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03 December 2009

Green Revolution in the Balance

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A battle is developing over food security and research into bio-engineered crops is in the crosshairs.

Last weekend, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in a joint address with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, put food security at the top of the UN agenda. It follows on the summer G-8 summit when 26 countries and a range of international organizations pledged $20 billion to that effort. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one in every six people worldwide suffers from hunger, with children and women the most at risk. But a battle is developing over how to fund food security, with research into bio-engineered crops in the crosshairs.

The U.S. Congress is scheduled to debate that issue in discussions over the Global Food Security Act of 2009, which cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year. The bill aims to reform aid programs to focus on longer-term agricultural development and restructure aid agencies to better respond to crises. Critically, it includes a mandate for increased research on genetically modified (GM) crops. This new focus has emerged in part out of hopes for igniting a “new Green Revolution”—a project funded by the Gates Foundation’s multi-billion dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

While much research has already been done on the development of GM seeds, with profound potential benefits for agricultural productivity in developed countries, there remains a dearth of research on its development and applicability in many unique environments of the developing world. The bill advocates strengthening the local capacity of university and research institutions to find local solutions to agricultural productivity and food security—and, in doing so, has provoked a fierce backlash from anti-agricultural biotechnology groups.

Some environmental groups maintain that GM products harm, not help, the hungry.

GM rice is the crop on the front lines of the food fight. There are two major varieties: those resistant to weed-killing herbicides and a second version that adds extra vitamins and nutrients to make it a better-rounded staple. Most scientists and health authorities in the major Western countries assert that GM rice is one answer to sustainable agriculture and safeguarding the planet’s limited food supply. Activist critics have invoked the precautionary principle, warning that modified crops could result in unknown hazards and therefore should be banned. Some environmental groups, particularly high profile ones such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, maintain that GM products harm, not help, the hungry.

Health Debate

According to Greenpeace, GM rice does not have the same nutritional value as its “natural counterpart” and offers little to address food shortages, contentions that many scientists and agriculture public policy experts challenge. There is a widespread scientific consensus that organic crops are no better than conventional crops. Conventionally grown food that is adequately washed carries no more pesticides than organic foods, which carry their own “natural” chemical hazards, including bacterial contamination. And while campaigning groups tout the health benefits of organic food, studies show organic grains are not more nutritious than conventional grains, including GM crops, grown with the aid of agricultural chemicals. But the most powerful argument on behalf of preserving the conventional agriculture is its ability to produce enormous yields on limited acreage without the need for massive clear-cutting—the major impetus behind the worldwide green revolution.

One in every six people worldwide suffers from hunger, with children and women the most at risk.

Greenpeace recently launched a campaign directed at Bayer’s GM rice, which is engineered to be unharmed by the weed-killer glufosinate, greatly increasing yield. The herbicide has been found safe for agricultural use in dozens of tests. Yet, Greenpeace states, “the evidence against glufosinate is so strong that it is among 22 agrochemical pesticides that is used to control a wide range of weeds that will soon have to be phased out across Europe.” That is misleading at best. As will be discussed in an October 6 conference at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., “Science and Technology in the Balance? Food Security, Precaution, and the Pesticide Debate,” the EU decision does not force the phase-out of any particular chemical. Moreover, the EU’s expansion of the precautionary principle as a way to evaluate risk from agricultural chemicals has been rejected by Western countries throughout the world.

One pragmatic concern has been problems associated with segregating GM crops from conventional varieties. Coordinated anti-GM campaigns have led some consumers, particularly in Europe, to shun modified crops and foods. Farmers are concerned they could get caught in the middle of a trade war if their grain supplies are not kept separate. A herbicide-resistant version developed by Bayer CropScience hit a regulatory speed bump in 2006 when one of its experimental varieties accidentally entered global rice supplies, bringing charges of “contamination.” Although that led to a class-action lawsuit filed by hundreds of farmers in Arkansas and Missouri, a U.S. Department of Agriculture review declared the rice safe for human consumption—a decision that angered anti-biotech activists. Greenpeace launched a worldwide campaign, including the distribution of inflammatory videos on the purported effects of GM rice.

