In Europe, GM food is bad but GM babies are good.
What else are we supposed to conclude from recent news that the British parliament has voted to permit the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos?
Prime Minister Gordon Brown called it “an inherently moral endeavor” and added that “we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures.”
Advocates insist that the vote will advance research into stem cells, with medical benefits. Detractors raise ethical questions. A religious leader, for instance, called the move a “monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity, and human life.”
I don’t mean to settle this dispute. It raises thorny questions and arouses strong passions. We’ve certainly seen that during similar debates in our own country.
Yet I’m struck by a strange paradox: Although Europe seems willing to rush boldly into this controversial area of science, it still refuses to have much of anything to do with GM crops.
The European Union hasn’t approved a new GM crop for a decade. In a recent poll of EU member states, 58 percent of respondents said they were “apprehensive” about GM foods.
Technically, Europe isn’t a GM-free zone. Spanish farmers grow nearly 200,000 acres (75,000 hectares) of GM corn. Some farmers in France, Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic also take advantage of this technology.
In reality, they account for only about one-tenth of one percent of the world’s total biotech crop. The United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, and South Africa each dwarf the combined European figure.
The reason for this gap between Europe and much of the rest of the world is ignorance. Due to an unhealthy combination of scare-mongering interest groups and spineless politicians, Europeans have come to believe that GM crops pose health risks. This view is about as scientifically defensible as the flat-earth theory, but too many people nevertheless hold it.
Some Europeans have spoken out in favor of GM crops. Many farmers see their value and have called for greater acceptance. Several key figures in the British government also support agricultural biotechnology. Its former chief scientist, Sir David King, recently said that GM crops are essential to solving the global crisis in the cost of food.
Yet these sensible people face intense and often bizarre opposition.
In Switzerland, something called the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology recently issued a report called “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants.” As Wesley J. Smith reported in the Weekly Standard, this group declared that people cannot claim “absolute ownership” over plants. In addition, it said that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” What in the world does this mean?
“We may not use [plants] as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily,” says the panel.
The plant community? It sounds like a term invented by a satirist who is trying to come up with a politically correct phrase for gardens. Then again, it could also be the rhetoric of stark-raving madness.
The Swiss report provides an illustration of its “give-peas-a-chance” ideology. Let’s say a farmer cuts his field and then, on the way home, casually “decapitates” a few dandelions with his scythe. This is deemed immoral–a violation of plant dignity.
You may think this all sounds too crazy to be true. But sadly, as the humor columnist Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up.
Between Europe’s embrace of human-animal embryo hybrids and its flirtation with the utter nonsense of plant rights, I’m not sure whether to call the continent a Brave New World or a Cowardly Old World.
All I know for certain is that the safety and usefulness of biotech crops are beyond dispute. The nearly 2 billion acres grown in the past 12 years is the proof. For all practical purposes, these are now conventional plants. We use them as sources of food every single day. In the United States, it’s becoming downright unconventional to grow non-GM corn and soybeans.
Many members of the plant community would agree. When will the Europeans finally hear their pleas?
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org