TCS Daily

Post-Colonial Oppression

By James K. Glassman - November 22, 2002 12:00 AM

What my colleagues Chistopher DeMuth and Steven Hayward have christened "romantic environmentalism" - the view that protecting the environment must override all other concerns - emerged as a big loser at the giant U.N. Earth Summit in Johannesburg during September. The winner was economic development.

After all, decades of academic research shows that clean air and water are byproducts of prosperous economies. In Johannesburg, poor countries said they wanted to get rich. To get there, they need cheap, abundant energy - not the windmills and solar cells the Europeans want to foist on them. Expensive, exotic energy sources are fine for Denmark and France, but not - at least now - for Mozambique and Bangladesh.

The conference was not a complete rout, though. While failing to achieve their romantic vision on energy, the Europeans managed to impose an unscientific perspective in another economic sphere - agriculture. Four years ago, Europe slapped a moratorium on any further approvals of genetically modified (G.M.) food products. Americans have been eating G.M. corn, potatoes, and soybeans since the mid 1990s with no adverse consequences. Europeans themselves have had no safety or health problems with the nine G.M. products approved between 1994 and 1998.

In fact, the European Commission's own environmental ministry has indicated it opposes the moratorium. Still, governments of individual European countries have decided to pander to the Greens, who share power in many shaky governing coalitions. As a result, genetically modified foods have been blocked in all of Europe.

Europeans led the agricultural revolutions of the past. Today, much of Europe wants to stop the clock on food progress. That's fine for them - Europe is rich - but their superstition badly hurts the world's poor.

Genetic techniques have sped the development of crops that are resistant to pests, that grow faster, that can tolerate bad soils, that don't require as much fertilizer. As a result, about 40 percent of America's corn crop and 70 percent of its soybeans now come from G.M. seeds. Sensible environmentalists like G.M. crops - because they help preserve land, reduce fertilizer use, and keep chemicals out of streams.

The European moratorium, however, has stopped G.M. farming in places like Africa. Why should Africans make an investment in superior G.M. plants if they will be prevented from selling them to a prime export market like the E.U.?

Of course, Africans can still use the improved crops at home to feed themselves, can't they? Not necessarily. Greenpeace and other extreme environmental groups have focused desperately on keeping the African continent biotech free, spreading horror stories in the process. So far, they are succeeding.

The result is that people may be dying unnecessarily. As a famine spread in southern Africa last summer, 13 million people risked starvation. The U.S. pledged 490,000 metric tons of food for the drought-stricken region; about one third of it genetically modified corn. But the president of Zambia - under pressure from Green groups, and worried that if any of the corn were planted it might make his country's crops ineligible for export to Europe - actually turned down the food aid. So corn piled up in warehouses next to starving people.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, blasted the European environmental romantics during the Earth Summit:

I have never seen, in my 30 years of public service, such disinformation and intellectual dishonesty.... It's frightening people into thinking there is something wrong with the food [and] slowing the famine relief in a very disturbing way.

There is more than just environmental romanticism and aversion to sound science behind this. Europeans also have a desire to beat Americans at agribusiness by using non-tariff trade barriers. And it's not just Americans who lose in the process. Genetic technology could eventually allow Africans and Asians to compete with European farmers. Fearing the political power of the farm lobby and the Greens, European politicians would rather placate their former colonies with handouts than buy their goods.

As a result, the danger of Africans suffering and dying because they're denied the latest modern technology is much higher than it ought to be.

A version of this article appears in the American Enterprise Magazine.

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