October 23, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
Western Europe is going to ban all new technologies (perhaps so we won’t have to worry about changes upsetting our lives). They’ve already banned genetically modified foods, and now they want the rest of the world to follow their “precautionary principle” by prohibiting all new technology until it’s proven it will never cause harm to anyone or anything in the environment.
See how simple that makes things? Nothing new would qualify. If we’d just done this 100 years ago, think how uncomplicated (albeit short) life would already be.
Automobiles? Why would we let you loose in a two-ton gasoline-powered projectile that could destroy you and your neighbor’s house in a single moment of inattention? We’ll have no traffic jams, just horse manure clogging the streets.
Electricity? It causes fires, and even kills people accidentally. I’m content with the music from scratchy records on a wind-up Victrola. Or my wife’s humming.
Penicillin? At high doses, it kills guinea pigs and some people are allergic. Millions of people will die of infections and pneumonia without antibiotics but that is the natural way.
The Salk polio vaccine? It carries a slight risk of inflicting the disease. Banning it may bring back the crippling disease epidemic that haunted parents until the 1950s—but if we’re lucky the virus has disappeared. There certainly haven’t been many cases since vaccinations were made mandatory.
Chlorine to purify your drinking water? We can no longer allow it. At high doses, it causes tumors in rats. Millions will die of cholera (as thousands did recently in Peru when Lima was persuaded to ban it). But cholera is “natural.”
Europe decided the risks of biotech foods outweigh its potential advantages. The EU is also proposing to regulate chemicals the same way: nothing will be approved until it is proved that no potential harm in the chemical or products made from it. (Like chlorine.)
Biotech crops have already passed every test known to science and medicine. None of the millions of biotech food consumers have even a skin rash to show for eating them. But, the EU says biotech might create new food allergens. Ironically, biotech researchers have recently removed the key allergens from two of Mother Nature’s most allergenic foods: peanuts and soybeans. Has Europe asked its allergic citizens whether they’re willing to continue risking potentially fatal anaphylactic shock because there was no label on the cookie shouting “soybean oil!”? Biotech just produced the first blight-proof potato. Potato late blight starved a million people in Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s—because no other crop produces as much food per acre. Food-short Bangladesh recently tripled its dependence on potatoes. The value of preventing a modern potato famine? Priceless?
The environmental movement has long campaigned against the use of DDT, because it “might” cause cancer in humans and “might” thin the egg shells of raptor birds. But the big Long Island breast cancer study last year reported no link between cancer and DDT. Used indoors—to both repel and kill malaria mosquitoes—DDT could save a million African lives a year (half of them children) with no risk to birds. But that would violate the precautionary principle.
“Golden rice” was genetically engineered (by Europeans) to add modest amounts of beta-carotene (for Vitamin A) to the diets of children in rice-eating cultures. Otherwise, millions of them will go blind from severe Vitamin A deficiencies. Huge doses of Vitamin A can kill, so the precautionary principle says we must bar low doses of Vitamin A in golden rice.
Hopefully, there won’t be a devastating third world potato famine because of Europe’s ban on biotech foods. But we all want our lives, and our children’s, to be better in the future. If we take Europe’s advice we will be prevented from creating that better future through research and technology.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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