … you could have a bad GM. It would be easy to make one that would harm people”.

As part of the campaign, EuropaBio has launched a website to “highlight the broad based and growing constituency of interest in genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe”.

No people with a position against GM crops, including members of green NGOs, were present on the panel at the conference.

Genetic engineering ‘crude and old fashioned’

In emailed comments to EurActiv, Greenpeace’s food and agriculture director, Marco Contiero, said: “GM ‘Golden’ rice is, in fact, an expensive and risky experiment that for the past 20 years has failed to deliver a real solution for Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and diverts necessary funding from effective solutions that already exist and work.”

Contiero referred to a statement by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which said “it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient, and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.” The institute says it plans further research on the matter.

IRRI also added that Golden Rice would only be made available in the Philippines “if it is approved by national regulators and shown to reduce vitamin A deficiency in community conditions. This process may take another two years or more.”

Contiero countered Paterson’s assertion that without GM crops the EU risked becoming a “museum."

"Genetic engineering is a crude and old fashioned technology belonging in a museum. The science of plant breeding has moved on," said Contiero, adding that it would be wiser for governments to pursue alternatives.

“More modern biotechnologies such as Marker Assisted Selection are providing brilliant results. Drought tolerant wheat varieties and flood resistant rice varieties are already in farmers’ fields,” he argued.

The debate about GMOs has flared recently in Brussels, with a majority of members of the European Parliament voting against the market approval of a form of GM maize, Pioneer 1507.