Europe Engaged In A Phony War on Biotechnology
EU Selfishly Hides Behind Farm Trade Barriers While Attacking Scientific Advances In The Fight Against Hunger
July 15, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Europe's govern-ments, after frightening their own consumers about the safest food supply in world history, are now making a huge effort to share their food panic with the rest of the world.
They are doing this for shabby political reasons. They want to protect their failed farm subsidies, and they hope to enhance the image of their statist, socialist regimes as more "caring" than America's supposedly heartless techno-capitalism.
Europe is trying to ditch the science-based food safety regime that currently governs the World Trade Organization in favor of "public perceptions of food safety."
This means putting the food supply at the mercy of such hysteria campaigns as the one against biotechnology in food or the furor over traces of non-toxic dioxin in Belgian chicken feed.
If Europe's deception succeeds, genetic engineering will not be used to help the world's farmers meet a threefold increase in demand for food by 2050.
As a direct result, the world's children would suffer more hunger and malnutrition while huge tracts of tropical forests--and many thousands of wildlife species--would be needlessly destroyed. People's needs would even be pitted directly against the food needs of cats, dogs and other companion animals.
The World Trade Organization itself, which has produced more economic growth than any institution in history, would be at risk.
The reality behind the science of modern food production is clear: Pesticides are not dangerous to consumers. The cancer risks of First World non-smokers clearly began to decline about 1950, just when we began to use more pesticides more broadly.
But Western Europe has been burdened with millions of tons of food it couldn't sell at politically inflated prices. To lower their farm subsidy costs, its governments encouraged the myth of pesticide dangers and actively subsidized low-yield organic production.
If the meat of animals raised with growth hormones posed a risk to human health, European consumers would be dying prematurely in huge numbers. But they're not. (The Brussels-based European Union has banned use of the hormones, but Europe's farmers have been stoking their cattle with doses of black-market hormones ever since.)
Europeans were alarmed when mad-cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was diagnosed in British beef cattle and then a similar disease in people, Creutzfeld-Jakob, was attributed to eating the beef.
These were new diseases, apparently caused by something we hadn't known existed. Under the circumstances, confusion and lack of government clarity were probably unavoidable. But one episode shouldn't stop progress in feeding the world.
Recently, a minuscule amount of dioxin was discovered in Belgian chicken feed. The consumer exposure was laughably small, but it brought down a government and caused anxiety across Europe.
Dioxin is a natural byproduct of forest fires that is hugely toxic to guinea pigs, but not to hamsters or people. Even workers exposed to high dioxin levels for decades experience few ailments.
Meanwhile, Europe is paying virtually no attention to the biggest food-borne danger, which is bacterial contamination--and which is especially frequent in organic food. (Any government truly wanting to improve the safety of its citizens' food supply would aggressively offer irradiation.)
Society needs to keep costs and benefits in perspective. The big truth is that there is no inherent danger from biotechnology, in either food or medicine.
We should take the modest risks of researching these powerful technologies because they have the potential to save millions of human lives as well as millions of square miles of wildlife habitat.
The European Union's food surpluses are perhaps equal to 35 million tons of grain per year, which is embarrassingly small when matched against the world's projected needs.
The world already uses nearly 2 billion tons of grain per year and by 2050 will demand 5 billion to 6 billion tons. We must have the higher yields that technology can deliver or else people will plow down wildlands all over the world.
The two most powerful agricultural strategies derived so far from biotechnology are acid-soil crops and wild-relative genes.
On about half the arable land in the tropics, acid soils cut yields by up to 80 percent. But acid-soil crops, thanks to a gene harnessed by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., get normal yields in spite of the acidity.
This is especially noteworthy because the tropics have the densest human populations, the fastest-rising food demand, the least farmable land and millions of wild species in their forests.
The harnessing of wild-relative genes is also producing spectacular results.
Genes from wild relatives of our food crops, identified by gene maps, have recently boosted yields in such disparate crops as tomatoes and rice by 30 percent to 50 percent. This yield-raising strategy appears broadly useful for many crops.
There is opposition to these breakthroughs, however, puzzling as that might sound.
Why would Europe want to ban acid-soil crops for the tropics? Or prevent the constructive use of the wild genes that eco-activists tell us are a major reason for saving tropical forests?
Also, why would Europe oppose the use of the "terminator gene?" This gene, whose patent is now owned by Monsanto, renders the offspring of genetically engineered crops sterile.
There are other puzzles in the opposition to biotechnology. One concerns a natural pesticide from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a soil bacterium.
For years, organic farmers have been using Bt-derived pesticide sprays to control insects eating their crops. Now biotechnology has enabled scientists to incorporate Bt genes in food crops.
Thanks to this breakthrough, the plants can produce the same natural pesticide. This is more efficient than sprays, and it is cheaper, too.
One laboratory study by a Cornell researcher, however, recently found that eating large amounts of pollen from Bt corn was fatal to monarch butterflies. Opponents of biotechnology quickly seized on the study.
But if the butterflies are really at risk from Bt corn, wouldn't they be equally at risk in a world full of corn grown organically with Bt sprays? (As it turned out, even the study's lead researcher doesn't support a moratorium on biotech crops, much less a ban.)
I don't really care whether Europe becomes more prosperous in the next three decades. I don't care much whether Monsanto earns a return on its billion-dollar investments in biotechnology for agriculture.
I do care a great deal, however, whether we provide good nutrition for the world's little kids to grow up tall and strong.
I care urgently about retaining the world's wildlands. And I care about the potential to overcome vitamin A blindness in poor-country children by engineering more of the vitamin into rice crops.
What I deplore is the selfishness of a Europe that raises trade barriers and creates phony food scares for cheap political reasons--while pretending to care about the world, the future and conserving nature.
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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.