TCS Daily

Patagonia's Poor Posture

By Pete Geddes - June 11, 2002 12:00 AM

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- PBS recently ran a reality show called "Frontier House." Here's the storyline: Three families re-create the life of homesteaders in Montana in 1883. Russ Roberts describes it on his new web site:

"There's not much time for nature walks in 1883 Montana. Today, we tend to romanticize nature. Nature in 1883 turns out to be an enemy as often as it is an ally... After watching the families struggle... you learn what really made life difficult in 1883-the amount of time and effort it took to stay alive in a rural setting of near self-sufficiency. A good chunk of the rest of the world still lives that way..."

In a strange twist, many environmentalists and the elites from rich nations are working hard to stop scientific and biotechnological innovations - ensuring that the world's poor continue to live in squalor. The outdoor-clothing manufacturer Patagonia is a prime example.

Patagonia sets the standard for the design, quality, and satisfaction guaranteed of outdoor products. And the company displays a strong environmental commitment. Since 1985, it has donated 10 percent of annual profits (or 1 percent of sales, whichever is greater) to hundreds of environmental groups. It is a pioneer in efforts to reduce the ecological "footprint" of its products.

For many years Patagonia had a major office in Bozeman, Montana. It was within site of Montana State University, a center for biotechnology. Some of the best work on biofilms, thermal biology, and plant genetics is done here. Its implications for the region, and for the developing world, are potentially huge, both for people and the natural environment.

Indeed, given the Patagonia-Bozeman link, it's ironic that Patagonia has now launched a major anti-biotech campaign. But it has. Patagonia claims genetic engineering of crops and trees threatens global biological diversity and harms the environment. Company founder Yvon Chouinard recently wrote an article titled, "What Does a Clothing Company Know about Genetic Engineering?" The answer is, not nearly enough.

By joining Greenpeace and other neo-Luddite groups, Patagonia contributes to a harmful misinformation campaign. Not only might it hurt our region, but the poor in the developing world are sure to suffer severely, along with their natural surroundings.

Don't Do Voodoo

While we should not ignore the potential risks of biotechnology, it is not voodoo. Genetic modification of crops at the molecular level is the latest step in our desire and ability to improve human welfare. Beginning in Neolithic times, people have harnessed and improved agricultural techniques. Every scientific advance involves the risk of unintended consequences.

But there are also risks of rejecting technology. Critics who profess concern for the poor and the environment must answer the question, "What would the world have been like if we had frozen technological advances?" The Green Revolution of the 1960s (i.e., the use of selectively bred crops, and wide application of inorganic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides) saved perhaps a billion people from starving. By dramatically increasing crop yields, it also saved millions of acres of wildlands from being cleared. If wheat farmers in India allowed yields to fall back to their level in 1960, to sustain the present harvest they would need to clear an additional area larger than the size of Montana and half of Idaho.

Advances in agriculture increase land productivity. Modern farmers are now so productive that land needed for agriculture is shrinking, even as the population grows and people eat more and better. For example: In 1960, U.S. production of major agricultural crops was 252 million tons; by 1999 it had increased to 700 million on 10 million fewer acres of land.

The facts are indisputable: Low yields squander land, high yields spare it. Only politically driven governmental polices will reverse this trend.

Or consider the application of biotechnology to trees. It offers similar benefits for native and old-growth forests. At projected planting rates, at least half the world's wood and fiber supply could come from bioengineered plantations by the year 2050. This would reduce demand for roading and harvesting the remaining Rocky Mountain old growth.

Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University notes, "An industry that draws from planted forests rather than cutting from the wild will disturb only one-fifth or less of the area for the same volume of wood. Instead of logging half the world's forests, humanity can leave almost 90 percent of them minimally disturbed. And many new tree plantations are established on abandoned croplands, which are already abundant and accessible."

Many of my Bozeman friends prefer "organic" foods. Rich nations can afford to pay more for organically grown produce. But organic farming will neither feed the world nor save the environment. Low-yield "sustainable" agriculture works only for very small populations. While the worldwide infant mortality rate is declining, the world's 1 billion chronically poor and hungry can't afford the luxury of organic farming. Their hope for food security lies in leaving obsolete farming technology behind.

It took 10,000 years to expand food production to current levels. To adequately feed the world's growing population requires increasing agricultural productivity. This can only be accomplished by providing the world's farmers access to technology and high-yielding, genetically engineered crops. Without these tools, the developing world will experience tens of millions more undernourished children -- even after it clears millions of acres worth of wildlife habitat for additional cropland.

The realities of a growing world population, and their demand for food and fiber, are as immutable as those for designing carabiners. However, producing a bad batch of carabiners may kill a few people. But Patagonia's bad policy campaign will kill tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of the world's poorest.

Pete Geddes is Program Director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and Gallatin Writers. Both are based in Bozeman, Montana.


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