TCS Daily

The Worst Form of Violence

By Pete Geddes - February 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Poverty is the worst form of violence; this notion comes from the pacifist philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. The United Nations estimates that to avoid famine some 13 million of the poorest of the poor in countries across southern Africa will soon need 1.2 million tons of food aid. Drought, corruption, dysfunctional political institutions, and war are contributing factors.

Incredibly, nations on the brink of famine are being advised by European anti-biotechnology groups (e.g., Greenpeace) to reject U.S. food aid. We see ideologically inspired pseudo-science trumping compassion.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa says he's been told that donated American corn is "poison" because it is genetically engineered (GE). Since 1995, millions of Americans have consumed food containing GE corn with no adverse effects. And this is the same food that Europeans eat when they visit the United States. This misinformation has life-and-death consequences.

Nigeria's minister of agriculture and rural development, Hassan Adamu, recently wrote in the Washington Post: "To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong."

The National Academy of Sciences recently pronounced the GE foods currently on the market to be as safe as conventional foods. They don't claim that biotech foods are "risk-free." They simply state the obvious: "Foods from GE plants can potentially contain allergens or toxins. ... These risks are not unique to GE foods. People have consumed foods containing allergens and toxins ... throughout history."

Despite this, radical Greens continue to demand that new technologies not be adopted until tested for unexpected or unknown risks. But invoking this "precautionary principle" is paralyzing. It forbids every imaginable action. This position is logically flawed -- one can't prove a negative. It attacks the fundamental premise of science.

Modern agriculture enables us to feed the world's 6.2 billion inhabitants. Indeed, when the global population was much lower, and world agriculture was dominated by "traditional" methods, famine was common. And progress continues. In 2000, two-and-a-half acres worked by Iowa's most productive farmer provided food for 80 people versus just four people in 1900.

The 20th Century was marked by agricultural innovations, including tractors, chemicals, hybrid seeds, and efficient irrigation. Together with timely information on weather and prices and better-organized markets, this raised crop yields. This fed billions more without clearing additional land.

If present population trends continue, global population will likely peak in the 8 to 10 billion range around the middle of this century. Unfortunately, almost all of the projected growth is predicted to take place in the already poor, overpopulated regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Improving economic conditions in China and India will increase the demand for more food, especially animal products, e.g., eggs, milk, and meat. In order to spare the further conversion of native ecosystems, surely a worthy goal, we must increase productivity on land already under cultivation.

Consider this: If wheat yields in India fell back to their 1960 levels, sustaining the present harvest would require clearing an additional area equal to Montana and half of Idaho. If, however, by the last third of this century, the world's farmers reach the average yield of today's U.S. corn grower, the estimated 10 billion people will need only half of today's cropland. This requires farmers having access to modern technology, including GE crops.

Ironically, just when plant biotechnology is making significant contributions to food productivity and environmental safety, it has become the target of well-coordinated and sustained attacks by many environmental and self-appointed watchdog groups.

The president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Gordon Conway, is a distinguished plant ecologist. He strongly believes GE crops can help solve Africa's food security problems. He's been highly critical of "terminator" genes, which force farmers to buy fresh seeds every year instead of saving seeds from the previous growing season. But Conway understands the real enemy - it's not biotechnology, but rather poverty and starvation.

The radical Green anti-biotech movement is best understood as a religious crusade. In an effort to impose "truth," the Crusaders of the 10th and 11th centuries killed many thousands, deliberately annihilating entire populations. We must stop the modern anti-biotech crusade. For if successful, it is likely to kill more.

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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