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Science vs. Hysteria

By NORMAN E. BORLAUG

MEXICO CITY -- In 2000, I served on a joint U.S.-European Union Biotechnology Consultative Forum -- appointed by President Clinton and Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission -- to look at the full range of issues that have polarized thinking about biotechnology, especially in food and agriculture, on both sides of the Atlantic.

While significant differences of opinion existed -- mainly related to the regulatory structure on certifying agri-biotech products -- most of the 20 U.S. and European experts on the panel agreed that agricultural biotechnology holds great promise to make dramatic and useful advances during the 21st century. The most prestigious national academies of science in North America and Europe (including the Vatican), also have come out in support of genetic engineering to improve the quantity, quality, and availability of food supplies.

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Unfortunately, the debate about the safety and utility of genetically modified (GM) crops continues to grow, and now looks to be heating up further. The U.S. is considering filing a challenge at the World Trade Organization to break the European Union's four-year moratorium on importing GM crops. Although the European Commission agrees that the ban needs to be lifted, various member states refuse to do so until more stringent GM labeling regulations are put in place.

The U.S. is contemplating a WTO suit because European resistance to GM foods is increasingly influencing the trade policies of other nations, to the point where some African governments recently have turned down American GM grain intended for starving people. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says he has information that several European countries are threatening to make economic aid to developing countries contingent on whether they prohibit biotech crops. If this is true, it would be tragic and grossly irresponsible.

Although there have always been those in society who resist change, the intensity of the attacks against GM crops from some quarters is unprecedented and, in certain cases, even surprising, given the potential environmental benefits that such technology can bring by reducing the use of pesticides. Genetic engineering of crops -- plant breeding at the molecular level -- is not some kind of witchcraft, but rather the progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race. The idea that a new technology should be barred until proven conclusively that it can do no harm is unrealistic and unwise. Scientific advance always involves some risk of unintended outcomes. Indeed, "zero biological risk" is not even attainable.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa says he's been told by anti-biotechnology groups that donated American corn is "poison" because it contains genetically modified kernels. Based on such misinformation, he is willing to risk thousands of additional starvation deaths rather than distribute the same corn Americans have been eating for years with no ill effects.

Some other African leaders whose people also are facing hunger and starvation say they're afraid to accept genetically modified corn because its pollen will "contaminate" local corn varieties with dire environmental consequences. Also, they say that they hope to export corn to Europe in the future and fear that their products would be rejected if genetically modified foods were allowed to enter their countries.

These concerns are unfounded. Temperate-zone corn (either GM or normal) will not grow well in tropical African ecologies and, moreover, it has yellow grain while Africans prefer white grain. Thus, even if a curious farmer were to plant some GM grain received as food aid, its continued presence in the field is unlikely. Certainly in the case of Zambia, a land-locked country with poor transportation and low agricultural productivity, the prospects for exporting corn to Europe in the foreseeable future are almost zero.

If low-income, food-deficit nations -- which desperately need access to the benefits of science and technology -- are being advised by governments and pressure groups in privileged nations to reject biotechnology, based on ideologically inspired pseudo-science, there is reason for serious concern. Of course, proper safeguards need to be put in place in Africa and elsewhere to regulate biotechnology research and the release of GM products. But to attempt to deny such benefits would be unconscionable.

Current GM crop varieties that help to control insects and weeds are lowering production costs and increasing harvests -- a great potential benefit to all Third World farmers. Future GM products are likely to carry traits that will improve nutrition and health. All of these technologies have more benefits to offer poor farmers and consumers than rich ones.

For example, Kenya is ready to field-test virus-resistant sweet potatoes that should yield 30% to 50% more of this important food staple. Virus-resistant bananas and potatoes have already been bred, but are being barred in African countries where people urgently need their higher yields. Indian researchers are developing a vaccine against the epidemic livestock disease, rinderpest, which can be genetically engineered into peanut plants. African farmers would be able to protect their draft animals simply by feeding them the peanut plants -- again if biotech is allowed.

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The needless confrontation of consumers against the use of transgenic crop technology in Europe and elsewhere might have been avoided had more people received a better education in biological science. This educational gap -- which has resulted in a growing and worrisome ignorance about the challenges and complexities of agricultural and food systems -- needs to be addressed without delay. Privileged societies have the luxury of adopting a very low-risk position on the GM crops issue, even if this action later turns out to be unnecessary. But the vast majority of humankind does not have such a luxury, and certainly not the hungry victims of wars, natural disasters, and economic crises.

Without adequate food supplies at affordable prices, we cannot expect world health, prosperity, and peace. Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is.

Mr. Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace laureate, is a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University.

Updated January 22, 2003

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