The voters of Oregon, who long have marched to their own drum beat, are being tempted by radical anti-capitalist groups to adopt a policy that would have terrible consequences for the nation and the world.
The organic food industry is seeking to make foods that benefit from biotechnology as expensive as those produced by organic farming. It is a shameful case of exploiting ungrounded public fears that Oregon voters ought to emphatically reject.
About Measure 27
In November, the people of Oregon will vote on Measure 27, a labeling law that would create a complex labeling scheme for food products; impose burdensome red tape and regulations on family farmers, grocers, and restaurants; require a new state bureaucracy costing hundreds of millions of dollars; and force all Oregon residents to pay millions of dollars more each year in higher food and beverage prices.
According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Measure 27’s labeling requirements would apply to 500,000 different food and beverage products and menu items in grocery stores and restaurants. Many products would require special labels not required in any other state, creating an enormous headache for companies in Oregon and elsewhere that sell their products nationally.
Opponents of Measure 27 estimate it will cost the average Oregon family $550 annually in higher taxes and higher food prices. A cursory look at the bureaucratic and productivity chaos the measure would create leads this writer to believe that estimate may be too low.
The Benefits of Biotech
Biotechnology is the scientific process of improving a plant by isolating a particular gene or trait in one organism and transferring it to another. It is the next step in the refinement of genetic enhancement techniques, such as cross-breeding, that began thousands of years ago with the domestication of wild plants for food production.
Biotech crops and food provide environmental, economic, nutritional, and disease-fighting benefits. They require fewer pesticides, help farmers conserve topsoil, and allow more food to be produced on less land. Some biotech foods offer improved nutrition, reduce required processing, offer lower levels of saturated fat, are fortified with vitamins, and allow fruits and vegetables to taste better and stay fresh longer.
The first commercial biotech product, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1982, was synthetic insulin, which provides diabetics with a more plentiful and affordable source of insulin to control their blood-sugar levels. Currently, researchers are working on a number of projects to improve the healthfulness of everyday foods. These include:
- rice with more beta carotene to help combat the vitamin A deficiency now suffered by over 100 million children worldwide;
- lettuce fortified with a compound in grapes that has shown to be an effective anti-cancer agent; and
- soybean and canola oils with reduced saturated fats and higher levels of vitamin E.
Three federal agencies—the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration—evaluate the safety of biotech food products from inception to final approval. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has reviewed all available scientific research on genetically modified crops, and they have concluded there is no evidence the crops pose any danger to either human health or the environment.
In addition to the NAS, hundreds of studies have confirmed the safety of biotech crops and food. For example, in October 2001 the European Commission on Food Safety released a 15-year, $64 million study, which involved more than 400 research teams on 81 projects, that concluded biotech foods are as safe or safer than conventional food.
Perhaps the most amazing unchallenged statistic that tells the story of biotech safety is that in the past two decades, there has not been one allergic reaction or illness attributed to eating foods produced through bioengineering. If only the same could be said for the conventional food we eat!
The use of biotechnology for food production is now supported by many leading health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Food Technologists. The promoters of Measure 27 are far outside the scientific and health mainstream. They are using Oregon’s ballot measure process to push a radical anti-biotechnology agenda at the expense of Oregon taxpayers, consumers, and businesses.
Using Biotech to Feed the World
Most of the citizens of affluent nations can afford to pay more for food produced by “natural” or “organic” methods. The poor among us and the chronically undernourished people of impoverished nations cannot. They also cannot afford to have the promise of new agricultural technology nipped in the bud, as many anti-biotechnology activists wish.
Professional anti-biotech advocates have been agitating for years about the supposed threats to human health presented by bioengineered foods. Instead of being reassured by the results of scientific investigations into their concerns, they simply ignore the science and repeat their slogans. The developing world will pay a steep price for their selfish behavior.
While activists inveigh against introducing a gene from one plant or one species into another, they fail to note conventional breeders have been doing just that for many years. In the past, conventional plant breeders were forced to bring unwanted genes along with desirable ones when incorporating insect or disease resistance in a new crop variety. The extra genes often had negative effects, and it took years of cross-breeding and selection to oust them. Conventional plant breeding is crude in comparison to the methods being used in genetic engineering, where we move one or a few genes that we know are useful.
Some environmental extremists oppose the use of genetic modification that allows crops to be herbicide resistant, worrying herbicide resistance might be passed to wild relatives of the crops, and insecticide-producing plants will decimate insect life and decrease biodiversity. The truth is that resistance genes bred into crops by conventional means could also be spread to wild relatives by Mother Nature herself. Steps can be taken to minimize the possibility of that happening. The suggestion that insecticide-producing plants will wipe out insects is truly far-fetched. The claims of potential Monarch extermination, for example, have now been proved totally fraudulent.
What the activists don’t want people to know is that one very good way to protect wildlife habitat is to ensure that marginal lands are not pressed into agricultural service in an attempt to feed growing populations. Norman Borlaug, a professor at Texas A&M University and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his accomplishments in agriculture, wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial on December 6, 2000:
In 1960 in the United States, the production of the 17 most important food, feed, and fiber crops was 252 million tons. By 1999 it had increased to 700 million tons. It is important to note that the 1999 harvest was produced on 10 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960.
