Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore says the environmental movement’s “campaign against biotechnology clearly exposes its intellectual and moral bankruptcy,” and its low regard for the harm its ideologies inflict on poor people.
As if to underscore how right Dr. Moore is, Greenpeace activist Farida Akthen recently blasted the Bangladesh agricultural ministry for approving research on one of the most promising of biotech miracles. Golden rice is enriched with beta-carotene, which people can convert to vitamin A. Simply by eating a few ounces a day, malnourished children can ward off a vitamin deficiency that causes half a million kids to go blind every year and leaves hundreds of millions (including many thousands in Bangladesh) susceptible to disease, intellectual impairment and death.
But Ms. Akthen, who also heads up another radical Bangladeshi group known as UBINIG, claims this technological marvel somehow impairs people’s health. Genetically Engineered (GE) food can infect people “with diseases unknown even to physicians,” she recently misinformed journalists in Dhaka. “Tomatoes, potatoes, rice, wheat and barley were engineered in a way that their panthogenesis-related proteins prepare anti-fungal compounds that create allergies in a consumer’s body,” she continued.
These bizarre claims might have a place in a Stephen King fright novel or Comedy Central skit. But they help prolong the suffering and death of millions who could be helped by agricultural advances that hold great promise for improving environmental conditions, agricultural production and nutrition in Bangladesh and other poor countries.
Biotech crops reduce the need for pesticides, and the time farmers must spend working in their fields. By eliminating the need to cultivate for weed control, herbicide resistant varieties reduce soil erosion because they grow better and resist insects and viruses, GE seeds dramatically increase yields per hectare. Researchers are working on varieties that tolerate drought better or absorb nutrients more efficiently and thus need less fertilizer.
Like many Americans, I eat food with biotech ingredients almost every day, and buy biotech corn (maize) whenever I can. It is better for the environment and unlikely to be contaminated by dangerous fungal toxins that cause fatal diseases in animals, cancer, reduced immunity and birth defects in humans. In fact, tests in England found that GE cornmeal had almost zero contaminants, whereas organic cornmeal had fungal contaminants (fumonisin) up to 30 times higher than limits set by the EU.
That’s because GE corn has built-in proteins that attack pests like corn borers, which chew pathways for these dangerous contaminants. By eliminating these pests, which often destroy almost entire crops in African countries, biotech varieties greatly increase yields per acre.
Americans so far have eaten over 1 trillion servings of foods containing at least one GE ingredient. Over the past 10 years, hundreds of millions of consumers around the world have eaten foods from these improved crops. Not one has gotten so much as a hiccup from them. All these crops are rigorously screened for allergies and other risks, and prestigious scientific bodies like the World Health Organization, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences and UK Royal Academy have all concluded that biotech crops and foods are at least as safe as (and often safer than) those from conventional and organic farms.
Ms. Akther “feels” the capitalist world has a “hidden plan to control the world’s food chain.” This nonsense will do nothing but scare people away from a technology that could transform their lives for the better. Golden Rice will be distributed free to farmers, who will retain the right to save and replant seed as long as they sell less than US$10,000 annually. While farmers do have to pay for other GE seeds, most are happy to do so, because the benefits are so great.
South African farmers who use GE corn have boosted crop production, cut pesticide use up to 75%, tripled profits and saved 35-49 days per season working in fields. “With the old maize, I got 100 bags from my 15 hectares” (37 acres), says Richard Sithole. “With Bt maize I get 1,000 bags.” Elizabeth Ajele shares his excitement: “My old plants would be destroyed by insects, even when I sprayed 12 times a season, but not the new biotech plants. If someone said we should stop using the new maize, I would cry.”
Ms. Akthen wants Bangladeshi farmers to continue practicing “traditional agriculture.” Also known as subsistence farming, it means families barely scratch an existence from poor soils, and rarely have enough to sell at local markets, much less export.
If the world had to rely on organic farming or 1960s agricultural technologies to produce as much food as it actually did in 2000, notes Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate for the first Green Revolution, “we would have had to double the amount of land under cultivation.” Millions of acres of forest and grassland habitats would have been slashed, burned and plowed for subsistence farming – or millions more people would have starved. As human populations grow, the problem would only worsen.
Instead, thanks to biotechnology, farmers can grow far more from the same acreage, thereby preserving habitats and fostering biodiversity and nutrition. They don’t need modern machinery, or specialized training, to double or triple their yields. They merely have to plant these better seeds, to produce better lives for their families.
Keeping GE seeds out of the hands of farmers – and GE food out of the mouths of hungry children and parents – violates basic human rights, and perpetuates poverty and malnutrition.
No wonder Dr. Moore says the greens’ position is “insanity.” Anti-biotech activists are on the wrong side of science, history, morality and humanity. They need to be held to civilized standards of honesty, transparency and accountability.