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Facts versus fears on biotechnology

By Paul Driessen
web posted March 7, 2005

Our February 14 article on agricultural biotechnology presented solid data, personal testimonials from African farmers whose lives have been improved by GM crops, and a message of hope for poor, malnourished people in developing countries.

In response, Welsh anti-GM activist Brian John offers a stream of unsupported and unsupportable invective, the thrust of which is that "the scourge of GM crops" will do nothing to save lives or reduce poverty and malnutrition. "GM multinationals," he asserts, seek only to "maximize profits" and impose "economic colonialism" and "a new form of slavery" that will "displace" poor people from their lands.

It's all standard fear-mongering -- a "Monty Python" skit scripted by Jeremy Rifkin. It would be hilarious, if the policy prescriptions didn't have such tragic consequences for a world where 800 million people are chronically malnourished, and 3 billion struggle to survive on less than $700 a year. A healthy dose of facts is in order.

GM crops are created in laboratories, using highly precise techniques. They have been tested repeatedly, and they are regulated by the EPA, FDA, USDA and other agencies. Americans have collectively eaten over a trillion servings of food containing one or more GM ingredients, without a single case of harm. Indeed, as Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and others have demonstrated, every single claim of risk to people or the environment -- from monarch butterfly deaths to destabilized insect ecology and diminished biodiversity -- has been refuted by scientific studies.

And still Dr. John and his fellow radicals place ultra precaution against minor, distant, theoretical risks to healthy, well-fed Westerners above the very real, immediate, life-threatening risks faced by our Earth's poorest and most malnourished people.

Farmers the world over are increasingly turning to GM technology, planting 200 million acres last year. They don't for a minute believe ag biotech is a magic bullet that will make them rich and solve the world's hunger problems. But they know it dramatically increases crop yields, farm profits and family nutrition -- while reducing pesticide use, crop losses to drought, insects and disease, and the amount of land that will be needed to feed a world population that is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, before leveling off.

Bt cotton has let Chinese farmers reduce their pesticide use by 50 to 70 percent -- while increasing their yields by 25 to 66 percent, and their incomes by US$300 per hectare (US$120 per acre). Since most of these chemicals were applied via hand spraying, they've also slashed accidental pesticide poisoning. Farmers in other Third World countries have had similar experiences.

If the world had to use organic farming or 1960s agricultural technologies to produce as much food as it actually did in 2000, notes Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize laureate for the first Green Revolution, "we would have had to double the amount of land under cultivation." Millions of acres of forest and grassland habitats would have been slashed, burned and plowed for subsistence farming -- or millions more people would have starved. As human populations grow, the problem would only worsen. Instead, thanks to biotechnology, farmers can grow far more from the same acreage, thereby preserving habitats and fostering biodiversity.

Bt plants also eliminate pests like corn borers, which chew pathways for dangerous fungal contaminants. They thus reduce rot and waste -- and micotoxins that cause fatal diseases in animals, and cancer, reduced immunity and birth defects in humans. By contrast, organic corn meals purchased right off British supermarket shelves had fumonisin levels up to 50 times higher than conventional or biotech corn -- and 20 to 30 times the allowable limits set by UK law. Many organic fruits and vegetables also have e-coli bacterial levels sharply higher than conventionally grown crops.

By reducing the need to cultivate for weed control, herbicide-tolerant crops greatly decrease soil erosion (by nearly a billion tons per year) that otherwise would end up in lakes and streams. No-till farming also reduces fuel use (by some 300 million gallons of gasoline a year), and increases carbon dioxide uptake by soils -- good news for anyone worried about global warming.

Increased crop yields, in turn, mean African farmers can grow enough crops to feed livestock, so they can regularly include protein in their diets for perhaps the first time in their lives.

But anti-GM activists are so techno-phobic that they will stop at nothing to delay biotech progress. In a typical ploy, Dr. John claims Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser is a victim of Monsanto, which sued him to "mercilessly" enforce its intellectual property rights, after he "had the misfortune to find the adventitious presence" of GM crops on his land. Hogwash.

In affirming Schmeiser’s conviction for patent violation, Canada’s Supreme Court observed that it defied belief that 90 percent of his crop (1,030 acres or 1.5 square miles) was “adventitiously” converted to biotech varieties by seeds or pollen blown in from neighboring fields. As his own field hand testified, Schmeiser had carefully collected and treated seeds from biotech canola grown on a small section of his farm. He then planted those seeds in nine separate fields. He got caught, Monsanto sued, and his phony defense got laughed out of court. “Percy Schmeiser,” the court noted, “was not an innocent bystander.”

Yet another canard is the claim that modern farming practices will displace farmers. In 1780, over 95 percent of Americans were farmers; today about 3 percent are, and they grow many times more food per acre than their ancestors ever dreamed was possible. Those who abandoned farms were "displaced" to cities. But would their descendents -- or Dr. John and most other urban environmentalists -- prefer to give up their modern comforts and return the era of sunup-to-sundown, back-breaking farm labor?

As my grandmother used to say, the only good thing about the good old days is that they're gone. Kenya's Akinye Arunga puts it this way: "Cute indigenous lifestyles simply mean indigenous poverty, indigenous malnutrition, indigenous disease and childhood death. I don't wish this on my worst enemy, and I wish our so-called friends would stop imposing it on us."

Unfortunately, Dr. John and his fellow activists are doing exactly that. They are preventing poor Africans from acquiring modern farming methods, adequate electricity and pesticides to control malaria. These policies are certainly an efficient form of all-natural population control. But they're also a callous human rights violation.

As to being "enslaved" by this new technology, ag biotech frees farmers from the dangers and drudgery of subsistence farming. It doubles or triples their yields, feeds their families, and their neighbors' families, and puts money in their pockets. As an African Patrick Henry might say, If this be slavery, make the most of it.

Dr. John might be working for free, to promote anti-biotech scares. But the activist industry is spending an average of $70 million a year on disingenuous ads and websites, campaign coordinators, staffs, legislative and regulatory initiatives, lawsuits, and the development and dissemination of anti-GM screeds. And the Third World poor continue to suffer because of them.
The campaign underscores the adage that nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. No wonder Dr. Moore says it "clearly exposes the greens' intellectual and moral bankruptcy."

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power? Black Death

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Out of Africa by Paul Driessen and Cyril Boynes, Jr. (February 14, 2005)
    Paul Driessen and Cyril Boynes, Jr. charge that activists are dooming Africans to starvation and death by opposing biotechnology
  • Letter in response by Dr. Brian John (February 21, 2005)
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