Vitamin-Enhanced Rice

The next battle over GM crops is expected in 2011, when the new generation of nutritionally enhanced rice is expected to be approved for distribution. So-called Golden Rice—the genetically modified, vitamin-enhanced version of white rice—has been in development for more than a decade. It is a dramatic improvement over the world’s most popular staple, the centerpiece of the diet for the poor in the developing world.

Greenpeace International alone annually spends upwards of $7 million each year dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

White rice represents 72 percent of the diet for the people of Bangladesh and nearly as much of the diet in Laos and Indonesia; more than 40 percent in Madagascar and Sierra Leone; around 40 percent in Guyana and Suriname. Although white rice is a filling food and can be grown in abundance, it has a major drawback: it lacks Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) weakens the immune system, increasing the risk of infections such as measles and malaria. Severe deficiencies can lead to blindness. It especially targets children and pregnant women. According to the United Nations, more than half the world is vitamin deficient. The World Health Organization notes there are more than 100 million VAD children around the world. Some 250,000 to 500,000 of these children become blind every year, with 50 percent of them dying. In Asia and Africa, nearly 600,000 vitamin A-deficient women die from childbirth-related causes.

How should we respond to a crisis of such massive proportions, as a society that only recently reaped enormous benefits from the remarkable Green Revolution that dramatically improved yields and the nutritional content of crops? Many scientists want to extend this Green Revolution using all the tools available, including biotechnology. Norman Borlaug, the recently deceased Nobel laureate and the father of the Green Revolution, was an outspoken advocate for plant biotechnology, which he said helps “meet the growing demand for food production, while preserving our environment for future generations.”

In 1999, Swiss and German scientists used “open source” technology to develop Golden Rice, the first major genetically enhanced food in the new generation of bio-engineered grains, fruits, and vegetables that consumers actually eat directly. The new rice variety was produced by splicing two genes (one from the daffodil, which gives the rice its golden color, and one from a bacterium) into white rice so it produces beta-carotene, which the body can convert to Vitamin A. Newer varieties have been tweaked to add iron, and to help the body more readily absorb the iron already in white rice.

Activist critics have invoked the precautionary principle, warning that modified crops could result in unknown hazards and therefore should be banned.

As in the case of the Bayer GM rice variety, Greenpeace and like-minded groups argue that tinkering with the genome of food or crops will unleash a genetic Godzilla to threaten the future of mankind. This is not hyperbole. They claim that Trojan-horse genes not subject to checks and balances in nature could be “released” into the environment causing untold havoc. They are undeterred by the fact that scientists believe that this scenario is unlikely outside of doomsday scenarios that could apply just as well to conventional agriculture.

While Golden Rice was developed over ten years at the miniscule total cost of $2.6 million, in an extraordinary public-private partnership using funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federation, the National Science Foundation, and the European Union, Greenpeace International alone annually spends about $270 million annually, and upwards of $7 million each year dedicated to burying Golden Rice and any other food or crop developed using biotechnology.

After years of languishing because of anti-GM rice protests, Golden Rice is now scheduled to hit the market in the Philippines, India, and Vietnam within two years, although some radical environmental groups intend to throw a wrench in that schedule. They are also requesting countries that are sympathetic to the precautionary principle, especially in the EU, to keep GM rice from entering their farms, or to ban it completely. The environmental community, which loves to “green” virtually everything, has put the Green Revolution in the balance.

Jon Entine is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former Emmy-winning producer for NBC News and ABC News. David Peyton and Moon Doh, manager and intern respectively of AEI’s Global Governance Watch, provided research for this article.

On October 6, the American Enterprise Institute will host the conference “Science and Technology in the Balance? Food Security, Precaution, and the Pesticide Debate.”
FURTHER READING: Entine’s books include Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture, about the genetic modification of food and farming.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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