Nobody knows how many people died in Myanmar (Burma) after Cyclone Nargis made landfall earlier this month. There are always uncertainties when natural disasters strike developing countries. That’s especially true when the developing countries are closed societies that want very little to do with the outside world.

Last week, Myanmar’s government said that 43,000 people had perished. Some aid agencies estimated a death toll well above 100,000. Over time, we may reach a more precise accounting of the devastation. In one respect, however, we already know enough: The result of this tempest is horrific.

From an agricultural perspective, the storm hardly could have come at a worse time. This is when Myanmar’s farmers are supposed to plant rice, after plowing their fields with water buffaloes.

The cyclone’s fatalities weren’t limited to people. Farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta lost 149,000 water buffaloes, according to a report in the New York Times. The Irrawaddy Delta produces rice the way Iowa produces corn. I can only imagine what our harvest would be like–or rather, what it wouldn’t be like–if we were denied the use of tractors.

Catastrophes such as Nargis have a way of worsening over time. There are people who die directly from the cyclone. They perish immediately. Then there are those who suffer later on, when they can’t feed themselves properly because the storm has smothered a staple crop. In Myanmar, millions of survivors may yet be threatened. Nargis could go on killing for quite a while.

We can’t stop cyclones–or earthquakes, like the deadly one that just rocked China. But we can do our best to prepare for them in advance.

Be Prepared: That’s the motto of the Boy Scouts.

It’s a good idea to carry jumper cables in the trunk of your car, just in case. And every home should have a flashlight, a battery-powered radio, and canned food.

You never know when tsunamis or tornadoes will strike–and it’s far better to have these items and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Likewise, the world should prepare to confront natural disasters by giving itself two of the most effective tools available: trade and technology.

Trade is important after a disaster because it allows existing transportation and distribution networks to deliver food. With respect to Myanmar, some of this already exists–but not nearly enough.

The country’s authoritarian government is so close-minded that it has turned away international relief efforts, seeming both to fear and resent them. At one point, General Than Shwe, who heads the regime, wouldn’t even take a phone call from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, according to The Economist.

This has prompted some pundits to suggest that the United States airdrop packages into Irrawaddy Delta. Such a desperate gesture may make those suggesting it feel good about their own humanitarianism, but its helpfulness is at best doubtful. Any pallets of supplies that weren’t lost or destroyed probably would be seized by the government or bandits rather than put into the hands of those who need it most.

A much better alternative is to make sure a political and economic infrastructure that supports trade exists before disasters hit.

A second necessary component to successful disaster relief is abundant food. That’s where biotechnology comes in. It remains one of the best ways to boost production by allowing us to grow more food on the same amount of farmland.

In April, food prices saw their greatest monthly price increase in almost two decades. That’s bad news for everybody–and it’s especially bad news for people affected by natural disasters. When the cost of food rises, so does the cost of donating food. The price of charity goes up.

As with trade, biotechnology can’t be part of a rapid-response strategy. Instead, it must be put in place long before cyclones show up on weather maps. One helpful step Asian countries could take immediately would be to allow the commercialization of GM rice.

We must do what we can for the people of Myanmar. But we must also start thinking about what we can do right now for the victims we can’t yet identify–and that’s to Be Prepared.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.

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