Borlaug concludes that “If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1999 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to increase the cultivated area by about 460 million acres of land of the same quality—which we did not have.”
It is this type of arithmetic that is so important when considering how to feed the world’s still-increasing population. We have six billion people on the planet today, nearly a third of whom are undernourished. While population growth is slowing dramatically, we will still top out at about 8.5 billion people by mid-century. At that point in time, without the full benefits of biotechnology, a full half of the world’s population would be undernourished. But with biotechnology, there is reasonable hope we can eliminate malnutrition everywhere on the planet.
The Politics of Famine
To insist, as extremists do, that we can feed the world with yesterday’s agricultural technology is a delusion that will condemn millions to hunger, malnutrition, and starvation, as well as to social, economic, and political chaos. It is already happening.
Southern Africa is suffering its worst drought in a decade. The U.N. World Food Program estimates some 13 million people in six countries will need 1.2 million tons of food aid through March 2003 to avoid famine. Yet two countries, Zimbabwe and Zambia, have spent most of the summer rejecting food aid shipments of corn from the U.S. because some varieties of U.S. corn are genetically modified (GM). Incredibly, African leaders facing famine are rejecting perfectly safe food. What is going on here?
Regardless of the fact that farmers in the U.S. have been planting and Americans have been consuming genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and cotton since 1995, the “Greens” and other GM critics in Europe say this absence of expected or known risks is no longer sufficient evidence of safety. Touting the “precautionary principle,” they argue that powerful new technologies should be kept under wraps until tested for unexpected or unknown risks as well. But of course testing for something unknown is logically impossible.
Europeans can perhaps afford hyper-caution regarding new crop technologies. Even without planting GM seeds, European farmers will continue to prosper, thanks to lavish subsidies, and consumers will remain well fed. The same is not true in the developing world, especially in Africa, where hunger is worsening in part because farmers are not yet productive.
Robert L. Paarlberg, of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and author of The Politics of Precaution: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries (Johns Hopkins Press 2001), calculates that two-thirds of all Africans are farmers, most are women, and they are poor and hungry in part because they lack improved crop technologies to battle drought, poor soil fertility, crop disease, weeds, and endemic insect problems. Paarlberg says the productivity of African agriculture per farm worker has actually declined by 9 percent over the past two decades, which helps explain why one-third of all Africans are malnourished.
This ought to change the calculus of precaution. If GM-improved crops are kept out of the hands of African farmers, the misery of millions will be needlessly prolonged. By inducing African governments to embrace excessively cautious biosafety regulations, and by requiring stigmatizing labels and costly traceability certificates on all imported GM foods and feeds, wealthy and comfortable officials in Europe have made it more difficult for drought-stricken societies in Africa to accept food aid from America. European critics of GM foods did not foresee this potentially deadly misapplication of their precautionary principle … or did they?
Who Opposes Biotech?
If Oregon’s Measure 27 passes, socialist countries in Europe will be able to hold the United States up as an example of anti-biotech sentiments. This will enhance the status of many who, if the truth be known, do not want biotechnology to help feed the malnourished. They prefer to see the malnourished slide off the bottom rung of our planet’s ladder rather than ascend to an improved quality of life. Who are these people?
- Some oppose helping the developing world feed itself because they are convinced this would cause overpopulation of the planet with its attendant environmental problems. They are wrong: Long-term population growth is considered under control by all of the world’s leading population experts.
- Some biotech opponents are anti-capitalist socialists simply using the public’s fear and uncertainty as a screen to advance their agenda. No one seriously doubts that the leadership of environmental groups—even so-called mainstream groups—is dominated by individuals whose political views are far to the left of the mainstream.
- Some European opponents of biotech wish to impede importation of GM food into their countries in order to protect their own products.
- And some anti-biotech advocates in the U.S. are financed by the organic foods industry, which sees biotech as a threat because it increases even further the differences in price between ordinary and organic produce.
Nobel Laureate Borlaug, when asked about organic farming benefits in a recent interview in Reason magazine, said:
If people want to believe that organic food has better nutritional value, it is up to them to make that foolish decision. But there is absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can not tell whether the nitrate ion comes from an artificial chemical or decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it’s better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It’s a free society. But don’t tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That is when misinformation becomes destructive.
The labeling of both organic food and genetically modified food has been pushed by the organic food industry, whose public relations directors are nothing short of brilliant. The labeling of organic food gives government sanction to a potentially dangerous myth—that organic food is superior in any way to conventionally grown food. The labeling of genetically modified food, by contrast, is intended to frighten people into avoiding products that are absolutely safe. In the name of “consumer information,” radical anti-biotech advocates manage to boost their product’s perceived safety and undermine that of their lower-priced and just-as-safe competitors.
It is long past the time when sensible people should oppose the calls of those who would deprive the world’s poor and hungry of the food they need and that new technologies have made available. On November 5, the citizens of Oregon have that opportunity.
Dr. Jay Lehr is Science Director for The Heartland Institute.
For more information
Robert L. Paarlberg’s 2001 book, The Politics of Precaution: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries, is available in paperback for $19.95 from Amazon.com. Point your Web browser to http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0801868238/theheartlandinst.