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Golden rice as a way to prevent blindness in children gains public support

Marlo Asis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the evening of October 16 at 8pm, concerned Americans from various sectors of society and several international fellows from the Cornell Alliance for Science united at the Capitol Building for a candle light vigil in honor of children suffering from Vitamin A deficiency.

Before the vigil started, the group of Golden rice supporters marched from the Greenpeace Headquarters at 702 H St. NW going to the north side of the Capitol Building (following 7th St. -->  Pennsylvania St.).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Vitamin A deficiency or VAD is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections.

VAD is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, hitting hardest young children and pregnant women in low-income countries.

An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight, said the WHO report.

VAD is a preventable condition that can be remedied by fortifying Vitamin A in food.

Golden rice is a genetically engineered type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. It is being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (a not for profit research organization based in the Philippines) as a potential new food-based approach to improve vitamin A status.

The concerned citizens group led by Stephen Neidenbach is mobilizing a signature campaign through an online petition (sign here) asking the United States Senate to condemn the destruction of Golden Rice trial plots as well as offer full support of the Bangladeshi Golden Rice trials currently under way.

As of this writing, 1,373 people from all over the world and all walks of life - scientists, lawyers, bloggers, journalists, mothers, and ordinary citizens, none of them from the biotech industry have signed the online petition.

The petition says that GM crops are a critical resource in accelerating increases in crop productivity in general, as well as in enhancing their nutritional value to treat malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies. In that context, Golden Rice is a critical resource in fighting the devastating consequences of widespread vitamin A deficiency in developing nations.

Neidenbach said that the petitioners are trying to get the US senators to acknowledge the damage done to the Golden rice field trials in the Philippines several years ago and hope that the Senate will denounce any future attempts with the ongoing field trials in Bangladesh.

Cornell Alliance for Science fellows from Philippines and Bangladesh signed the petition and were present in the vigil to support the ongoing Bangladeshi Golden rice trials and to condemn destruction of field trials in the Philippines.

New technologies often evoke fears that they are dangerous. Destroying a new technology based on such fears without testing its safety and efficacy can deprive humanity of a very valuable and much-needed advance.

In this case, many more millions will needlessly suffer blindness and death because Golden Rice was not available to them. No group, regardless of its intentions, has the right to condemn a technology without evidence. It is an unconscionable criminal act to destroy a field trial conducted in accordance to international safety norms, stated in the petition.

“Ultimately the petitioners want the fear-mongering regarding the genetic engineering technology to end. Anti-GMO groups are rising up against multinational companies like Monsanto while completely ignoring the benefits and valuable uses the technology could offer,” said Neidenbach.

Golden rice could help prevent blindness of children in developing countries due to Vitamin A deficiency, however those opposing GMOs are protesting issues such as pesticides which doesn’t have anything to do with the technology and are lumping issues together especially the labeling bills that Vermont passed.

One way ordinary citizens can help children with blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency is by supporting technologies used to fight it whether it’s by traditional breeding, through genetic modification, or whether some new technology coming up that we don’t even know yet, he added.

Neidenbach is seeking Democrat senators to co-sponsor safe and accurate Food Labeling Act, hopefully getting public support through petition signing in Indiana and his home state Maryland.

“We need to fight fear and the best way to do that is with facts and more effective science communication, share more of the positive stories in media, and ignore the myths,” he added.

Meanwhile a married couple from Maryland, Natalie Newell and her husband Brian, attended the candlelight vigil for Children Blinded by VAD (Vitamin A deficiency) to show support for science particularly biotechnology.

“We were there to show that average citizens, without ties to any corporations, support science, and the ways in which science is positively impacting the world's food supply.”

Newell said that there is a simple and available solution to the problem of VAD which is golden rice, and it would be a shame to see misinformation about biotechnology get in the way of helping so many children.

“I don't think that many people in this country realize that there are problems elsewhere in the world that can be positively impacted by biotech. I actually wonder how many people know about golden rice,” she added.

Newell agrees that the GMO/non GMO debate is a first world issue and unfortunately, people in developing nations like the Philippines and Bangladesh are affected by this debate. Those opposing GMOs are depriving children from developing countries the benefits of the technology.

Newell is a mother of two boys (a 2 ½  year old and a 10 month old) and principal of a small private school in Bethesda, MD. Having started the Science Moms project a couple months ago, she already has a couple hundred Facebook followers and she hope to continue to create an online community of science-minded moms (and dads, and other appreciators of science).

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