TCS Daily

Food's Fear Factor

By Nick Schulz - November 1, 2002 12:00 AM

"Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science - the mother of all sciences; it remains the science that makes human life possible; and it may well be that, before the century is over, the success or failure of Science as a whole will be judged by the success or failure of agriculture."
- Andre and Jean Mayer , "Agriculture - The Island Empire," Daedulus, 1974.

Technology shapes and transforms all businesses and industries, and agriculture is no exception. The future of farming is in technology, in the ability to use science - including genetic modification - to help do two important things: feed the world and heal the world. Let's take these two in turn.

Mouths to Feed

Feeding the world's poor and hungry will require greater food production in the coming years, as global population continues to grow from 7 billion to between 10 and 12 billion by the end of the century. But there isn't enough cropland available to feed the world at current yield rates. So little arable land is left around the world that the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has estimated that between 80% and 90% of future growth in cereal production must come from land already in production. The only way to do that is to increase crop yields - to do more, with less. And the only way to do that is by harnessing technologies to increase production efficiencies.

The commitment to using science to feed the world was celebrated last week in Des Moines, Iowa, as scientists and farmers from around the world gathered to celebrate the work of Pedro Sanchez, the Cuban-born recipient of this year's World Food Prize. The prize was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, the father of a "green revolution" that used agricultural technology to help feed hundreds of millions of starving people in South America and Asia.

As Borlaug put it in a speech last week, "During the past 40 years, thanks to a continuing stream of high-yielding [plant] varieties that have been combined with improved crop management practices, food production has more than kept pace with global population growth. Globally, per capita world cereal supplies are 23 percent higher and real prices are 65 percent lower than in 1961. Because much of these gains have come through the adoption of productivity-enhancing technology, both producers and consumers - especially poor consumers - have gained."

As Borlaug tells us, we can feed a growing population - and make food more affordable for the poor - but only if we use technology to tackle the job.

Healing Touch

The other revolution in agriculture - the healing revolution - comes in the nascent field of bio-pharmaceuticals.

The idea behind bio-pharming is to transform agricultural products - such as corn, soybeans, tobacco, etc. - into little drug factories. Through genetic manipulation, these plants can create medical products that can help treat and cure sick people. For example, it is possible to insert human genetic material into plants so that the plants then generate proteins. These proteins can be used to develop medicines to combat, say, respiratory diseases. And these drugs and treatments can be generated cheaply and easily, driving down the cost of expensive medical treatments.

The biggest problem for these agricultural technologies - indeed, virtually all biotechnologies - isn't technical or scientific in nature. It is ideological and political. For these life-saving and sustaining technologies face intense hostility from environmentalists and some self-proclaimed consumer groups.

Last week, that hostility got results, as the biotechnology industry in North America decided to adopt a broad moratorium on planting certain kinds of crops - in particular, plants designed to generate plant-made pharmaceuticals - in the major food producing regions of North America including Iowa.

The biotech industry decided on this voluntary measure in response to "growing fear that drugs or chemicals made in gene-altered plants will taint the food supply," The Washington Post reported.

That "growing fear" is fostered by willful ignorance of the technology of the relative risks associated with it on the part of its opponents. These fears were heightened by the infamous Starlink episode in 2000 where genetically modified corn that was approved for animal consumption made its way (unsurprisingly, due to curious regulatory policies) into corn tacos. No people were harmed by this, with the Centers for Disease Control finding no allergic reactions related to the "contamination." But it proved a public relations disaster for proponents of agricultural biotechnology.

The biotech industry, in taking these steps, is hoping to avoid another PR disaster. "As a gesture of good faith, BIO's members have voluntarily chosen to conduct field trials and commercialization of certain crops outside major food production areas," a statement from the industry trade group read.

And the industry says it is taking these steps despite the fact that the science tells us the technology is safe. According to BIO, "Science has shown that outcrossing crops [like corn] can be used safely for plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial purposes, and regulations are in place to safeguard against outcrossing from these crops to crops intended for food and feed purposes." Despite the safety of the technology, "BIO members have chosen to go a step beyond science and regulation to demonstrate good stewardship for this new technology."

Hazardous Steps

At first blush, the industry's decision seems prudent as it simplifies the agricultural biotech sector by isolating food production from drug production. And no one should dismiss sensible steps taken to assure safety in scientific development.

But there is a potential hazard in this decision. Namely, that biotech companies yield both the argument over science and risk assessment surrounding the technology - and the moral authority that goes with it - to their opponents.

"I'm sure the industry is feeling great about this policy, but I still think it's pretty weak," Matt Rand of the National Environmental Trust told the Post. "Even the industry lobby group recognizes that there's a problem."

At the World Food Prize, TCS spoke with one European agribusiness chief who thought that the industry's decision was sensible, but he admitted there was a risk of appearing to cede the argument over the safety and merits of the technology. Judging from the remarks of Rand and others, it seems that risk was a real one.

And Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer and the head of the advocacy group Truth About Trade and Technology, thought the biotech industry's decision would come back to haunt it, especially when it comes to Europe, which has traditionally been more hostile to agricultural biotech.

"What's most irritating," Kleckner said, "is that the industry admitted there's no science in the decision. If we [in America] won't stand up for the science, who will? We lecture the Europeans on the safety and benefits of food technology and the folly of the precautionary principle all the time. And then we go and do this. Europe must be jumping up and down with glee over this decision. If I were European, I know I'd be."

'Hatred of Capitalism'

And that's too bad, because there's another way to think constructively and intelligently about agricultural biotech. And that way is through better, deeper understanding of both the merits and the risks involved. Borlaug, who has witnessed the hostility to agricultural biotech up close for decades, understands what's at work here:

"Although there have always been those in society who resist change, the intensity of the attacks against GMOs by certain groups is unprecedented, and in certain cases, even surprising, given the potential environmental benefits. ... It appears that many of the most rabid crop biotech opponents are driven more by a hatred of capitalism and globalization than by the actual safety of transgenic plants. ...

"Part of the criticism about GMO safety holds to the position that introducing 'foreign DNA' into our food crop species is unnatural and thus an inherent health risk. Since, all living things - including food plants, animals, and microbes -contain DNA, how can we consider recombinant DNA to be unnatural? Even defining what constitutes a 'foreign gene' is also problematic, since many genes are common across many organisms.

"Almost all of our traditional foods are products of natural mutation and genetic recombination, which are the drivers of evolution. Without this ongoing process, we would probably all still be slime on the bottom of some primeval sea. In some cases, Mother Nature has done the genetic modification, and often in a big way."

Fear born of ignorance can delay or even prohibit technologies that hold the potential to save lives. What's needed is the courage to tell the truth - not about power, but about fear of the future, hatred of dynamic processes and change, and irrationality.



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