Owen Paterson has poured fresh fuel on the debate about genetically modified foods by declaring opponents of GM crops as “wicked”.

By standing in the way of GM crops such as “golden” rice – which has been modified to be high in vitamin A and which pro-GM voices consider an important tool in the fight against childhood blindness and death in the developing world – environmental campaigners were risking condemning numerous children to death, the Defra secretary of state suggested in an interview with the Independent.

“It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology,” Paterson was quoted as saying. “I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked.”

Since joining Defra last autumn, Paterson has frequently voiced pro-GM opinions. In a speech at the Rothamsted research institute in June, he said GM technology could herald a second agricultural revolution and had the potential to increase agricultural outputs while minimising the impact on the environment. He also referred to golden rice in June, saying it had the potential to save children’s lives.

Paterson’s comments come as a group of 11 scientists is calling for golden rice to be rolled out as a matter. In a letter in the journal Science, headed “Standing up for GMOs”, the scientists hit out at anti-GM campaigners and NGOs for standing in the way of golden rice being used, which they described as an “outrage”.

At the same time, a new campaign group, called Allow Golden Rice Now, has launched a push for golden rice, accusing those of opposing the GM crop of being guilty of “a crime against humanity”.

However, opponents of GM have accused those in favour of golden rice of exaggerating its benefits. Responding to the editorial in Science, GM Watch said the IRRI – the rice industry body overseeing trials of golden rice – had suggested the efficacy of golden rice in preventing illness had not yet been proven conclusively.

GM Watch also said it was incorrect to suggest golden rice was ready to be deployed by farmers if only campaigners did not stand in the way. “The principle reasons why golden rice is not available have little to do with those challenging the value of golden rice,” it said. “In the words of Dr Michael Hansen, who has been carefully following the research for years: ‘Bottom line, even if there had been no push back from NGOs, golden rice would still not be on the market due to the technical issues, e.g. getting the engineered traits crossed into Indica rices that people will actually eat.’”