Frankenfood Debate Hurts The Poor

Antagonism towards genetically modified foods is a misplaced product of urban coffee houses.
Published on April 24, 2000

Although most grocery shoppers remain blissfully unaware, a wave of technophobia is percolating through coffeehouses across the land. The issue that threatens to wash into their supermarkets is genetically modified food.

Supposedly basing their case on science and concern for public health, GM opponents are peddling more red herrings than all the fish counters in the world. Fresh from recent successes in Europe, where GM food has for the most part been chased off the market, the antis have now targeted the Americas. They share the same hostility towards open markets witnessed during recent public policy fights about free trade and environmental purity.

Organic food, they argue, is superior to strains conjured up by scientists and corporations in laboratories. Should European farmers dare to plant a test crop of a genetically altered foodstuff, they can expect midnight raids from militants who pull the offending plants out by the roots. Supermarket chains have found bins overturned and produce sprayed with paint.

Wacky tactics aside, the issue has already had serious cash consequences for our farmers. In 1997, European governments, too timid to resist such foolishness, shut out several canola crop strains, genetically engineered over many years to produce the healthiest and most efficient strains. That market was about $400 million a year, and would have been much higher by now had it remained open.

A recent interview in Reason magazine has shed some light on the controversy. The piece focuses on Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist from Texas. The public’s never heard much about him, but he’s renowned as the father of the Green Revolution, the massive expansion of agricultural productivity that’s meant full bellies instead of starvation for people in most Third World countries.

Starting in 1944, Borlaug and his colleagues worked for 20 years in Mexico to breed high-yield dwarf wheat. They replicated their success with rice and offered their new strains to a hungry world. Predictions of global famine due to runaway population growth, common a generation ago, have disappeared in the face of the massive increase in food production made possible by genetic science. In 1965, India grew 12.3 million tons of wheat; last year it grew 73.5 million tons, more than enough to feed its large population.

Borlaug pooh-poohs the alarmists who deprecate genetically modified crops as “Frankenfood.” He reminds us that durum wheat, the basis for all pasta, was the result of crossbreeding between two species of wild grasses. Similarly, what we know as bread wheat came into existence when that hybrid combined with a third species of grass in the wild. Why should we be forbidden to do in a laboratory what Mother Nature does all the time?

The next blockbuster advance in agricultural science, Borlaug contends, will allow us to conquer the fungus plague known as rust. It’s almost impossible to control by known methods because its spores can travel hundreds of miles on the jet stream and land anywhere, infesting crops and severely reducing yields. As it turns out, the only cereal grain unaffected by rust is rice. “One thing I hope to live to see is somebody taking that block of rust-resistant genes in rice and putting it into all the other cereals,” Borlaug says. That single act of genetic engineering would multiply food production and allow marginal land to be put to better use.

Borlaug has little patience with those who are trying to stop the production and marketing of genetically modified foods. “Our elites live in big cities and are far removed from the fields. Whether it’s the head of the Sierra Club or the head of Greenpeace, they’ve never been hungry,” he contends. “We’ve had no major famines since the Green Revolution began. But there are probably 800 million people who are undernourished in the world. So there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Genetically altered varieties of corn, soybeans and potatoes have sharply reduced the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides. Cornell University has developed a banana that produces a vaccine against hepatitis — at a cost of two cents a dose instead of $125. Two million children die each year and half a million go blind from Vitamin A deficiency, but a new strain of rice high in beta-carotene promises to prevent such needless tragedy.

The “Frankenfood” folks have little luck with scientific arguments. Their real stock in trade is ingrained antipathy to the companies that develop and sell GMs. A favourite target is Monsanto, a leader in the industry. Monsanto’s crime consists in exerting proprietary control over its modified seed by not allowing farmers to replicate it for free. (It’s all right to spend millions on making food better, but wrong to make a profit doing so.) Such attitudes hurt the very people they are purported to help. They have no legitimate role to play in setting policy.

Canada has in place an extensive system to test the safety of the new crops. The government labs that check each modified strain are complemented by thousands of scientists who fulfil the same function in private industry. The opponents of GM food would have us return to a time when most people starved before old age did them in.

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