International scientific community gears up to fight Greenpeace in court in effort to defend Golden Rice

News is coming in that the scientific community and government institutions in the Philippines are prepared to fight Greenpeace all the way back to the Supreme Court in order to defend Golden Rice. Motions for reconsideration were filed in early May at the court of appeals in Manila asking the court to reconsider its decision, and pointing out that the justification for the verdict was a misapplication of the precautionary principle not a reasoned examination of the scientific evidence.

If the court of appeals refuses to back down, then the scientists can and likely will appeal to the Supreme Court, where all this nonsense started with the petition by the activists for a Writ of Kalikasan and Continuing Mandamus. (This is a uniquely Filipino legal thing about harm to Mother Earth.) There is no set timeframe but a response is expected from the appeals court within a couple of months, with a possible move back to the Supreme Court thereafter.

What we know is that hundreds of tonnes of Golden Rice remain in limbo at various PhilRice stations, with the agency now seeking legal advice over whether the vitamin A-enhanced rice can still be consumed by the intended beneficiaries (malnourished children) or whether, thanks to Greenpeace et al, the healthier rice will now have to be destroyed. The court only rescinded the cultivation permit, so the food safety permit remains intact – but not surprisingly the agency is keen not to look like it is in contempt of court.

A number of Golden Rice crops remain to be harvested, and seeds from these crops will be kept in humidity-controlled storage so that cultivation can hopefully resume when the Filipino legal system comes to its senses. It should be noted that more months or even years of delay are exactly what Greenpeace and the other anti-science groups want – they do not need a definitive judgement, just endless legal blockages and uncertainties, which raise costs and make it more likely the scientists will eventually throw in the towel.

Meanwhile, international outrage is mounting at Greenpeace, whose successful court action to block Golden Rice in the Philippines (because it’s genetically modified, and no other reasons) will potentially lead to the deaths of thousands of vitamin A-deficient young children in the country, as well as elsewhere in Asia and the wider Global South. Last weekend liberal media bastion The Observer published a blistering editorial which panned the “dangerous mindset” of anti-GM groups like Greenpeace, which by ignoring all “scientific evidence to the contrary” risk “causing widespread harm” in countries like the Philippines. Bravo!

This followed an article in the Guardian by science editor Robin McKie which led with the warning by scientists that “tens of thousands of children could die” in the wake of the decision by the Philippines court of appeal to stop Golden Rice, which Greenpeace for its part described as a “monumental win”. (I wrote about the issue a couple of weeks earlier in the Spectator.)

Sadly the International Rice Research Institute (which runs the Golden Rice project) seems to be maintaining its tight-lipped no comment policy, refusing to give quotes to the media or stand up for its own project in public. Duh. This is sci-comms 101, and I hope that those in charge at IRRI realise that successful communications does not mean simply leaving the ground clear for the anti-science opposition to get its messages out. Let the voices of science be heard too!

There is also more than Golden Rice at stake, and even the anti-GMO crowd seems to have realised that their wide-ranging court judgement is an own goal that risks harming overall food security in the country. In point 8 of their April 17 decision the three appeals court justices enjoined “any application for contained use, field testing, direct use as food or feed, or processing, commercial propagation, and importation of genetically modified organisms”.

This sounds like it blocks all importation of soy and corn, which are important in animal feeds and without which the farming sector will be harmed and food prices rise for everyone in the country. Needless to say, Greenpeace-driven rises in food prices for an entire nation of 115 million people – and remember high food prices hit the poorest hardest – is a bit of a PR nightmare for Greenpeace.

Bt corn is also grown fairly extensively in the Philippines (containing a gene against the stem borer, thereby reducing pesticides) so the anti-science groups may have just inadvertently destroyed that sector of Filipino national farming too. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Now there is a danger that this farce will spill over into neighbouring countries also. Bangladesh, for inexplicable bureaucratic reasons, has sat on a Golden Rice approval now for six years already, and the authorities are no doubt nervously watching developments in the Philippines. For now it is important that the Bangladeshi government understands that the Filipino court judgement was deeply flawed, and has no bearing on food safety issues for Golden Rice.

If Bangladeshi regulators are spooked by Greenpeace’s Philippines debacle, it will add more years of unnecessary delay. Each year of delay costs uncountable thousands of lives of the poorest and most vulnerable in society: malnourished children.