TCS Daily


Dressing Down Environmental Fashion

By Dean Kleckner - March 28, 2001 12:00 AM

Patagonia, maker of "environmentally conscious" sportswear and enemy of conventional agriculture, has issued a "chicken little" alert to its customers over genetically modified crops. Employing the usual bad science and scare tactics, the trendy clothing manufacturer is calling GMOs "a dark threat to all that is wild." Instead of making use of proven new methods that have fed billions of hungry people, Patagonia is urging its customers to "Go organic! Only certified organic food is guaranteed to be free of genetically engineered ingredients."

Consumers are used to Patagonia latching on to fashionable environmental causes to sell $110 fleece pullovers, but this latest publicity campaign comes at a particularly critical time in the debate over biotechnology. With the support of the farm community, the North Dakota legislature is currently weighing a bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on the planting of genetically modified wheat. Farmers are quick to point out that their support isn't based on principle - half the soybeans and cotton American farmers plant every year are genetically modified, after all - but on fear. The global propaganda campaign against biotechnology -- aided and abetted by the capitalists-cum-fear-mongers at Patagonia - has convinced them that their exports to Europe and Japan will suffer if North Dakota wheat is grown from genetically modified seeds.

But before the American public starts to believe the sky is falling over biotechnology, they should take a good long look at the facts. The Patagonia scare campaign implies that new Food and Drug Administration rules will allow genetically modified products to reach supermarket shelves without scientific review of their safety for humans and the environment. But the fact is, no American farmer is interested in marketing products that are unhealthy and unsafe. Period. And we have ways, through testing and retesting and peer review, to determine if products are safe.

No industry in recent history has undergone more independent analysis than the biotech industry. Hundreds of independent reports have been published on the safety of these crops and no threat has been found. The American Medical Association recently published a yearlong study of genetically modified products. Their conclusion? These foods are safe for people and won't harm the environment.

But perhaps even more importantly, it is critical for farmers to stand together to expose the cynicism of anti-biotech publicity campaigns such as Patagonia's. It was farmers, after all - American farmers - who brought about the "Green revolution" in agriculture that is credited for having saved a billion people from starving to death. And the green revolution continues today with the help of biotechnology. By 2050, there will be 9 billion mouths to feed. Only biotechnology can bridge the gap between the growing world population and the shrinking amount of arable land. Genetically modified crops produce higher yields of more nutritious crops. The day is coming when genetically modified foods will even contain vital vaccines to help fight disease. Why would Patagonia want to deny these benefits to a hungry world?

What's more, biotech advances are ridding agriculture of the environmentally damaging practices that Patagonia has spent years condemning. Products currently in use and others in the development pipeline are reducing the need for chemicals to control weeds and insects and producing higher yielding crops without the need to cultivate more land. But instead of embracing biotechnology as the key to enviro-friendly agriculture, Patagonia advocates its opposite. It proudly advertises the claim that its expensive sportswear is produced using only "organic" cotton.

In fact, organic methods use more farmland and often produce crops with lower nutritional value -- and pass the higher costs on to the consumer. Conventional farming methods often surpass organic yields while using fewer acres to do it. Less land use prevents soil erosion and adds to soil conservation. The fact is, Patagonia's fashionable promotion of organic farming methods is the real cause for environmental and food safety alarm.

North Dakota farmers, like all farmers, have two roles to play, both of which are being enhanced today by biotechnology. First, farmers are businessmen and women. We have to produce and sell a product. And that means we have to worry about having markets for our product.

But being a farmer also means being a part of a larger, moral mission to feed people who otherwise wouldn't be able to feed themselves. Instead of capitulating to the agents of fear, farmers should seize the moral high ground that is rightfully ours in the biotechnology debate.

We ought to ask those who demagogue the issue of biotechnology, how many vitamin A-deficient blind children will you allow to achieve your objective? How many iron deficient women must die in childbirth so you can sell outdoor gear to the "environmentally conscious"? How many more lives will you sacrifice for your "cause"?

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