Saving the World from High-Tech Foods in Montreal
While Allowing the Real Dangers of Third World Hunger to Continue
February 14, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
February 4, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-Bigwig politicians and fervent activists from over 100 countries met in Montreal recently to thrash out a global biosafety protocol that would regulate trade in gene-modified products and protect us from the potential dangers of gene-modified crops.
As currently drafted, the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety would have comparable status to international agreements like the World Trade Organization. Most important, the protocol permits countries to take the "precautionary principle" in regulating modified organisms.
This approach, which "demands that new technologies be proved absolutely safe before they can be used, necessarily ignores the very real dangers of going without the new technologies," according to a declaration by C.S. Prakash, director of plant biotechnology research at Tuskegee University. The letter was signed by over 600 scientists from around the world.
The Montreal meeting generated wild disagreement. The Miami Group of countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, essentially regard current biotech regulations as adequate. These governments want to look at the potential benefits as well as the risks of genetic engineering in agriculture and forestry.
On the other side of the table, European and like-minded nations have been trying to prevent the use of gene-modified crops (except for applications in human medicine) and bar them from trade.
Some countries want to control not only the modified organisms but products made from them like cotton shirts made from pest-resistant cotton.
A group called the Council of Canadians seized the Montreal moment to release a new paper alleging Health Canada's approvals of genetically- engineered crops had been based on inadequate science.
"A group of prominent Canadian scientists and academics," said a Southam News report, formed GE-Alert, a research agency that claimed to have found flaws in Health Canada's procedures and logic. The group's lead scientist is Ann Clark, an expert in cattle pastures. She has so little expertise in biotechnology that the dean of her college at Guelph called the group's paper "unethical."
Other members of GE-Alert include an animal nutritionist, an anthropologist, a TV producer, a parasitologist, a biochemist and a philosopher whose field is ethics.
Maude Barlow, one of the leaders of the Council of Canadians, describes herself as a "critic of corporate crime." Health Canada dismissed the group and its announcement as irrelevant. At least one scientist called it "silly."
The anti-biotech forces held a rally just before the Montreal meetings, featuring American activist Jeremy Rifkin. In his career Rifkin has opposed everything from the Vietnam War and computers to digital watches. Rifkin says old-style watches have a circle that associates us with the Earth.
Rifkin now claims Microsoft's Bill Gates and IBM are forging a computer link with the life science company Monsanto, in a plot to give corporations control over life. He says people even ate better in medieval than today.
Rifkin's knowledge of medieval famines is apparently as scanty as his understanding of biotechnology. Rifkin blames modern high-yield agriculture for Third World hunger today, though the hunger tends to be in places where they don't yet grow high-yield crops.
Meanwhile, the environmental group Greenpeace was telling Canadian newspapers the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found herbicide-tolerant soybeans take twice as much pesticide as nonmodified crops.
Actually, the report not only found the genetically modified soybeans take less pesticide, but the glyphosate herbicide to which they're tolerant is one of the safest chemicals known to man.
As Prakash wrote, "Contrary to the claim of anti-biotechnology activists, (living modified organisms) can even advance environmental goals because they require less pesticide and herbicide use and because they allow more food to be grown with less land. There is no scientific reason to believe that...advanced biotechnologies inherently pose new or more dangerous threats to biodiversity."
The benefits Prakash to were on display in the Jan. 14 issue of Science magazine, in an article showing how gene-modified "golden rice" could eliminate the vitamin A deficiency, which causes over a million Third World children to die and millions more to go blind each year.
The Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and, ironically, the European Community's own biotech program sponsored the research. And the "debate" goes on.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.