Commentary: The Wonder of Fighting Famine with Biotechnology

By George McGovern
November 6, 2000 Minneapolis Star Tribune

The most promising weapon in the global war against world hunger is high-yielding, scientific agriculture, including genetically modified crops. Yet, the gene modification controversy and trumped-up fears of "Frankenfoods" are stepping on the promise of a hunger-free future.

Today, science enables life-sustaining plants to survive pests, salt and dry weather – all of this with less reliance on pesticides and irrigation water. Cereal grains can be modified to mature more quickly and yet have more nutritional benefits. Some of the earlier successes with modifying plant genes have resulted in crops with greater resistance to insects. Since such plants require less pesticide, they improve farm income while reducing environmental damage.

Research has also moved ahead by Swiss scientists to produce a healthier strain of rice – a crop that could improve the diet of nearly 2.5 billion people. The so-called "golden rice" has increased levels of vitamin A and iron, potentially preventing millions of cases of blindness and anemia among children with scant access to nutritious food, let alone Western medicines.

I shuddered recently when I read that a prosperous chef of a chic Manhattan restaurant denounced this new live-saving technology.

How could we have come to this?

Many scientific breakthroughs have been greeted over the centuries by skepticism, fear and some hostility. Such reactions are not all bad and, indeed, can be productive by forcing a measure of caution before new ideas are accepted. There should be sufficient research, experimentation and discussion before unimagined, far-reaching new foods created by the merger of biotechnology and agriculture are made available to all.

To meet those needs, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has established an intergovernmental group of experts to look into critical issues related to biotechnology, including prudent risk assessment. It is the answer to the calls for labeling or outright bans, as well as those who seek standards for international trade. This group can give us the benefit of searching inquiry into key questions relative to the farming of genetically improved food by some of the best minds in the world. They have no ax to grind. Their mission is to arrive at the most realistic assessment possible of all aspects of the genetic farming issue.

The United Nations' work builds upon the solid regulatory foundation established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. None of the genetically improved foods already available to us would have come to pass without their review and oversight. We know that science and technology have played a key role for the past century in adding greatly to the production of American farmers and those in other advanced countries. Hybrid seed corn developed in the early 1900s was a highly valued breakthrough, not only for Iowa farmers, but for farmers around the world.

"The Green Revolution" got its name after scientists discovered through gene modification how to increase the capacity of green plants to use sunlight, water and soil nutrients, essentially making it possible to grow more food on less land with fewer pesticides and less water.

In the past three decades, most of the increase in food production – with an estimated three-fourths of it notably in India and other parts of South Asia – has stemmed from the Green Revolution. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been poisoned or sickened by progress. Indeed, the health of people and livestock consuming modified grains has improved, and often even flourished.

In fact, for more than four decades, the United States and other countries have helped in keeping millions of our fellow humans alive because science has enabled us and others to achieve a much higher output of corn, rice, wheat and potatoes. And in the not too distant future, an estimated 2 million unnecessary deaths each year may be prevented when wholesome bananas, soybeans, rice, tomatoes, wheat, corn and even lettuce can be genetically improved to protect children with edible vaccines. Where an injection of a diphtheria vaccine may be logistical nightmare in a faraway jungle, a fresh piece of fruit could save a life.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, is an esteemed, socially conscious scientist who used his genius to soar above famine and want. It is because of his love for humankind that we dare not ignore the alarm he sounded in the International Herald-Tribune: "Extreme environmental elitists seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress. Small, well-financed, vociferous, anti-science groups are threatening the development and application of new technology, whether it is developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science."

Understandably, some of the economic and social issues that we face in the future will be controversial. But one compelling moral issue is clear: Every major religion and ethical formulation commands its adherents to feed the hungry. There is no room in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any of the other great religious and technical traditions for those who turn their backs on the needy.

The scientific, biotechnical improvements in both the quality and quantity of foods is a major breakthrough. It must not be stymied by voices raised against the hypothetical, while real disease and starvation threaten millions of people.

– George McGovern, former U.S. senator, is ambassador to the U.S. Mission of the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.

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