August 1, 2003
by Alex A. Avery
Those who call themselves advocates for the environment continue in their desperate campaign against biotech-improved crops—the most critically needed farming technology in half a century. In a world that already farms nearly half the non-ice covered land on planet earth, yet faces a doubling of global food demand over the next half-century, neither humanity nor the wildlife we might otherwise plow down for more farmland can afford to lose such a promising technology.
This month in the Times of London, Tony Juniper, the director of the U.K. environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth, offered a litany of reasons why Europe and the U.K. should not allow their farmers to grow "genetically modified" (GM) crops. His primary argument, however, was that GM crops will "contaminate" organic crops, thereby threatening the livelihoods of U.K. organic farmers.
As the other arguments Mr. Juniper raised against GM crops have been disproved or have proven to be reasonable and manageable risks (i.e. supposed threats to butterflies, birds, and wildlife, food safety, liability, control over the food system, etc.), the "genetic contamination" argument has become the last, desperate roadblock of those ideologically opposed to the technology.
Yet the concept of genetic contamination holds tremendous potential blocking power, so it is important to understand that the argument is contrary to the entire history of organic food standards.
Juniper states, "Since organic crops cannot contain GM ingredients, the organic status of many U.K. farmers would be threatened." This statement ignores the fact that the organic folks make up their own rules. If they wanted, they could establish reasonable and realistic tolerances for "genetic contamination." But on GM crops, the organic and environmental lobbies aren't interested in being reasonable.
Organic certification has always assured process, not content. That is, organic has always meant that foods were grown using specific farming practices, rather than ensuring the food was free of prohibited substances, contaminants, or DNA.
For example, organic farmers have always had to deal with trace contamination of their crops by synthetic pesticides and other chemicals forbidden under their self-imposed rules. In response to this reality, organic certifiers around the world simply set realistic tolerances for these chemicals. (In the U.S., organic crops can contain up to 5 percent of maximum legal residues for non-organic synthetic pesticides)
Realistic tolerances are only prudent in a world where science allows the detection of chemicals in foods at parts per billion levels (equivalent to one inch in 16,000 miles).
Yet in their extreme opposition to biotech crops, the organic activists are apparently willing to turn their own system on its head. Practice is tossed out and content is now king. The fact that this new zero tolerance policy is a roadblock to other farmers' use of GM technology is exposed when it is realized that "genetic contamination" can be detected at parts per quadrillion levels. (Equal to one second in a million years)
Never mind that farmers have had to live with pollen from neighbor's crops since the dawn of agriculture. (Pollen is like organic fertilizer: it happens.) While there are genetic technologies that would prevent "genetic contamination," such as the much maligned and misnamed "terminator technology," organic activists and their allies in the environmental lobbies are opposed to those as well.
Why are organic farmers so opposed to GM crops? Perhaps it is because in the countries where they are grown, they have already drastically reduced the use of toxic pesticides, raised yields, reduced soil erosion (and thus protected waterways and fish), reduced costs, and reduced fossil fuel use.
It's my belief that organic farmers see that with GM crops, many of the supposed benefits of organic farming can be delivered at far more reasonable prices to consumers and far greater benefit to the environment.
This article appeared on TechCentralStation.com on July 29, 2003.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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