TCS Daily


Death By Public Policy

By Henry I. Miller - March 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Germany is unwilling, for once, to go to war. French President Jacques Chirac sputters that Eastern European nations' support of America over Iraq "is not well-brought-up behavior." More Europeans think George Bush is a threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein.

About the only thing more ludicrous in this global theater of the absurd is permitting technophobic extremists to be the arbiters of science and ethics. Yet, that is exactly what's happening.

In much of the developing world, poverty has made life, as Thomas Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short. In southern Africa, 40 million people subsist on one meal a day, and 14 million are on the verge of starvation - 2.5 million in Zambia alone. Their malnourished state also makes them more susceptible to epidemics that should have become obsolete - serial killers like measles, gastroenteritis and respiratory ailments caused by toxic smoke from indoor cooking fires. Worldwide, 230 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, 500,000 of whom go blind each year, and all of whom are made even more susceptible to infections and disease.

Staple food crops also are at high risk: Uganda's vital banana crop is being decimated by nematodes and black fungus, and Kenya's dietary staple, the sweet potato, is being destroyed by feathery mottle virus. All over the developing world, pests and diseases threaten whatever crops survive the periodic droughts.

Technology offers hope, however. Using the gene-splicing techniques of the new biotechnology, scientists have developed "golden rice" and other crops rich in vitamin A that could prevent blindness and greatly reduce childhood deaths. They have crafted new genetic varieties of banana and sweet potato that are resistant to the fungus and virus, respectively, and have made great strides in solving the nematode problem. Other innovations include plants that have shorter growing seasons and higher yields, and that are resistant to drought, salt, and insect pests. Plant breeders have even managed to make vaccines of food plants, so that eating a banana or dried tomato powder could confer immunity to measles or Norwalk virus.

But environmental activists are having none of this. Eco-zealots such as Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Environmental Defense are waging all-out war against biotech crops. Jeremy Rifkin, science's bĂȘte noire, has characterized gene-spliced plants as threatening "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust." Greenpeace has said that they are seeking no less than biotech products' "complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment."

The campaign by radical environmentalists to discredit agricultural biotechnology complements that of European Union politicians, who have been helping developing countries to grow more regulations instead of more food. The U.S. shipped 17,000 tons of corn to Zambia, only to have President Levy Mwanawasa lock it up in warehouses and remonstrate to a U.N. gathering in South Africa, "We would rather starve than get something toxic."

Mwanawasa's false dichotomy - the food has been extensively tested and consumed, and is not, in fact, toxic or harmful in any other way - follows from an increasingly popular tenet of public policy known as the "precautionary principle": the idea that regulatory measures should be taken to prevent or restrict actions that raise even conjectural threats of harm, even though there is incomplete scientific evidence as to their magnitude or potential impacts. As part of a kind of economic colonialism, the European Union has demanded that developing countries apply this bogus principle to gene-spliced plants and their products - by rejecting them.

These developments in Africa illustrate one of the absurd problems created by European countries' groundless fears about technological change and the potentially dangerous over-regulation to which it gives rise. Assurances of perfect safety can never be made, and attempts to hold a product or activity to a zero-risk standard often result in tunnel vision that elicits huge and unacceptable costs. As in the Zambian tragedy, such precautionary cures perpetrated by the eco-radicals and European politicians are often far worse than the maladies they are meant to prevent.

Radical enviromentalists' reprehensible behavior is reminiscent of the classic observation of a character from the Peanuts comic strip, "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand." Nevertheless, they try to claim the moral high ground, maintaining that their demands represent ethical behavior, sustainable practices and responsible stewardship. By accepting anti-biotech policies as an integral component of so-called "social responsibility," many politicians and journalists, and even corporate CEOs and clergy, have joined in this invidious eco-babble.

If the new biotechnology is killed in the cradle by precautionary regulation courtesy of environmental activists and politicians - often abetted by industrial leaders complacent or worse - poor farmers and consumers in the tropics will be the big losers. As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has observed, "If today's rich nations decide to stop or turn back the clock, they will still be rich. But if we stop the clock for developing countries, they will still be poor and hungry." And many of their inhabitants will be dead.

Henry Miller (miller@hoover.stanford.edu) is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View.
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