Europe's "Precaution" Means Stagnation
November 1, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
Must America fight a trade war with its European allies over genetically enhanced crops, even as we recruit their support for regime change in Iraq?
Fortunately for America but unfortunately for Europe, their opposition to biotech food is fast becoming a global embarrassment, affecting even the Europeans themselves.
Countries in southern Africa are refusing to distribute life-saving U.S. corn donated for the starving drought victims. European-led activists (especially Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth) have successfully mounted a scare campaign to convince African leaders that the corn is “poison.” (This is the same corn Americans have been eating for years with no ill effects.)
In Africa’s devastated rural areas, the activists’ anti-biotech rally cry, “Better dead than GM fed,” is a prophecy, not a slogan. An offended observer in Johannesburg wrote scathingly that the European message was clear: “You darkies must starve until the white Bwanas in Europe decide that biotech food is O.K.”
Europe has been trying for years to bar Africans from using the high-yield farming inputs (especially fertilizers and fungicides) that made Europe well fed. Africans have recoiled at the innate racism of this policy thrust. The European stance was in honor of the organic farming ideal that provides only about 2 percent of Europe’s food, but nearly all of Africa’s.
Recently, Europe has been trying to insert its “Precautionary Principle” (PP) into the World Trade Organization rules, knowing this would stifle the development of “American” biotech crops. However, a PP would also have blocked the invention of most non-farm technologies such as autos and electricity.
The Precautionary Principle does not represent leadership for a world still three-quarters poor and poorly fed.
The anti-biotech activists say their campaign will “preserve nature.” However, the hunger in southern Africa is driving its desperate inhabitants to hunt down anything that flies, crawls, or swims for their stewpots. The region’s normal hunting of “bushmeat” has escalated now that food is scarcer than AK-47s.
(Thanks to Euro-leadership, Africa is currently projected to clear wildlands greater than the land area of Texas in the next 20 years—for more low-yield, subsistence farming.)
Europe’s fixation with its farm surplus is a danger to the world’s forests and wildlife all over the planet. An EU agricultural attaché recently told me that Europe’s exports of grain and livestock products were helping to protect the whole world from hunger. But the EU exports only about 15 to 20 million tons of grain annually—less than 2 percent of the world’s grain consumption.
World grain demand is likely to be 350 million tons per year larger in 2050 to supply high-quality diets for 8 billion affluent people and their pets. Since we’re already farming half the global land area not covered by glaciers and deserts, we’ll need to triple all farmers’ yields per acre with new technology, or plow down nearly all of the earth’s land surface.
Even the European Commission is worried that the anti-biotech campaign will hurt Europe economically. Many of Europe’s best high-tech jobs have been driven from ‘the Continent” by the Greenpeace takeover of public policy. Many of these bellwether jobs have moved to the United States, further marginalizing Europe’s medical and research establishments for the future.
Meanwhile, China is building a huge genetic engineering establishment, pursuing biotech crops and transformations more eagerly than the Americans. They’ve now been joined by India, which had been doing the research, but delayed field release until last year when a cotton bollworm plague broke open the regulatory roadblock by forcing the release of pest-resistant biotech cotton.
Soon, it won’t be Europe against America, but Europe against the world.
The final European biotech embarrassment is over terrorism. The destruction of the World Trade Center should teach Europe, as well as America, that the world can’t peacefully exist half-rich and half-poor. If Europe’s elites can’t help the Third World to get higher standards of living, they could lose their own elite status, one way or another.
Meanwhile, U.S. biotech research just made Muslim agriculture sustainable for the first time in ten thousand years with crops that actually remove the salts that have been inexorably poisoning the long-irrigated soils of the Middle East.
Does the Precautionary Principle offer any answers to such critical problems? Does Europe?
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on October 3, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.