Irrational Fear of GM Crops as Famine Looms

By David L. Brown

The uncontrolled growth of the world’s population lies at the heart of most of our environmental, social, health, agricultural, and political problems. Let’s see, did I leave anything out of that dogmatic statement? Well, sure, because it would be just about as accurate to say that population growth lies at the root of everything that is wrong in the world. Trace each individual problem to its roots and over-population is almost certain to be found lurking there. Many experts believe that human numbers have already surpassed the level that the Earth can support.

When I was born in 1940 there were an estimated 2.3 billion people on the planet. By the time I graduated from college 21 years later, that number had edged up to about 3.08 billion, an addition of about 800 million or about 35 percent. Not too bad, but definitely moving up. So, are things going to be OK?

Well, no. Today, just a few minutes ago in fact, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Population Clock,” the world’s population stood at 6,523,261,134 people and rising. In fact, those numbers are going up like the altimeter on a Space Shuttle headed for orbit. Factors such as improved medical and public health programs for the Third World and short-term increases in food production through improved crops developed by traditional methods (“the Green Revolution”) have made it possible for human numbers to continue to increase. But for how long can this go on?

Contemplate those population numbers and you can quickly see the seriousness of the problem. During my lifetime, now standing at 65 years, the world population has increased by a factor of 2.8. For every human alive in 1940, there are 2.8 alive today. And keep in mind two very poignant facts:

  1. While human numbers have nearly tripled, there has been no increase in the amount of fertile soil, fresh water, and nutrients required to produce food for this gathering crowd of humanity; and in fact,
  2. We are experiencing a steady decline of those all-important factors, as soil erodes or blows away through over-grazing or intensive agriculture, water sources become increasingly scarce or polluted, and soil nutrients are depleted.

Clearly, there are powerful forces here that are headed in diametrically opposite directions — human numbers that are climbing like a rocket as the natural resources needed to feed those people are in decline everywhere. Add in the very real possibility that significant climate change may be taking place right now, and there is every reason to believe that famine may become widespread in the very near future.

The relatively new science of genetic engineering is an important tool in the on-going race to stay ahead of famine. Crop varieties produced in biological laboratories through genetic modification (GM) are created with enhanced abilities to produce more from fewer inputs. Examples include greater pest and disease resistance, the ability to make more efficient use of water and fertilizer, and higher yields.

Of course, one would think that GM crops are being hailed as important keys to feeding a world that is lurching inexorably toward an era of unprecedented famine. It’s a no-brainer, right?

But one would be wrong.

In fact, irrational fear of GM crops has been spread around the globe by “environmental activists” and others who know little of the science behind them, but are quick to brand GM crops as “Frankenfoods.” This fear of the unknown is especially ingrained in “enlightened” Europe and particularly in the developing world. For example, here’s the lede of a story in today’s China Daily online edition:

China is prudent in developing genetically modified (GM) farm produce but it will keep working in bio-engineering for agriculture, said an agricultural official at a forum on food safety held in Harbin on Saturday.

Luo Bin, deputy director of Farm Produce Quality Safety Center under the Ministry of Agriculture, said that China has developed over 100 varieties of GM farm produce, but the ministry has only allowed five categories of them to go on market, which are soybean, corn, oil-seed rape, cotton and tomato.

“The development, production and sales of GM farm produce are very strictly controlled in China, ” said Luo at the International Forum on the Safety of Farm Produce held in this capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. (Read the while story here.)

Get that — a developing nation made up in large part of subsistence peasant farmers; a country that has suffered crushing famines in the past; one that is already devastating its environment and degrading its agricultural potential as its population soars — is being “prudent” about embracing GM crops.

An analogy that comes to mind is that of a shipwrecked sailor, surrounded by circling sharks, and “prudently” refusing to grasp a life ring. It is an inconceivable act of insanity for China to let more than 100 varieties of GM crops go unused as their population soars past the one billion mark and heads into uncharted territory never before seen on Earth.

The irrational fear of GM crops seems to be based at least in part on the idea that manufactured genes could somehow escape and invade other plant species, or create some kind of animal-vegetable monster, a kind of “Cabbage that Ate Cleveland” or “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” scenario. In fact, the anti-GM phobia probably owes much to exactly those kinds of Hollywood B-movie scripts, reinforced by a naive and ill-informed press, opportunistic publicity seekers, and the usual suspects, politicians.

And yet where are the facts to support the “prudent” fear of GM crops? Mutation and transfers of genetic material between species has been going on for as long as life has existed on Earth. This is a constant and completely natural process that makes evolution possible. In fact we humans ourselves have been manipulating the genetic material of food crops for thousands of years, for it was through selection and cross-breeding to modify plant genomes that all of our present food crops were developed from wild ancestors. Genetic modification is really nothing new at all. The only thing that has changed is that science has given us the ability to target and more easily control genetic changes in predictable ways, rather than having to rely on the long, slow process of selection and cross-breeding used by our ancestors to achieve precisely the same goals.

Are unmodified traditional crops such as corn, wheat, rice, beans, and others “Frankenfoods” because they were created by human intervention? Of course not. Is it likely that genes selected and modified in bio-labs are somehow more dangerous than the ones Mother Nature produces on a regular basis and has for several billion years? The scientific community is virtually unanimous in its answers to this and similar questions — they believe that bio-engineering is not only safe, but can make a major contribution to feeding the world.

In fact, in the U.S. the use of GM crops is already widespread. Could that have anything to do with the fact that we are the world’s No. 1 exporter of food to places such as China which choose to be “prudent”? Prudent! No, I think there are quite a few far better words for it, but I will suggest a few that spring to mind: Suicidal. Stupid. Ignorant. There, you can probably think of a few more.

A few years from now when you are watching hysterical CNN reporters telling of spreading famines in China and other Third World countries — and in a time when the U.S. will no longer be able to fill the shortfalls in Third World food requirements because we will be turning our valuable crops into ersatz gasoline — think of how “prudent” the Chinese have been in their approach to GM crops.

Think of that sailor refusing to grasp the life ring — and imagine the glee with which the sharks will celebrate his “prudent” decision.

This entry was posted in Agriculture Issues, Bio-Engineering, Essays and Opinion, Evolution and Genetics, GM Crops, Population Issues, Resource Depletion. Bookmark the permalink.