A related article by Mr. Avery appeared in our "Scrap CAP" series July 5.
CHURCHVILLE, Virginia -- Activists opposing the use of biotechnology in farming will seek the spotlight at the U.S. Republican Party's national convention next week, and again when the Democrats holds their own gabfest later this summer. But whatever their antics, these scaremongers are fighting a futile, rearguard action in much of the world. Would that the same could be said for Europe, however.
Outside the Continent, transgenic crops have swept across the world more rapidly than any previous farming technology, mainly because they protect crops more effectively and use less pesticide. The world's farmers are likely to plant biotech crops in record number of acres this year.
Most of the biotech plantings will be in the United States, where nearly 75 million acres will be devoted to corn, soybeans, canola and other crops. Argentina will plant 17 million acres, mostly corn and soybeans, and Canada 10 million acres, mostly canola. China, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Romania and Ukraine also are planting transgenic crops.
The reason that the biotech acreage will increase is that new breakthroughs continue to emerge from the lab. Among the recent ones:
A new "super-rice" that incorporates a corn gene for a higher rate of photosynthesis. It yields 35% more grain per acre.
Frost-tolerant crops that will survive lower temperatures than traditional crops, meaning higher yields for Canada and Russia, and more twice-yearly harvests in the United States and China.
A natural substance (avidin, from egg whites), that when bred into crops will protect them from storage insects -- thus eliminating the need for pesticides during crop storage.
One of the key biotech triumphs to date has been "golden rice" that should prevent the Vitamin A deficiency that blinds or kills millions of children each year in poor rice-eating countries. The new rice contains beta-carotene, as carrots do; the body converts the beta-carotene into Vitamin A. (Many of these afflicted areas are too poor to make carrots a
regular part of their diet.)
Amidst all these discoveries, the European Union has embarked on a quixotic quest to explain why it should be allowed to block imports of transgenic foods under the "precautionary principle." This holds that authorities should bar a technology until there's proof that it's not harmful.
To see how this would work in practice, look at the humble tomato, that American import that is now at the base of so many great European dishes. In the early 1800s, both Europeans and Americans thought the tomato was poisonous because it was a relative of the deadly nightshade plant. The precautionary principle would have done away with the tomato, and along with it that tasty pasta dish you ate last night.
The EU says it is taking action because European consumers are frightened of the new technology -- even though there is no proof that any of the foods are dangerous. This behavior runs afoul of the World Trade Organization Treaty, which demands scientific proof of danger to bar imports. But to this WTO objection, some French scientists have a ready response -- they claim that some biotech foods have the potential for new allergies. But no approved biotech food has been found to cause allergies. One product that did was caught and stopped in the research process. If any allergen did get approved, of course, it would be quickly withdrawn.
In fact biotech researchers are working to take natural allergens out of wheat, milk and peanuts, which would free millions of people from the torment of these allergies. Biotechnology will reduce food allergies, not exacerbate them.
If EU officials really think that European consumers do not like these products, then there's no problem. Who would buy them? If Europe on the other hand is allowed to block imports for reasons of public fear, then fear campaigns could become trade barriers against virtually all imported products. Hong Kong could say that its consumers think French wines cause cancer and must therefore be banned. France might retaliate by saying Hong Kong textiles are made with "Frankenstein cotton" and must be banned in
turn. Before we knew it, the much-discussed trend toward globalization could be pitched back into the high-tariff days of the 1930s. Perhaps another Great Depression would follow.
That would be tragic. Small-scale Chinese farmers are planting more than 700,000 acres with pest-resistant biotech cotton this year, half of it from China's own labs. The biotech cotton needs no more than one pesticide spray per year, instead of the current 15. This new cotton is putting an extra $150 in profits per hectare into the pockets of one million Chinese farmers who now earn $500 to $1,000 per year. China says biotech cotton has
single-handedly saved its biggest source of jobs. The cotton bollworm was developing resistance to pyrethroid insecticides and would have driven cotton production out of the country. China's cotton industry employs many millions of textile workers as well as farmers -- whose jobs were saved by biotech.
The Chinese also have genetically improved tomatoes, tobacco and cucumbers,
and are actively researching biotech varieties of corn, wheat, and canola, along with many fruits and vegetables. Based on the Chinese experience, an Indian government committee has recommended that India plant its own biotech cotton varieties.
Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for breeding the "miracle wheat" of the Green Revolution, is enthusiastic about biotech crops. He warns that organic farming could not feed more than four billion people -- the world already has more than six billion -- even if we plowed down all the forests on earth to create more farmland.
The world's most distinguished scientists agree with Mr. Borlaug in a new report issued by the academies of science of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the United States along with the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy and the British Royal Society. The report, released earlier this summer, calls biotech foods crucial to overcoming hunger for 800 million food-short residents of poor countries and preventing the deaths of six million children under five who currently die each year from
Surprisingly, the activists opposed to bio-foods are not protesting the use of biotechnology in medicine, where new developments hold the promise of saving millions of people from AIDS, colon and breast cancer.
Ethically, of course, there's no justification for using biotechnology to help the sick, but not the hungry. Fortunately, the activists won't have to wrestle with that dilemma much longer. The march of progress already is leaving them behind in much of the world, and will soon in Europe as well.