TCS Daily

From Jo'burg to Des Moines

By Roger Bate - October 24, 2002 12:00 AM

Environmentalists consider the recent Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development to be a failure. However, if their own rhetoric is to be believed, they should at least have been happy that a discussion of the costs and benefits of genetically modified food was widespread throughout the world's media.

The debate began with concern over the imminent starvation of many Africans. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that over 14 million people were at risk from starvation in Southern Africa at the time of the WSSD. By mid October over 5 million are still at risk.

Food aid flooded in from Europe and America and for some the risk has diminished. But for many the danger is still acute. For 300,000 Zambians it is especially worrying since they are not able to eat the food aid because its alleged to be contaminated, and has been rejected by the Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa. But its not spoiled or poisoned - just genetically modified.

For over a week at the end of August the anti-GM brigade had the world's media ready to listen to their arguments. After all, an African President had seemingly rejected the technology.

Many greens are concerned that GM technology encourages corporatisation of agriculture by tying farmers to seeds from multinationals. Furthermore they claim GM remains untested and could have irreversible health and environmental effects, such as superweeds and possible horizontal gene transfer to unrelated crops, with unknown consequences.

But the greens have largely failed to deliver this message for two reasons. First all the above concerns are false, blown out of proportion or irrelevant. Second, everyone monitoring this debate closely, and most of those have knowledge of the topic, know that the main reason Zambia refused the food was not because the food is dangerous, but because of unscientific protectionist reticence (following the food scares of BSE and Foot and Mouth etc.) in Europe about the lack of acceptability for GM food. African nations are, therefore, rightly concerned that they would not be able to sell their crops to Europe if their own crops became 'contaminated' with GM.

Even the anti-GM parts of the media have realised, whatever risks there may be from GM food, they pale in significance compared to the risk of starvation. Even European agencies were encouraging Africans to take the food. As a result the green activists have been relatively quiet on the issue since the WSSD.

One of the more interesting aspects of the debate was that the most fervent pro-GM attack on the Zambian President did not come for the biotech industry but from the head of the aid agency that sent the food. Andrew Natsios is the Director of the US Agency for International Development. And he was easily the most effective proponent of the technology at, and after, the WSSD.

Mr Natsios along with many others will meet on Thursday for the World Food Prize (WFP) Symposium in Des Moines Iowa. The WFP has been given to experts who have promoted the use of appropriate technologies for developing countries and I will be there to cover for TCS Europe.

The WFP was founded by 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug - the architect of the green revolution, which brought modern technologies to the developing world. Borlaug, who is still very active in the field, explains in his chapter in the new book edited by Ronald Bailey, (Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths), that organic production and the synthetic crop protection chemicals of the 1950s could simply not feed us today.

'Had the global cereal yields of 1950 still prevailed in 1999', Borlaug writes, 'we would have needed nearly 1.8billion hectares of land of the same quality - instead of the 600 million that was used - to equal the current global harvest. Obviously, such a surplus of land was not available, and certainly not in populous Asia. Moreover, if more environmentally fragile land had been brought into agricultural production, think of the impact on soil erosion, loss of forests and grasslands, biodiversity and extinction of wildlife species that would have ensued'.

One can imagine the damage to the environment that would have ensued in the past few decades had the greens had their way in the 1970s and crippled Borlaug's green revolution. And they could still have the same effect if they were to cripple today's new technologies.

Borlaug says that new technologies could increase yields by 50% over the next few decades. And the impacts in the poorest countries could be even more dramatic given their current limited adoption of new technology. Perhaps yield increases of 150% could be achieved in Sub-Saharan Africa.

New technologies are essential given that, according to Borlaug, there are already some 21 million hectares of West Asian soil that is being ploughed that shouldn't be, given their soil type and location. In theory yields would have to improve by 3-4% globally just to remove this land from production, and yield increases are progressing at less than 1% per annum at the moment, without biotechnology. In other words, five years of normal advances are required just to maintain global yields and remove this land from production - and at the same time global population will be increasing.

Because there simply isn't enough land to continue to expand production Dr Borlaug says we need new technologies and therefore we must stand up to the anti-science crowd. He eloquently explains that the debate has become confused: 'policymakers in the international donor community who, afraid of antagonising powerful environmentalist lobbying groups, have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernisation projects so urgently needed in Sub Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia. The result has been increasing misery in smallholder agriculture and accelerating environmental degradation. This policy deadlock must be broken'.

Dr Roger Bate is Director of the London and Washington-based International Policy Network.

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