March 29, 2005
Facts versus Fears on Biotechnology
The Congress of Racial Equality's recent conference, video and commentary on agricultural biotechnology* presented personal testimonials from African farmers whose lives have been improved by genetically modified crops, impressive data on progress, and a message of hope for poor, malnourished people in developing countries. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
But not from all quarters. Predictably, anti-GM zealots continue to offer a steady stream of unsupported and unsupportable invective. To hear them tell it, biotechnology is a scourge that will do nothing to save lives or reduce poverty and malnutrition. Evil multinationals like Monsanto are determined to impose a new form of slavery that will displace poor people from their lands.
The fear-mongering would be hilarious, if the hate-GM campaign didn't have such tragic consequences for a world where 800 million people are chronically malnourished, and 3 billion struggle to survive on less than $700 a year. A healthy dose of facts is in order.
GM crops are created with great care in laboratories, using techniques that are far more precise than anything previously. They are tested repeatedly and are regulated by the EPA, FDA, USDA and other agencies. Americans have collectively eaten over a trillion servings of food containing one or more GM ingredients, without a single case of harm. Indeed, as Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore and others have demonstrated, every single claim of risk to people or the environment, from monarch butterfly deaths to destabilized insect ecology, diminished biodiversity and dangers to human health, has been refuted by scientific studies.
And yet, radical groups like Greenpeace and Sierra Club continue to place ultra-precaution against minor, distant, theoretical risks to healthy, well-fed Westerners above the very real, immediate, life-threatening risks faced by our Earth's poorest and most malnourished people.
Thankfully, despite all the invectives, farmers the world over are increasingly turning to GM technology, planting 200 million acres last year. They don't for a minute believe ag biotech is a magic bullet that will make them rich or solve the world's hunger problems. But they know it dramatically increases crop yields, farm profits and people's nutrition while reducing pesticide use, crop losses to drought, insects and disease, and the amount of land that will be needed to feed a world population that is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050 before leveling off.
Biotech cotton has let Chinese farmers reduce their pesticide use by 50 to 70 percent while increasing their yields by 25 to 66 percent, and their incomes by US$300 per hectare (US$120 per acre). Since most of these chemicals were applied via hand spraying, they've also slashed accidental pesticide poisoning. Farmers in India, Africa and Latin America have had similar experiences.
If the world had to rely on organic farming or 1960s agricultural technologies to produce as much food as it actually did in 2000, notes Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize laureate for the first Green Revolution, we would have had to double the amount of land under cultivation. Millions of acres of forest and grassland habitats would have been slashed, burned and plowed for subsistence farming or millions more people would have starved. As human populations grow, the problem would only worsen. Instead, thanks to biotechnology, farmers can grow far more from the same acreage, thereby preserving habitats and fostering biodiversity and nutrition.
Biotech plants also eliminate pests like corn borers, which chew pathways for dangerous fungal contaminants. They thus reduce rot and waste and mycotoxins that cause fatal diseases in animals, and cancer, reduced immunity and birth defects in humans. By contrast, organic corn meals purchased right off British supermarket shelves had fumonisin levels up to 50 times higher than conventional or biotech corn and 20 to 30 times the allowable limits set by UK law. Many organic fruits and vegetables also have e-coli bacterial levels sharply higher than conventionally grown crops.
By reducing the need to cultivate for weed control, herbicide-tolerant crops greatly decrease soil erosion (by nearly a billion tons per year), keeping sediment out of lakes and streams. No-till farming also reduces fuel use (by some 300 million gallons of gasoline a year), and increases carbon dioxide uptake by soils, good news for anyone worried about global warming. Increased crop yields, in turn, mean African farmers can grow enough crops to feed livestock, so they can regularly include protein in their diets for perhaps the first time in their lives.
But anti-GM activists wont let anything as silly as facts affect their misplaced resolve to stop biotech progress in its tracks. A typical ploy is to portray Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser as a victim, sued by the villainous Monsanto to enforce its intellectual property rights, after GM crops had adventitiously appeared on his land.
It's a compelling story if you ignore the facts and court decisions. In affirming Schmeiser's conviction for patent violation, Canada's Supreme Court observed that it defied belief that 90 percent of his crop (1,030 acres or 1.5 square miles) was adventitiously converted to biotech varieties by seeds or pollen blown in from neighboring fields. As his own field hand testified, Schmeiser had carefully collected and treated seeds from biotech canola grown on a small section of his farm. He then planted those seeds in nine separate fields. He got caught, Monsanto sued, and his phony defense got laughed out of court. Percy Schmeiser, the court noted, was not an innocent bystander.
Yet another canard is the claim that modern farming practices will displace farmers. In 1780, over 95 percent of Americans were farmers; today about 3 percent are, and they grow many times more food per acre than their ancestors ever dreamed was possible. Those who abandoned farms were displaced to cities. But would their descendents, including urban environmentalists, prefer to give up their modern comforts and return to the era of sunup-to-sundown, back-breaking farm labor?
As Grandmother Driessen used to say, the only good thing about the good old days is that they're gone. Kenya's Akinye Arunga puts it this way: "Cute indigenous lifestyles simply mean indigenous poverty, indigenous malnutrition, indigenous disease and childhood death. I don't wish this on my worst enemy, and I wish our so-called friends would stop imposing it on us."
Unfortunately, radical activists are doing exactly that. They are preventing poor Africans from acquiring modern farming methods, adequate electricity and pesticides to control malaria. Their callous ideology is certainly an efficient form of all-natural population control. But it violates Third World people's basic human rights to nutrition, and life itself.
As to enslaving farmers, ag biotech actually frees them from much of the drudgery of subsistence farming. It cuts the time they have to spend in fields, doubles or triples their yields, feeds their families (and their neighbor's families), and puts money in their pockets. As an African Patrick Henry might say, "If this be slavery, make the most of it."
But the anti-biotech campaigners charge ahead, oblivious to the suffering and malnutrition they are helping to perpetuate, and to the hopes and dreams they are suffocating.
The campaign underscores the adage that nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity, except perhaps deliberate eco-manslaughter. No wonder Dr. Moore says the greens' opposition to biotechnology clearly exposes their intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
*CORE's biotechnology conference was held in the United Nations General Assembly hall on January 18, 2005; its video, Voices from Africa: Biotechnology and the subsistence farmer, is available from CORE by contacting Cyril Boynes at 212-598-4000 or email@example.com; the commentary offers the views of African farmers who now plant GM crops, and was posted on websites all over the world.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death (www.eco-imperialism.com). Cyril Boynes is CORE's director of international programs.
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