Some New Zealand scientists are backing an open letter by more than 100 Nobel laureates which urges environmental group Greenpeace to end its opposition to genetically-modified food, in particular a new rice which has the potential to reduce disease in third-world countries.
It comes as farmers lobby for more relaxed rules for GMOs in New Zealand, following significant changes to labelling of gene-edited products in the United States.
In an open letter released yesterday, the Nobel Prize winners said environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, had opposed biotechnological innovation in agriculture and misrepresented the risks, benefits and impacts.
"We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognise the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular."
Golden Rice has been genetically modified to provide Vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world. It was first developed in the 1990s but it was not introduced until 2013 due to regulatory hurdles and protests by Greenpeace and other environmental groups.
Director of Genetics Otago Professor Peter Dearden said he agreed with the letter's authors.
"It is time for us to stop believing that all GM is bad and to see that the benefits can far outweigh the risks," he said.
"This is not to say we should have no regulation, but that such regulation should be evidence-based and not coloured by the view that GM is necessarily bad."
In May, the US National Academies of Sciences published a report on GM crops, which found no substantiated evidence of risks to human health.
Professor Barry Scott, of Massey University's Institute of Fundamental Sciences, said the endorsement of that report by more than 100 Nobel laureates added "considerable weight" to its evidence. It also challenged the "extreme" view of Greenpeace.
Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture.
"The new technologies associated with gene and genome editing further challenges the irrationality of such an extreme view given changes can now be made to the genome that are similar to those made by non-GM methods such as radiation treatment."
Greenpeace New Zealand could not be reached for comment. But an international representative said any claim that it was blocking the distribution of Golden Rice was false.
"Golden' rice has failed as a solution and isn't currently available for sale, even after more than 20 years of research," said Wilhelmina Pelegrina, campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Corporations were "overhyping" Golden Rice to pave the way for other more profitable GMO crops, she said.
"Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture."
The open letter comes as Federated Farmers dairy chairman called for the anti-GM movement in New Zealand to "give some ground".
In his speech at the organisation's annual meeting on Monday, Andrew Hoggard said New Zealand had some "damn strict" rules around genetically modified organisms. He pointed to legislation in the United States which would not require gene-edited products to be labelled as genetically modified.
"We should ensure that our laws are in sync with those countries we aim to trade with and extract a product premium from," Mr Hoggard said.