Coffee House

Science or starvation

6 May 2012

1:20 PM

6 May 2012

1:20 PM

Here, for CoffeeHousers, is an extended version of the leader
column in this week’s magazine. It takes on the green fundamentalism which stupidly aims to put a stop to genetically modified foods:

At the end of the month, a group of shrieking protestors are planning to descend upon a field in Hertfordshire and, in their words, ‘decontaminate’ (i.e. destroy) a field of genetically
modified wheat. The activists, from an organisation called Take the Flour Back, claim to be saving Britain from a deadly environmental menace. But in reality, these self-appointed guardians of Gaia
are threatening not only to undo hundreds of man-years of publicly-funded research but also helping to destroy one of the best hopes we have of avoiding catastrophic famines in the poorest parts of
the world in future decades. It is eco-snobbery on a global scale.

There has always been a nasty whiff of elitism about the Green movement, and the way it taxes the poor out of the sky or off the roads. It proposes greater carbon taxes, for example, piling more
pain on to the increasing number of households who struggle to balance the grocery bill with the fuel bill. The global food price hikes a few years ago were caused, in large part, by Western
governments obsessed by ethanol — so growing crops to feed cars, rather than people. The genetically modified food debate also has global implications, allowing the qualms of the rich retard
the farming technology needed to feed poor countries.

Those opposing transgenic technology have been given an easy ride by an often gullible media for the last 20 years. But there is now growing anger among scientists and even some formerly anti-GM
green activists that a technology that may represent our only real hope of feeding the extra three billion mouths expected on our planet is being stymied — in the name of
‘purity’. This is a nonsensical idea in a world which already depends on intensive, industrialised agriculture to feed itself, consuming plants and animals which bear little relation to
their ‘natural’ antecedents.

This planned Hertfordshire protest is against a strain of wheat that has been genetically modified to create its own aphid repellent, a chemical that smells like mint. The scientists behind it, who
work at the Rothamsted Research Institute, hope that the new wheat will require far less pesticide to grow than conventional varieties. If the technology works, they will not patent it and let the
world’s poorest farmers have access to the new wheat at minimal cost. This is the type of science, with real-world benefits, that this government is so keen to encourage
In Norwich, another group of scientists, at the John Innes Centre, is developing a strain of wheat resistant to a devastating new fungus which is sweeping across the Horn of Africa and into
southwest Asia, a region which will be the engine of global population growth in the 21st Century. If the ‘Ug99’ stem-rust fungus reaches the Punjab, it is feared that 200 million may
die. The scientists would love to be able to test this wheat in the field to see if the technology works, but there is little chance of that as nearly all African governments have forbidden
transgenic plants to cross their borders.

This has happened because in Africa, and elsewhere, Western campaign groups like Greenpeace have set up well-funded and professionally managed offices to lobby against GM. So successful have these
campaigns been that a decade ago we witnessed the obscenity that was the refusal by the Zambian government to allow the donation of transgenic corn to feed nearly three million people hit by
drought and famine.

It is an obscenity, too, that the greens are happy to see children lose their sight rather than consume the hated GM. In Switzerland, a deeply humane and now extremely angry scientist called Ingo
Potrykus, who in a sane world would be clutching a Nobel Prize, has devoted his life to the creation of a new variety of ‘golden rice’ that, unlike the natural variety, is rich in
Vitamin A. Deficiency in this vitamin is thought to cause 400 million cases of malnutrition, 2 million deaths and 500,000 cases of child blindness every year. Thanks to the success of anti-GM
campaigns the introduction of golden rice has been delayed by more than a decade.

Transgenic technology has not caused a single human to become ill, nor has there ever been a single case of environmental damage caused by this now-mature technology in three decades of trials and
commercial farming. Opposition to GMOs has nothing to do with science and everything to do with a strain of green fundamentalism that is more akin to a religion than rationality. Myths abound that
GM crops will cause allergies and sickness, that the genes will leap across to other species and create mutant monsters and unstoppable superweeds. All have been proven to be false.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that mankind’s expansion would be halted by the planet’s finite resources, and the world population would be ‘kept equal to the means of
subsistence, by misery and vice.’ Since then the world population has grown sevenfold, and global poverty levels have never been lower. What Malthus did not consider was mankind’s
ingenuity in inventing ways to combat starvation. But we may have reached the limits of conventional farming technology to feed our burgeoning species. The United Nations projects that
Africa’s population will treble over this century. The continent can barely feed itself now.

Transgenic farming technology is not a panacea, but nor is it a hazardous luxury. If we are to avoiding another humanitarian crisis, there is no alternative but to take that next step. The decadent
opposition to ‘Frankenfoods’ must stop.

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