Skewed biotech ethics

Anti-biotech campaigns perpetuate poverty, malnutrition and premature death

Tsunami survivors and millions of others could benefit from a marvel of modern science: golden rice. By adding two daffodil genes to common rice, researchers made it rich in beta-carotene, which humans can convert to vitamin A.

This miracle rice could help reduce widespread Vitamin A deficiency that causes up to 500,000 children to go blind every year – and 2,000,000 a year to die from diseases they would likely survive if they weren’t so malnourished. Just a few ounces a day will do wonders.

Unfortunately, thanks to anti-biotechnology zealots, the rice is still not available. Even if it were, these unfortunate children would probably still go without. The activists would simply reprise their 2002 tactics, which convinced Zambia’s government to reject 26,000 tons of US maize that had been sent as food aid, because some of it was genetically modified (GM).

They spread rumors that it was poisonous, and might cause cancer, or even AIDS – even though it was the same maize Americans have been eating safely for years. So the government locked it in warehouses, while parents and children went hungry. “We’d rather starve than eat something toxic,” intoned President Levy Mwanawasa. Of course, amply provisioned, he was hardly starving. Finally, desperate people broke into the warehouses and took the maize.

Today, 14 million people still face starvation in southern Africa. Worldwide, 800 million are chronically undernourished. Nearly 30,000 (half of them children) die every day from malnutrition and starvation. And three billion people – half the world’s population – try to survive on less than $700 a year, coaxing crops from the earth with farming methods that haven’t changed in a millennium. Biotechnology could help reduce this human misery.

In addition to fortifying plants with vitamins, genetic engineering can produce crops that grow better in dry, saline, nutrient-poor soils that prevail in much of Africa. It can replace staples devastated by disease – including Kenyan sweet potatoes and Ugandan bananas. It might soon enable plants to produce vaccines against killer diseases like diarrhoea and hepatitis B.

Bt maize and cotton combat insect predators. Bugs that feed on the plants ingest proteins that attack their digestive systems, leaving other insects untouched. Farmers can greatly reduce pesticide use, thereby protecting crops, people and “good” bugs. By eliminating pests like maize borers, which chew pathways for dangerous fungal contaminants, Bt corn plants also reduce fumonisin and aflatoxin, which cause fatal diseases in animals, and cancer, reduced immunity and birth defects in humans.

GM crops also reduce soil erosion, by allowing farmers to use herbicide-resistant plants (like RoundupReady soybeans) and no-till farming methods. Other crops enjoy longer shelf-life, even without refrigeration – a vital consideration for some 2 billion people who still don’t have electricity, because radicals also oppose power generation facilities.

By increasing crop yields, gene-spliced plants can help poor farmers earn a decent living, grow more nutritious food for their hungry people – and save wildlife habitats. According to Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize winning father of the first Green Revolution, if the world had been forced to use organic farming or 1960s agricultural technologies to produce as much food as it actually did in 2000, “we would have had to double the amount of land under cultivation.” Millions of acres of forest and grassland habitats would have been ploughed under, destroying biodiversity, to feed famished people – or millions more would have starved.

Modern biotech methods are precise, predictable refinements of plant breeding techniques that have been used for centuries to modify the genetic makeup, size, flavour, quality and other traits of nearly every food we eat. Studies by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and others prove they’re safe for people and planet.

But Greenpeace still claims gene-spliced organisms “pose unacceptable risks to ecosystems and have the potential to threaten biodiversity, wildlife and sustainable forms of agriculture.” A child would have to eat 15 pounds of cooked golden rice a day to get his minimum daily vitamin A, ever-inventive Rainbow Warriors prevaricate.

We need a moratorium on all GE crops, “including those already approved,” the Sierra Club insists. Biotechnology threatens “a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust,” rants Jeremy Rifkin.

No wonder Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore says the campaign against genetic engineering “has clearly exposed the environmentalists’ intellectual and moral bankruptcy.” Their specious, speculative “concerns” simply have no basis in reality.

They’re based on the radicals’ willingness to say virtually anything to further their cause, and on their incessant abuse of the so-called “precautionary principle.” If they can foresee a possible danger, no matter how remote, they demand that new technologies be banned until proponents can prove they will never cause harm.

This means ultra precaution against distant, theoretical risks to healthy, well-fed Westerners – at the expense of real, immediate, life-threatening risks to Earth’s poorest, most malnourished people.

Politicians and bureaucrats cite their claims to justify new regulations, more delays in approving new products, and trade barriers to protect subsidised farmers from “unfair” foreign competition. And “socially responsible” foundations, EU governments and organic food companies continue to fund the activists – $500 million between 1995 and 2001, and $175 million between 2002 and 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal and other analysts.

People are starving and dying, while these organisations talk about far-fetched, hypothetical risks to the environment – and then claim they’re moral and ethical for doing so.

“I appreciate ethical concerns,” Kenyan plant biologist Florence Wambugu says. “But anything that doesn’t help feed our children is UNethical.”

Thankfully, the tide may at last be turning. The European Union finally approved a biotech maize variety for human consumption. India’s government acceded to poor farmers’ demands that they be allowed to continue planting GM cotton. Brazil did likewise when it realised its farmers were not about to give up their RoundupReady soybeans. And China has been able to slash pesticide use by 70-80 percent in Bt cotton fields.

Will golden rice, Ugandan bananas, Kenyan sweet potatoes and dozens of other potential life-saving crops be next to gain global approval? Will Green zealots finally recognise their scientific and moral errors, as some have belatedly on DDT to control malaria?

The misery and death toll is already unconscionable. It’s time to oppose Eco-Imperialism, and return science, ethics and compassion to agricultural and environmental policies.

Author: Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power · Black Death ( He will moderate two panels at CORE’s biotechnology conference, being held at the United Nations on Tuesday, January 18. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

Copyright 2005 – Paul K. Driessen

FMF Feature Article\18 January 2005 - Policy Bulletin / 08 September 2009
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