Viewpoint: Environmentalists Should Embrace Biotech Wonders

By John K. Carlisle
August 23, 2000 Scripps Howard News Service

Environmentalists frequently urge industry to adopt "clean technologies" that reduce pollution and promote conservation.

Why is it, then, that those same environmentalists advocate a ban on agricultural biotechnology that significantly reduces the use of potentially harmful pesticides, decreases soil erosion by up to 98 percent and helps prevent the destruction of ecologically important rain forests?

Their opposition makes no sense. Indeed, environmentalists should be stumbling over themselves advocating the rapid development of this amazing new technology.

Agricultural biotechnology is a technology in which scientists employ genetic engineering to create, improve or modify plants and animals.

Under traditional crossbreeding methods, which farmers have been doing for thousands of years, it would take 10 to 12 years to develop hybrid plants and animals. Agricultural biotechnology enables scientists to transfer the desired gene traits much more efficiently and quickly.

Environmental activists claim that genetically enhanced crops are poorly regulated and pose a threat to public safety. These arguments are without merit.

The Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency require all genetically enhanced products to go through a rigorous regulatory review. It takes a company about eight to 10 years to bring a genetically enhanced product from the laboratory to the marketplace.

In addition to U.S. regulatory agencies, leading national and international organizations have endorsed the safety of genetically enhanced food, including the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization.

Already, biotechnology has yielded many benefits. Strains of corn, cotton, potatoes, rice, squash and papaya have been "vaccinated" with genes that make them resistant to a variety of crop-destroying viruses.

The benefits of such plants are twofold.

First, disease-resistant crops mean that farmers can significantly increase the levels of their harvests — so much so that it is estimated that food biotechnology could meet up to 25 percent of the world’s food needs in the next 50 years.

The other benefit is environmental. Because of the increased productivity of genetically enhanced crops, farmers will have to plant on only one or two acres of land to ensure a one-acre harvest — in contrast to the five acres they must plant using conventional crops.

Farmers in developing countries will no longer have to clear as much tropical rain forest for farmland to increase their yields. Another environmental benefit is that farmers have dramatically reduced their reliance on pesticides and herbicides.

In 1996 corn farmers used 1.5 million fewer pounds of insecticide to fight the European corn borer thanks to "genetically vaccinated" corn plants. Yet another environmental plus is that farmers can preserve valuable topsoil because they would no longer have to plow under harmful weeds before and after harvesting or planting. Estimates of the topsoil that can be saved by no-till farming range from 70 percent to 98 percent.

But environmentalists insist that agriculture biotechnology is a genetic apocalypse waiting to happen. They derisively call disease-resistant corn and vitamin-enhanced tomatoes "Frankenfoods" that could unleash a nightmarish genetic domino effect with dire ramifications for human health and the ecosystem.

However, they never offer credible scientific evidence for their dramatic claims.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who is considered the "father of the Green Revolution," accuses the environmental movement of playing upon people’s fears for short-term political gain. "You get a few extremists into the environmental movement and they stir up controversy and confuse people for their own interests," says Borlaug.

Former President Jimmy Carter defends biotechnology, saying, "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is."

But the informed recommendations of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and former presidents have no effect on environmentalists. Analyzing their opposition to biotechnology, one gets the impression that it is not really science that motivates many environmentalists but a bizarre brand of New Age-like religion.

Dr. Mae Wan-Ho, one of the most vocal of the small number of scientists who oppose biotechnology, condemned agricultural bio-technology as a morally bankrupt product of a "reductionist-mechanistic science" which has already "taken the poetry out of farming" by turning the farmer into a tractor driver. Taking aim not just at modern biotechnology but all of the farming improvements made possible by science, Wan-Ho called for a "holistic science" in which farming is once again an "emotional, aesthetic experience produced with love and creativity."

While Wan-Ho may find something "aesthetic" in a farmer getting off his tractor and breaking his back using discarded techniques, it is doubtful that many farmers share her quixotic opinions.

Sadly, there is just no pleasing the environmental movement when it comes to technological progress — even if it means a world with fewer hungry people and a better environment.

John K. Carlisle is the director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at The National Center For Public Policy Research.

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