The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology
Europe Wants The World To Reject Farm Science, But It Is The Developing Nations That Would Suffer The Consequences
June 4, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va. - Is Europe having second thoughts about its opposition to biotechnology?
There was a minor flurry of headlines in Britain recently after the Nuffield Council on Bioethics reported the world has a moral obligation to develop genetically modified crops to "fight Third World hunger."
An environmentalist who took part in the deliberations of the London-based bioethics group said that if biotech foods could help fight the problem, "it would be immoral of us to stop" their use.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair found it "extraordinary" that the media would neglect positive reports on biotechnology like the Nuffield report, while giving huge coverage to reports "which fed the hysteria."
The response of European environmental groups to this "moral imperative" was woefully weak. Christian Aid, a church-based development agency headquartered in London, called the council's report "naive" and claimed the solution to world hunger lies in organic farming.
But yields from organic farming are lower than average. Christian Aid's focus seems to be on saving the jobs of small-scale organic farmers.
Who in the affluent world of the future will be willing to leave his or her air-conditioned office cubicle to hoe corn and pull weeds in the hot sun?
Friends of the Earth, a London-based environmental group, calls world hunger more of a political problem than a scientific one. Perhaps the group was talking about its own political campaign to block the use of farm technologies like hybrid seeds and genetically engineered crops?
How the world manages to triple today's farm output in order to feed the world of 2040 will be a critical decision concerning the wildlife that Friends of the Earth is pledged to protect.
But Europe no longer seems to care about either humanitarian or environmental arguments. The region is solely focused on its own vague, unproven food safety concerns.
The Financial Times recently noted a favorable report by a British House of Commons committee on the safety of genetically modified foods, saying it brought "a refreshing note of reason to a debate too long dominated in Europe by sensationalism and hysteria."
The Times added, "Authorities have been too ready to ban products with no
proven health risks just because they arouse population suspicion."
Europe started crying wolf about food safety 20 years ago, when it began worrying that the hormones being developed to stimulate growth in cattle might increase its already expensive beef surplus.
Then, without any scientific evidence of consumer risk, the European Union banned meat growth hormones. (EU farmers didn't mind. Residues found in meat show that they use unregulated growth hormones bought on the black market.)
The EU then began offering special subsidies for organic food, which gave EU bureaucrats visions of restoring the traditional small peasant farms. Organic yields were also lower, which meant less surplus food had to be subsidized for sale on the world market.
The true cost of this "surplus reduction," however, was erosion of public confidence in modern farm output. Because the governments that made up the European Union felt organic food was safer, European citizens came to feel the same.
Codex Alimentarius, the international food safety referee based in Rome, has blown the whistle on the EU's meat hormone ban. It formally concluded that the EU has shown no valid evidence of risk from meat hormones.
The EU's first response was to demand more time. This spring, the Codex and the World Trade Organization demanded action instead.
So the EU called a shameless press conference where a couple of captive scientists talked about findings of hormone-related cancer risk. The scientists refused to talk about the level or probability of the risk, which almost certainly means the "risk" is less likely than a person being hit by lightning twice.
Meanwhile, countries that use pesticides have average life spans 20 years longer than those that don't. The IQ scores of American kids have continued to trend upward throughout the pesticide era.
Western Europe is essentially asking the rest of the world to reject science and accept its emotion-based regulation of food production designed to protect a set of EU farm subsidies that don't even keep Europe's small farmers on their farms.
However, the enormous human and environmental costs of banning modern farm inputs would mostly be paid by the Third World.
Michael Lipton of the Poverty Research Unit at Sussex University in Britain recently pointed out that 200 million people in the Third World suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Those people could be cured by a Rockefeller Foundation project to genetically-engineer rice with enhanced vitamin A.
Fourteen million of those people are children who have severe eye damage due to the vitamin deficiency. "Many of them go blind," Lipton said. "Banning (bio-engineered) field trials globally would amount to blinding children."
The "harvest" of Europe's policies is easy to predict: increased hunger and malnutrition for tens of millions of people; sight impairment, even blindness, for millions of vitamin-deficient children; the plowing down of 10 million square miles of wildlife habitat.
Western Europe should be ashamed of itself.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.