The biggest biotech scandal of all? The enormous delays in introducing new, beneficial crops to farmers worldwide, says the current cover story in British Prospect magazine.
The piece outlines the sad fate of Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus' "golden rice"–the much-ballyhooed genetically engineered rice that was going to prevent "1-2m deaths a year, and…save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind." Bureaucratic delays and European bio-tech skepticism have kept the rice, which was announced on the cover of Time in 2000 as the next big thing, from being widely distributed. Current timelines still say it may be at least another 5 years before anyone starts benefiting from one of the coolest humanitarian innovations in recent memory.
The scientific way of ensuring that crops are safe is to test the product, not the process. Perversely, regulations in the US as well as Europe require the opposite. The result is that it takes much longer and costs at least ten times as much to bring a new GM crop to market as an equivalent conventionally bred crop. As Potrykus has pointed out, no scientist or scientific institution in the public domain has the funding or the motivation to go through such an expensive and drawn-out procedure. Only large companies or the most richly funded charities can and the only projects companies are likely to back are those that make big profits. Producing rice that saves the lives or the eyesight of millions of the poorest peasants offers no great financial rewards.
In delaying cultivation, the anti-GM lobbies have exacted a heavy price. Their opposition has undermined agrobusiness in Europe and has driven abroad much research into plant biotechnology—an area in which Britain formerly excelled. Over-regulation may well cause the costs of the technology to remain higher than they need be. Above all, delay has caused the needless loss of millions of lives in the developing world. These lobbies and their friends in the organic movement have much to answer for.
Check out a new study on the global health effects of biotech crops.