TCS Daily

Buy Patagonia: Support World Hunger

By Duane D. Freese - April 2, 2001 12:00 AM

When you walk into 1048 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., in Washington's Georgetown, you'll find a store looks about like any other trendy "outdoor wear" boutique, from Banana Republic to Urban Outfitters.

Only Patagonia, named after the often-forbidding expanse of southern Argentina, has a purpose -- to raise fears among its clientele of well-heeled backpackers. A table filled with pamphlets, one attacking Frankenbucks, and a poster of a huge dew dripping spider's web call attention to this chain store's raison d'etre, for now - the inhibition of genetic modification.

With photos of trees, butterflies and salmon, all of which the poster claims are threatened by genetic modification, Patagonia asserts: "We must protect wild nature from the unknown effects of genetically modified organisms. Patagonia believes these organisms should be considered harmful until proven otherwise."

The store offers written letters to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Jane Haney and to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman that customers can sign, demanding all genetically engineered food and ingredients be labeled and "a moratorium on GE foods until long-term studies show they are save for human health."

Nowhere on the table were any scientific studies about biotechnology. Nor is there any background that most reputable scientific organizations, while favoring testing and oversight of biotechnology, support its development as a vital tool to combat malnutrition and to save the environment.

So, after examining an $80 pair of "100% organic cotton" men's duck pants, a $275 pair of men's "waterproof/breathablepants" with a "mesh and taffeta liner" and $17.50 men's "lightweight Capilene briefs," I asked some of the sales people if they really believed what the signs and pamphlets say.

"Yes, we do," piped up two guys, one short with a goatee, the other tall and college preppie looking. Why? "Because how do we know that after years of eating this stuff we won't grow a third eye or something," the goateed guy stated.

Really? "No, no," said the more preppie one. "We just don't know what harm they'll do." At that point a young woman broke in: "We think that the businesses that market these products should have to prove that they're safe for humans and the environment, rather than the government having to show they are dangerous."

Ah, yes, the precautionary principle - or overprecautionary principle, as no amount of oversight or study will ever satisfy extremists who oppose a technology, even one that can save lives.

I asked if she'd been to the garbage cities in the Philippines, where youngsters walk on crutches, their legs bent by rickets. She hadn't, nor to any other desperately poor places. How do we know the safety of anything we eat or any process of cross breeding or food production? Organic foods because they are grown with manure can pose dangers, too. Why treat biotechnology differently from everything else?

"Bioengineering is different," she says.

Yeah, it's more precise, rather than hundreds of genes being manipulated only one or two are, so there's less danger, not more.

"It should first prove that it's absolutely safe," she says.

There is no meeting of the minds. She walks away, and I walk out.

Patagonia's workers follow the lead of the store's founder, Yvon Chounaird, a mountain climber and avid outdoorsman, who began making climbing spikes - pitons -- and now is bent on spiking biotech. One percent of sales, which now total $200 million a year, go to favored environmental causes; more than $14 million has gone to grassroots organizations since 1985.

Chounaird, who no longer runs the day-to-day business, himself lives in the rarefied air not of mountains but of high society. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw is a climbing buddy now. He told Time magazine, though, that he's still a "dirtbag," only a rich one. And what is a dirtbag? An essay by a retired freelance adventurer Arlene Burns in this year's Patagonia catalogue explains dirtbag culture as one in which you learn how to relieve your bladder while hanging from the rear of a bus motoring through the Himalayas.

Other essays in the catalogue repeat Chounaird's antibiotechnology lament. One by Patagonia's environmental program director says, "Genetic engineering represents an attempt to cast off humility and to rewrite Nature's plan." Another by Jack Turner, a former philosophy professor and current guide in Grand Teton National Park, opines: "What is at stake with the advent of the new genetic technologies is the radical domestication of the planet, the loss of a self-generated autonomous world, the world of wild salmon no less than the world of wild children."

Wild peeing and teeing off against science apparently go hand in hand. But equating salmon with children? Do we real want kids to run wild? What about feeding them? Or is starving them part of "Nature's plan"?

This is where Patagonia and other environmental extremists have gone too far over the edge.

In recent months, Greenpeace has led an assault on the development of Golden Rice. The rice is being developed using bioengineering to relieve vitamin A deficiency in the Third World. More than a million youngsters die each year from lack of Vitamin A; another 500,000 would appreciate if they could grow a third eye as they go blind. Greenpeace and other critics have misrepresented people's nutritional needs to make it seem they would have to eat so much of the rice that creating it won't do any good.

Such extremism has led Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, to level his own charges against his former organization. "If Greenpeace et al had any moral standards they would be offering millions to solve any outstanding problems with Golden Rice, or at least encouraging humanitarian agencies to do so. Instead they sit on the sidelines of human misery and take pot shots at a brilliant invention, threatening to prevent the possible solution to a tragedy that makes Chernobyl pale by comparison," he wrote.

Indeed, a world of 6 billion people headed for 8.5 billion in the next quarter century desperately needs more efficient methods for providing people with protein and fiber. Without them, more forestland will go to tillage, more seabeds will end up denuded of their resources and more conflicts will arise between nations seeking to stem starvation.

Biotechnology offers help to prevent such tragedies. But as Nobel Peace Prize winner and plant physiologist Norman Borlaug wrote last fall: "The world has the technology that is either available or well advanced in the research pipeline to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is: Will farmers and ranchers be permitted to use this new technology."

And who will pay the high price if environmental extremists such as Greenpeace and the people at Patagonia succeed in killing biotechnology in its crib by raising exaggerated fears of its dangers? The poor, of course.

"The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called natural methods; the 1 billion chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot," Borlaug noted.

To own a pair of Patagonia's organic cotton ducks would take three months labor for more than a billion of the world's workers today. To Patagonia, those people are a sightseeing attraction for "dirtbag culture," or worse - as impediments to its idea of "the wild," as excess population. Maybe Patagonia's motto should be: Buy Patagonia, Support World Hunger Now.

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