Anti-Science Activists Entertain But Don't Enlight
The Dam-Busters And Anti-Biotech Food Activists Still Make Noise, But November Brought Signs That Science Was Making A Comeback
December 15, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues, December 8, 2000.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--India's Vandana Shiva, one of the world's most prominent opponents of genetically engineered crops, recently took part in a demonstration against Rice-Tec, a plant-breeding company in Alvin, Texas.
Looking out at Rice-Tec's experimental field, Ms. Shiva said, "The plants look unhappy. The rice plants at home look very happy."
A Rice-Tec representative replied, "We harvested the rice in August. Those are weeds."
Activists are fun to watch. They sell lots of newspapers. The problem comes when you put them in charge of something important, such as the global food supply, or the world's energy system.
Shiva lectures across Europe and America as an eco-feminist. She claims biotech foods are dangerous to people (though she doesn't offer any evidence).
She also claims biotech crops would disadvantage Indian farmers who save their seed from year to year instead of buying commercial seed.
For a world that will need nearly three times as much food in 2050 as it harvests today, and which is already farming 37 percent of its land area, that's a problem.
The activists are equally negative about energy for our cars, furnaces and computers. They oppose the burning of fossil fuels, of course. Never mind that we have hundreds of years worth of probable fossil fuel reserves. Or that the planet has had no significant warming since 1940.
(The official thermometers show a slight upward trend, but they are located in urban heat islands. The more-accurate high-altitude balloons and satellites both show no warming in recent decades.)
The activists also oppose dams, which provide a substantial part of the world's electricity, along with perhaps a quarter of the world's food supply through irrigation.
There seems to be no recognition that whatever local wildlife benefits might be gained by busting the dams would be more than offset by the lost of fossil-free power and the increased cropland needed to produce our food without irrigation.
The European Union's Environmental Commissioner, Margot Walstrom, recently told a Finnish conference that nuclear power is too expensive and "unsustainable." Never mind that nuclear is expensive primarily because of activist lawsuits, or that nuclear power produces none of the greenhouse gases that the activists claim are the biggest risk to the planet's survival.
Nuclear also has an enviable safety record, except in the careless Soviet Union. The claim nuclear power is "unsustainable" derives purely from the environmental movement's refusal to accept any disposal system for spent fuel.
(Experts recommend putting the spent fuel in thousand-year zinc-and- stainless steel drums, and burying them under 4,000 feet of seawater and 200 feet of fine silt on the stable Pacific sea bottom.)
Fortunately, November gave us some signs the First World is beginning to pull back from the anti-science abyss.
One was that the three-year international negotiation to make radical cuts in energy use under the Kyoto Protocol collapsed.
The governments of the United States and the European Union were willing to sign the Kyoto treaty when its energy cuts seemed years away.
After the recent "road riots" in Europe and America protesting high gasoline costs, they are now unwilling to impose rationed electricity or raise gas taxes to fend off a mild, natural (and mainly beneficial) global warming.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned a biotechnology conference this month that the United Kingdom was in danger of becoming an anti- science society, where a small number of protesters had the power to block the development of potentially life-saving medical treatments.
"To make heroes of people who are preventing basic scientific research...is wrong. It is to substitute aggression for argument," said Blair. Instead, he recommended, "Let us get to the facts, and then judge their moral consequences."
Al Gore barely mentioned his drastic environmental agenda in the recent U.S. Presidential campaigns, even though he made his national reputation with an anti-science environmental book, "Earth in the Balance."
The New York Times editorialized against the precautionary principle being advanced by Europe. Electricity, antibiotics and autos would all have been barred by the precautionary principle's standard of no-harm-to- anybody, ever.
The Times, which has campaigned for years against safety-tested pesticides and nuclear power, has now seen the danger of activist control and finally wants us to use science to balance risks and potential benefits.
Science is simply the sum of our knowledge. It is not always accurate, it is always incomplete and it is always changing. But at any given moment it is the best understanding of reality achieved by thousands of years of human discovery.
OPINION ARTICLES and letters to the editor are welcome. Send submissions to Sally Heinemann, editorial director, BridgeNews, 3 World Financial Center, 200 Vesey St., 28th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10281-1009. You may also call (212) 372-7510, fax (212) 372-2707 or send e-mail to email@example.com
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.