TCS Daily

Starving for Technology

By James K. Glassman - September 3, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - At this surprisingly sensible Earth Summit, staunch advocates of reducing poverty in developing nations have put radical environmentalists, who typically dominate these affairs, squarely on the defensive.

A major battlefield has been agricultural uses of biotechnology. Greenpeace International, the most visible of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here, states bluntly that it "opposes all releases of genetically engineered organisms into the environment." Such absolutism puts Greenpeace - and many other NGOs - at odds with people in poor nations, who stand to benefit enormously from genetically modified (GM) crops, both as farmers and consumers. Even worse, opposition to GM is now literally killing southern Africans.

The biotech conflict would hardly have attracted attention if such hardy environmental perennials as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change preoccupied the summit. But they haven't. Instead, this has become - perhaps because of its venue - a conference about boosting economic growth in poor countries.

How to grow?

A group of 200 farmers from Africa and India offered ideas in a demonstration last week, when they campaigned for more open trade and for an end to European barriers against GM imports.

In a speech Sunday, Heinz Imhof, chairman of Syngenta, AG, the Swiss-based plant-science firm, developed the theme. He pointed out that the world's food supply would have to double by 2025 and that 70 percent of that growth would have to come from improvement in yields - that is, getting more crops to grow from the same acreage. Increased yields will come largely from genetics.

By making tiny changes in the genetic makeup of plants - in a process similar to the laborious cross-breeding that has been conducted for centuries - scientists can make crops more resistant to disease and insects, can introduce vitamins and other health-enhancers and, in general, can get more from less.

While GM crops have been successfully and safely introduced into North and South America, China, India and parts of Europe, Africa could be the greatest beneficiary of the technology. "It is absolutely clear," Imhof told me in an interview Monday, "that there will be a revolution." And Africans are excited about it. Within five or ten years, Imhof predicts, genes will be introduced that make crops resistant to the kind of droughts that often ravage this continent.

This weekend at the summit, Imhof announced that Syngenta would not file for patent protection for its biotech inventions in what the United Nations terms the "least-developed" countries. Meanwhile, the World Bank announced it will open an official dialogue on the place of biotech in economic development for poorer nations.

South Africa is currently growing GM cotton, and, last weekend, officials confirmed their commitment to biotech. Even now, much of Africa could be growing biotech crops, to great economic advantage.

Why not? Part of the problem is a lack of regulatory infrastructure, but the main difficulty is opposition from radical NGO environmentalists. When could Africa embark on a biotech revolution? I asked Imhof. "If there were no barriers from NGOs who think they know better, we can start now," he replied.

Imhof pointed out that GM crops have been used with complete safety for the past six years in the United States - after 15 years of research paved the way. "The critics," he said, "do not understand. These people have to be held responsible. We have to be on the offensive."

While Imhof would not identify the NGO critics by name, the very fact that he fingered them as villains at all was remarkable and refreshing. In the past, appeasement and rent-seeking have been normal operating procedure for many large corporations. For example, earlier in the conference, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group of 160 multinationals, held a joint press conference with Greenpeace to urge adoption of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

But climate change is one thing; GM agriculture is another. Kyoto will reduce economic growth and starve Africans slowly, but opposition to biotechnology is killing them quickly. Andrew S. Natsios, who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), made the latter point last week.

Natsios, one of the heroes of the conference for his candor, blasted environmental groups that have campaigned against introducing genetically modified foods in Africa - despite a famine that has affected 13 million people in the southern part of the continent, especially Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

These groups, said Natsios, "can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake."

Natsios pointed out that the U.S. has already delivered or pledged 490,000 metric tons of foods to famine-stricken southern Africa, but Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia's president, has turned down his nation's allotment because some of the food is derived from biotechnology. Officials say that Zimbabwe and Malawi are also rejecting the food.

Natsios minced few words in blaming Green groups - though he did not name them - for instigating Zambia's decision. "I have never seen, in my 30 years of public service, such disinformation and intellectual dishonesty. I think it's appalling. It's frightening people into thinking that there is something wrong with the food, and the consequence is that it's slowing the famine relief effort in a very disturbing way." According to news reports, Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth and other groups were actively lobbying Zambia and other countries afflicted by famine to reject the food. As a result, 17,000 tons of corn, about one-third of it grown with GM seeds, is sitting in storage while Zambians starve.

Even so, why would Zambia turn down the food? Undoubtedly, fear of European reprisals - again, the result of what Natsios called 'disinformation' by radical environmentalists - played a major role.

The delightful irony here is that criticism of Europeans for retarding growth in developing countries has been at least as noisy as the expected criticism of Americans for blocking expensive climate-change measures.

Of course, delightful irony doesn't feed Africans.



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