Ignore Scare Tactics On Biofood

By H. Sterling Burnett
May 18, 2000
Charlotte Observer

McDonald’s recently announced it would not use genetically modified potatoes to make French Fries. In response, J.R. Simplot Co., McDonald’s potato supplier, told its farmers it would also no longer accept bio-engineered potatoes. Baby food manufacturers Gerber and Heinz, snack food king Frito-Lay and Seagram’s liquors have all recently said their products would be free of biotech crops.

Their decisions are bad news for American farmers and consumers, the environment, the approximately 800 million people who do not currently get nutritionally adequate diets and the 3 billion additional people expected to populate the world by 2100.

Why? The world’s farmers currently produce more than enough food to feed the earth’s 6 billion people, using approximately 6 million square miles – an amount of land equal in size to the United States and Europe – to do so.

Where malnutrition, famine and starvation do occur, broken distribution systems due to wars – civil and otherwise – and totalitarian regimes who use starvation as a political tool are primarily to blame.

This won’t always be the case, however. Here’s the problem. In order to feed 9 billion people diets similar to those enjoyed by people in industrialized countries, we will have to triple production of food by 2050.

If all farmers adopted the most modern farming practices with high inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, it might be possible to double current crop yields on the same amount of land, but not triple it.

Furthermore, if we went totally "organic," eschewing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and biotechnologies, we would have to double the amount of land under active cultivation. This would be disastrous for wildlife and native plants, as the lands most likely to be converted to agriculture are forests, rangelands ant other wild lands. Massive biodiversity losses are especially likely since the relatively undeveloped tropics, the most biodiverse region on earth, is also where population growth is occurring and where hunger and malnutrition are most prominent.

Production can Increase

There is another way. With judicious use of biotechnology – which can produce hardier, disease resistant, pest-resistant and vitamin fortified crops – carefully regulated to end the use of products shown to cause harm, scientists estimate that we could increase food production the threefold needed for the world’s projected 9 billion people to eat well. And all without increasing the acreage in production.

Unfortunately, environmental extremists have targeted the use of bioengineering. They raise baseless fears about "Frankenfoods" escaping the lab and argue that no technology should be put into use until it can be shown to pose no threat of harm to humans or the environment.

Arguing that biotech researchers are "playing God," environmental groups including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group threatened last year to lead a consumer boycott of companies that used bioengineered foods and to create a flood of negative publicity. The reaction from food companies like McDonald’s was quick and will likely prove devastating to farmers who have begun to rely on biotech foods to reduce their reliance on costly pesticides.

Seeing that the environmentalists’ scare tactics have raised concerns about food safety, some scientists are now responding.

No evidence It’s unsafe

In April, the National Research Council issued a comprehensive report on genetically modified foods that found "there is no evidence suggesting (genetically modified food) is unsafe to eat."

It also reported there is "no strict distinction between the health and environmental risks posed by plants genetically engineered through modern molecular techniques and those modified by conventional breeding practices." In addition, the NRC concluded that any unintended negative impacts on beneficial species are likely to be smaller than that from chemical pesticides.

Indeed, the NRC found that using bio-engineered pest-protected crops in place of conventional crops with chemical pesticides could lead to greater biodiversity in some geographical areas.

The extreme environmentalist’s scare tactics and demands ignore the very real dangers of doing without the new technologies. We should instead seek a balance between the risk of introducing new biotechnologies and the harms arising from hunger.

Turning our back on nutritional, safe, federally approved bio-engineered foods without evidence that they cause any harm, would irresponsibly condemn millions of people to unnecessary suffering and early deaths. Not that would be playing God.

H. Sterling Burnett is senior policy analyst with the National Center for Policy Analysis, 12655 N. Central Expressway, Suite 720, Dallas, TX 75243.

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