Farmers Need To Repair Their Public Image
November 24, 1998
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—Switzerland nearly outlawed biotechnology in food production over the summer. Was this an isolated incident, or does it mean more trouble for modern agriculture as it tries to triple world food production for the 21st century?
Switzerland's "Gene Protection Initiative" would have banned the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. In effect, the initiative would have outlawed biotechnology for food production in Switzerland. And that was the intent.
The referendum resulted from a six-year campaign by a consortium of 70 Swiss organizations that collected 100,000 voters' signatures.
Key organizations in the anti-biotech coalition included Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Swiss Organic Farmers and several animal rights groups. Ominously, the big Swiss Lutheran Women's League and Swiss Catholic Women's League were also members.
THE WELL-FUNDED publicity campaign featured full-page newspaper ads that equated biotechnology with nuclear technology. Campaigners also harshly criticized science for experiments involving not only lab rats, guinea pigs and monkeys, but also worms, flies and fish.
The vote was expected to be close until just a few weeks before the referendum, when a major campaign was launched by Switzerland's scientists and research-based companies.
Voters were reminded that a ban would drive away many of Switzerland's most notable companies, including those in the country's large pharmaceutical industry. The jobs they provide would go elsewhere, too.
The biotech proponents also played up the favorable image of biotechnology in human medicine, with posters showing sick children and Swiss biologists working on well-known diseases.
AGRICULTURE cannot take much comfort from the results in Switzerland, however. The real lesson from the Swiss referendum is that there will be more anti-farming ballot initiatives and pressure for even tighter regulation of farming and farm research.
The fact that both the Lutheran and Catholic women's organizations joined the coalition is a huge red flag for the future. The women's church groups have lots of members, and they're not far-out activists like many of the people in Greenpeace.
Obviously, modern agriculture has failed to convince First World mothers that using modern science in food production is a positive for their children.
WHY IS AGRICULTURE losing its reputation when it's doing a better job of feeding the world than ever before? Just a generation ago, 1 billion Asians were expected to die of famine; now they're eating pork and ice cream. Those numbers may be part of the problem.
Eco-activists have pushed the erroneous idea that more food will mean a world with more people. Meanwhile, Switzerland's 7 million people are crowded into the narrow valleys of the Swiss Alps.
Few Swiss understand that we're living in the first period in world history when increased food security means smaller families, not larger ones.
ANIMAL RIGHTS have also become a much more emotional issue for city folks. Urbanites no longer want to think about "harvesting" animals as a crop.
Even the Lutheran and Catholic women's groups are apparently uncertain now about the Judeo-Christian concept that man was given "dominion" over the other species on the planet.
The Swiss would rather think of cows being milked than slaughtered. They'd rather not have animals used in research at all.
ALL OF THIS adds up to trouble for modern agriculture. As the world gets richer and more urbanized, the traditional appreciation of farmers is fading.
The image of the hard-working farmer with a hoe is being replaced by an image of a rural tycoon on a big tractor. The fear of famine is being replaced by a more vivid fear of overpopulation.
Today's consumer is distressed that farmers don't treat battery hens and confinement sows like family pets.
Given all this, plus the powerful potential of biotechnology to alter natural organisms and ecosystems, the Swiss electorate nearly rebelled.
Farmers aren't getting their message to the city folks. The only information most city people get about modern farming is coming from activists condemning it.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.