CHURCHVILLE, Va.-I recently had the honor of being hit with a chocolate pie, hurled on behalf of the Biotic Baking Brigade. It happened during a speech I made at Grinnell College in Iowa, although the pie-thrower was not a student there. The Brigade's press release stated that the pie was punishment for my "dangerous, shameless and flagrant support of biotechnology and industrial factory farming." I am proud to say "guilty as charged."
I am guilty of supporting virtually any technology or farming system that will safely and sustainably raise yields on the world's farms. I am proud to be a small part of the global agricultural research system, which has saved a billion babies from starvation and death-and incidentally prevented the plowdown of 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat for low-yield crops. The pie was a special honor, considering other recent recipients of pies from the Brigade, a network of activists loosely based in San Francisco.
It is flattering to be among giants like the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman (who is helping free billions of people to achieve higher incomes through capitalism) and Larry Vanderhoef, chancellor of the University of California at Davis, where some of the world's finest agricultural research is conducted. The real insult was that the pie-thrower didn't even listen to the speech. He simply snuck in a back door, threw and fled.
David Campbell, chairman of the environmental department at Grinnell, called the pie-throwing "witless, cowardly, puerile and violent." He was not complaining about activism. Both of us took part in civil-rights leader Martin Luther King's March on Washington. But that march was in support of the fairly uncomplicated matter of equal human rights, the public discussion of which had gone on for more than two centuries. The march was simply a way for people to register dignified grass-roots support.
A pie in the face hardly advances the discussions the world needs to have about biotechnology, nonfamily farms, the environment or anything else. A pie in the face is a media event, done in place of serious debate. I'm in favor of biotechnology in food production because the peak world population of nearly 9 billion affluent people in 2050 will demand nearly three times as much food as the world consumes today. Without new breakthroughs in biotechnology we will probably not be able to produce that additional food-not without plowing down tens of millions of square miles of wildlife. The risk for the 21st century is not famine, but wildland destruction on a huge scale.
Of course, the Biotic Baking Brigade may be able to identify a risk to humans from biotech food that outweighs the conservation of wildlands. If so, I want very much to take such risks into account. To date, however, scare tactics about "Frankenstein foods" have been backed only by vague mutterings about "allergens"-and humanity has always been surrounded by millions of allergens. Almost everyone on the planet is at some time allergic to something in his or her environment. Fortunately, there are now effective allergy medications and, for the first time in history, allergies can be reduced to a minor inconvenience. Moreover, there is no evidence that biotechnology has produced any new allergies.
Some activists have even gone so far as to claim that the new "terminator gene" will cause all the world's plants to become sterile and trigger mass famine. But how does a gene that prevents reproduction get loose into wild plants? If it works, it stops itself. It is designed literally to prevent the escape of bioengineered traits and should be welcomed by intelligent conservationists.
What about "factory farms"? I have many neighbors involved in contract production of poultry and several friends involved in contract hog farming. They see it as a more efficient way to produce meat. Confinement hogs generally use 25 percent less feed per pound of meat than outdoor hogs. They also produce more pounds of meat per person-year of effort. That means more livestock and poultry jobs in the rural United States instead of in China or Argentina. Of course, we don't have farming to please farmers. We have farming because we need food and fiber. Farms produce a lot more food per acre than hunting or gathering. So much for the praise heaped upon primitive tribes and peasant farmers.
I hope that someday the adolescent mock-heroism of the Biotic Baking Brigade will find a goal worthy of its members' passion and intelligence. Forcing the world back into low-yield farming doesn't even come close. I have one other suggestion for the Biotic Bakers. I am not that fond of chocolate. I hope they make the next one banana cream.
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