The earthquake in Haiti has caused more than 100,000 deaths and destroyed the homes of 1.5 million people. It’s a devastating blow to Haiti—but we don’t know how to prevent earthquakes. All we can do is help Haiti rebuild.
On the other hand, we do know how to prevent 500,000 kids from going blind every year—and even dying—due to severe Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). But we’re not preventing the blindness or the deaths. Instead, we’re accepting the tragedy of millions of blind kids, plus the deaths of hundreds of thousands of pregnant women who die from needless birth complications, also due to VAD. The Vitamin A problem is far bigger than the Haitian earthquake, and it keeps on going, year after year.
We started trying to cure Vitamin A deficiency 20 years ago, after a Swiss government researcher bioengineered “golden rice.” The new rice contained a gene from the daffodil that codes for beta-carotene. The human body can then make Vitamin A out of the beta carotene. Kids in rich countries get most of their Vitamin A from meat, milk and eggs, but poor-country kids live mainly on such plant foods as rice, cassava and sweet potatoes. None provide much bio-available Vitamin A.
But Greenpeace and its eco-allies claimed—without evidence—that such genetic engineering is a “danger to the planet.”
Even after Syngenta developed a corn-based “golden rice II” with vastly more beta carotene—and offered it free to the Third World—Greenpeace still said no.
Only now, after 20 years of blockade and delay, are we finally seeing the dramatic benefits of growing Vitamin A crops in the local fields. In the Mukono District of Uganda, they’re growing bio-fortified sweet potatoes. Here, about 25 percent of the children used to be wan and sickly, prone to severe diarrhea, pneumonia, eye inflammations and blindness. Most of the kids are now healthy and vigorous. Pregnant women are thriving, along with their babies.
The difference? Orange-colored sweet potatoes, supplied by Uganda’s national agricultural research organization. They’re rich in beta-carotene, and they produce high yields because they resist local crop diseases. The germ plasm for the new sweet potatoes originated at HarvestPlus—Norman Borlaug’s international farm research organization that saved a billion people from starving in the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
“A danger to the planet,” of course is what Greenpeace has called virtually every recent advance in global food production. At the same time, they claim the earth cannot sustainably feed the people already here. The European Union, to its shame, has backed up Greenpeace with threats to boycott the farm exports of any country which allows biotech plantings. In India, rice farmers protested plantings of the new rice, for fear the EU’s ban on biotech foods would block their exports of high-value basmati rice.
HarvestPlus finally decided to breed around the Greenpeace blockade. It took more than a decade of laborious test plots and back-crossing, but now cross-bred beta-carotene is being planted in farmers’ fields—and the Mukono mothers say their kids have become remarkably healthier. All it cost was 20 more years, 10 million more blindings, and millions of maternal deaths.
HarvestPlus notes that much of the Third World’s population is caught in a health-poverty trap. Blind and ill family members and orphans need extra care from the able-bodied family members or from the society’s resources. They never get ahead. Instead, struggling people and their large families keep slashing-and-burning more subsistence crops and hunting endangered animals with cheap AK-47s.
Not even Greenpeace should want a poverty-stricken world full of blind children.