Nobel Laureate: EU politicians ignore ‘politically unwelcome’ GMO science

Sir Richard Roberts: "Not everyone who expresses concerns is a reliable spokesperson." [Sebastian Olenyi]

European politicians support a great deal of scientific research but they often do not pay attention to the results if they are “politically unwelcome”, Nobelist Richard Roberts told EurActiv.com.

Sir Richard Roberts is an English biochemist and molecular biologist. A Nobel Laureate, he is the signatory of the 100+ Nobel Laureates letter supporting precision agriculture and GMOs.

He spoke with EurActiv’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

When and why did you start collecting signatures for your petition? What impact has it had until now?

I began seriously collecting signatures in July 2015 after I had talked with a number of Laureates about the general GMO issue and was encouraged to pursue the matter.

So far we have received a lot of press and relatively little response from the Green parties. Greenpeace have not replied to the letter I sent to them at the end of June.

The campaign will continue as long as necessary for people to realise they are being deliberately misled by the Green parties.

The petition wonders how many poor people in the world will have to die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”. Seriously?

Very seriously! Many people in the developing world are deliberately being denied the opportunity to use modern agricultural techniques to raise their quality of life.

Just golden rice alone, if its development was not being hampered, has the possibility to save many children from blindness and developmental defects. Currently, as many as 2 million children die every year from vitamin A deficiency.

In Uganda, the banana crops are being hit by a wilt for which there is no natural resistance in any species of banana. 30% of the population’s calories derive from bananas. If they lose that important food source millions across sub-Saharan Africa could die.

Yet there is a GMO solution. How many people must die before it becomes inescapable that the Green parties’ positions on GMOs are killing people?

Those opposed to GMOs argue that “it is better to be safe than sorry”. What is your response?

Since there is now no reason to think anyone would be sorry when the technology has proven to be at least as safe, if not safer, than traditional plant breeding this argument is meaningless.

Furthermore, the history of innovation has always involved some risk. We would have many fewer road accidents if we had stuck to horse and carriage transportation instead of developing cars.

The key question is not about safety per se, but rather about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Ask the average African about the risks of not having a good supply of healthy nutritious food.

How do you explain the fact that so many Europeans reject GMOs? What did the agri-food industry do wrong?

When GMOs were first introduced into Europe, Monsanto benefitted handsomely, the farmers benefitted a little and there was nothing in it for the consumers other than a slight price increase.

Since Europe didn’t need GMOs and in general were suspicious of big agri-business, it became easy for Green parties, notably Greenpeace, to conflate the two issues, which they did.

They could be against GMOs, arguing it would hurt Monsanto and at the same time they could make the case for saving Europe by scaring everyone with stories of disasters that might ensue from the widespread use of GMOs.

It worked and was hugely profitable to Greenpeace both in terms of fundraising and gaining political power. And best of all, there was no real cost to the European consumer.

Do you believe that the recent Bayer-Monsanto deal could increase the pressure on EU policymakers regarding GMOs? In addition, do you see this as good news for farmers?

I don’t know enough about agri-business to comment on the impact of this deal.

The EU claims to rely on scientific evidence for its decision-making. At the same time, it also strives for democratic inclusiveness in its legislative procedures, taking on board the views of a high number of stakeholders. What is the right balance?

It does seem to be true that EU politicians support a great deal of scientific research and yet they often don’t pay attention to the results if they are politically unwelcome.

This makes me wonder why they support so much science if they don’t want to listen to the results. The issue of balance is a reasonable one, but it does mean that the politicians and their staff need to be more careful about just who they listen to.

Not everyone who expresses concerns is a reliable spokesperson. For the most part though scientists do tend to stick with facts and do not get away with lying in the way that many of the Green parties seem to.