Attack of the Killer Crops?

Activists still trying to scare poor farmers with bad science


Activists are again trying to frighten poor people in developing countries by claiming the U.S. is poisoning them with genetically modified food. Never mind that 280 million Americans have been eating biotech-enhanced crops for nearly a decade with zero evidence that it has caused anyone so much as a sniffle or a bellyache.

Friends of the Earth tested samples of corn and soybean distributed both commercially and as aid to several Central American countries, to see if they contained genetically modified varieties. They really needn't have bothered, since it's public knowledge that 85 percent of U.S. soybean acreage and 45 percent of its corn are sown in biotech crop varieties that are resistant to pests and herbicides. What would be surprising is if they found no genetically enhanced corn or soybeans in food shipments from the States. The activists merely went through the motions of testing the crops to place a scientific façade on their latest biotech scare.

FOE claims to have found the genetically modified "StarLink" corn variety in the some of the food shipments. The press release notes, accurately, that "StarLink has never been authorized for human consumption anywhere in the world due to the potential allergenic content of its genetically modified protein." Sounds serious, right? Not really.

In October 2000 activists seized on the news StarLink, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency only for animal feed, had been detected in two brands of taco shells, prompting recalls and front-page headlines. Lost in the furor was the fact that there was little reason to believe the corn was unsafe for human consumption—only an implausible, unsubstantiated fear that it might cause allergic reactions.

After the fact, even StarLink's parent company Aventis agreed that it was a serious mistake to have accepted the EPA's approval for animal use only. Because so many crops can be eaten by both people and livestock, most biotech proponents favor planting genetically modified feed-crops only if they are proven safe for humans, too.

In the end, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that there was absolutely no evidence that anyone had suffered any adverse reaction to eating foods containing StarLink corn. FOE activists, eager to push their anti-biotech campaign forward by frightening uninformed poor people, have simply ignored the CDC's findings.

Today, resistance to pests and herbicides and some diseases are the chief improvements offered by biotech. And most of those enhancements have been made in developed countries' leading commercial crops, like corn, soybeans, and cotton. The next frontier will be applying genetic enhancements to crops that feed the hungry in developing countries. However, this progress could be significantly slowed by an activist campaign against biotechnology that threatens to increases the risk of starvation for millions.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that global food production must increase by 40 percent in the next 20 years to meet the goal of a better and more varied diet for a projected world population of some eight billion people. As biologist Richard Flavell concluded in a 1999 report to the IFPRI, "It would be unethical to condemn future generations to hunger by refusing to develop and apply a technology that can build on what our forefathers provided and can help produce adequate food for a world with almost two billion more people by 2020."

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization argues that biotech can be a "pro-poor agricultural technology," pointing out that it "can be used by small farmers as well as larger ones; it does not require large capital investments or costly external inputs and it is relatively simple to use. Biotechnologies that are embodied in a seed, such as transgenic insect resistance, are scale neutral and may be more affordable and easier to use than other crop technologies."

A 2004 Rand Corporation report agrees, noting "the key component of the Gene Revolution technology is improved seed. This being the case, all farmers, small or large, should be able to take advantage of the Gene Revolution; theoretically, the Gene Revolution is scale-neutral, providing that one can pay for the seed."

Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu concurs that crop biotechnology has great potential to increase agricultural productivity in Africa without demanding big changes in local practices. A drought-tolerant seed will benefit farmers whether they live in Kansas or Kenya.

The world's poor farmers recognize this, even if the anti-biotech activists who claim to speak for them don't. Thousands of poor Indian farmers nearly rioted in 2002 when the Indian government, spurred on by activists, was poised to destroy the genetically modified pest-resistant cotton they had planted. Faced with this farmer revolt, the Indian government backed down. The subsequent crops of biotech cotton performed spectacularly, boosting yields as much as 80 percent, reducing pesticide use by 70 percent and increasing farmers' cotton-related income fivefold.

"In order to protect our population it is of utmost importance now more than ever to act with great caution," claims one anti-biotech activist. For the sake of the hungry poor in Central America, let's hope that their leaders show even greater caution in heeding this bogus FOE scare campaign.