Will the last person to agree that biotech food is safe to eat please turn out the lights?
That was my first response when I read a summary of the new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Issued recently, its strong endorsement of genetically enhanced crops provides further proof that biotech food is here to stay–and that its permanence is something to welcome rather than fear.
In The State of Food and Agriculture 2004, the FAO reached several important conclusions, including these:
–GM food is safe to eat.
–Genetically enhanced pest and disease resistant crops offer the possibility of reducing the use of agricultural pesticides.
–Small farmers have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of biotechnology.
None of these claims is actually new. We’ve been hearing them for years from dozens of distinguished sources on the farm, around the conference table, and in the science lab. Yet it’s helpful for these indisputable facts to receive the UN’s prestigious imprimatur.
That’s due in large part to the FAO’s traditional concern for farmers in the developing world. The organization is in an excellent position to speak to the common good of all people, rather than the special interests of a few.
Some 842 million people currently eat an inadequate diet, according to the FAO’s latest numbers. That’s nearly 14% of the world’s population. These unfortunate folks are of course concentrated in poor countries where farmers still don’t make much use of modern agricultural methods. The Green Revolution hasn’t yet transformed their practices, to say nothing of Gene Revolution. The challenge of feeding the world will only increase in the coming decades, as the global population continues to increase.
Obviously, much work needs to be done–right now as well as in the future. And biotechnology is clearly part of the answer to the vexing problem of malnourishment. As assistant director-general Harwig de Haen put it in a press conference: “FAO believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed.”
Of course they’re not guaranteed–not when fearmongering activists in Europe and Japan are frightening people all over the planet with their panicky complaints about “Frankenfood” and the like.
The FAO’s report left groups like Greenpeace practically speechless. That’s no surprise. What are they supposed to say when an internationally respected body comes to a set of conclusions that totally contradicts what they’ve been claiming for so long?
Well, I suppose they could admit they’ve been wrong–incredibly, spectacularly, extravagantly, ostentatiously, and tragically wrong. That would be the responsible thing to do. We try to teach our children to confess their mistakes. It’s part of growing up. We should expect nothing less of political outfits run by adults.
Naturally, enemies of biotechnology have chosen the path of least resistance: denial.
The Associated Press tracked down one Doreen Stabinsky, a Greenpeace spokeswoman, for a comment on the FAO report. “Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions,” she said. “It needs political will and appropriate policies.”
What a ridiculous statement. Technical solutions are of course a huge part of addressing the problem of hunger, whether they’re advances in biotechnology, fertilization, or irrigation. We’re exponentially better at feeding the world today than we were a generation ago, and technical know-how is a huge part of the reason why.
But I’m not done with Stabinsky. Who is she to talk about “political will” and “appropriate policies”? I can’t think of a more useful form of “political will” than for Greenpeace to admit that its neo-Luddite views on biotechnology have led to a wholesale rejection of “appropriate policies” and that they now need a complete revision.
Consider one of the specific points in the FAO report–the concern that biotechnology’s great promise may not reach down and help small-scale farmers in the developing world because profit-minded companies lack the incentive to invest in new crops that don’t hold tremendous commercial potential. “Even the major food crops of the poor–wheat, rice, white maize, potato, and cassava–are also being neglected,” says the report.
Wheat is being neglected? Well, that’s sort of true. Last month, Monsanto announced that it would delay plans to commercialize biotech wheat. The root cause of its reluctance, however, was not driven by economics–but by the phony fears of consumers in Europe and Japan, stoked as they are by irresponsible militants at Greenpeace.
Maybe I should quit worrying about who’s going to turn off the lights and start worrying about who’s going to turn them on–inside the heads of activists who can now count the United Nations as one of their most influential critics.