TCS Daily


Hands Off My French Fries!

By James Freeman - May 22, 2000 12:00 AM

Recently in this space I criticized the campaign against genetically-modified foods. I pointed out that modern biotechnology was simply a more efficient breeding tool, and that farmers had been altering genes for centuries. Apparently, this process may have begun even earlier. According to Nobel Prize-winner Norman Borlaug, Neolithic women domesticated the first crop species more than 10,000 years ago.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 because he brought high-yield agriculture (sophisticated plant breeding) to poor countries and saved millions of people from starvation. Often called the "Father of the Green Revolution," Borlaug is a big reason why agricultural yields have more than tripled since the late 1960s. In other words, we've figured out how to get much more food out of the same area of land. In a 1997 profile for the Atlantic Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook wrote, "Norman Borlaug has already saved more lives than any other person who ever lived."

Borlaug, like many other scientists, is concerned that bogus claims from the environmental movement could put the brakes on the Green Revolution. At a recent dedication ceremony for a Texas A&M research center named in his honor, Borlaug said, "These new technologies and crop advances can produce the food needed for the next 25 years, but we need to educate people about these crops and their safety...Never for a minute think we are going to build world peace on empty stomachs. It won`t happen."

My earlier column was business - I believe I have a responsibility to alert you to junk science in the media. And I certainly want technology to save the starving millions around the globe. But now it`s personal. That`s because anti-technology zealots recently intimidated McDonald`s into announcing that the company will no longer buy genetically-modified potatoes for its french fries. What does that mean to me?

It means the beginning of the end for the medium-sized Value Meal #1. That`s a Big Mac with medium fries and medium drink for $2.99 at the McDonald`s in Vienna, Virginia. In terms of value for your dollar, you just cannot beat the #1 meal. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, it is the greatest food in the world.

If you want to make a case that super-sizing up to $3.79 is a superior value, I can certainly respect that. And the #3 meal with the Quarter Pounder also has a strong argument, ditto that Taco Bell combo with the two chalupas and the beef taco. But there is no doubt that the efficiency of American agriculture has allowed us to take cheap, delicious food for granted. (Efficient agriculture also makes beef inexpensive because it provides cheap feed for cattle herds.)

The power of high-tech, high-yield agriculture is even more evident at the supermarket. There is little debate today about the value of fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet. And thanks to the application of technology, you can pick up most fresh produce for less than $2.00 a pound. Yesterday I picked up a head of lettuce for 79 cents, a green pepper for 72 cents, an apple for 41 cents and a twelver of Miller High Life for $5.95. (Grains and cereals are important, too.) We should all understand that if we say yes to the anti-biotech crowd, we also have to say yes to rising prices for the foods we eat.

If you've ever strolled through a Whole Foods Market, which sells food produced without the benefit of the latest science, you will notice two things. The food looks very weird, and it's very expensive. I have no problem with that. That's the great thing about the free market. If somebody wants to believe that they'll be healthier eating that stuff, even though all the available evidence shows you get the same nutrition from an organic plant and a plant grown on a high-tech farm, the consumer should be free to do that. But when political activists come over to where I shop and start pressuring the management to raise prices on my food, that's when I get angry.

We should all be angry because there's nothing behind this media campaign against technology. The environmentalists have lost this battle within the scientific community. There have been no disasters in the food supply. So they've resorted to media stunts and political intimidation.

I want to continue eating the same genetically-modified McDonald's french fries that I've been enjoying for years. In fact, for anyone who is at all concerned about the use of science and technology in producing agricultural products, I'm willing to serve as a guinea pig. I'm hereby announcing my availability to be the test subject in a study of the effects of high-tech fast food on American diners. No need to thank me. It's just my way of serving consumers -- billions and billions of them.
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