Frederic Bastiat, the 19th-century French free-marketeer, urged politicians to meditate on both things that are seen and unseen. Something seen worldwide was last month’s ferocious tsunami that killed 221,100 around the Indian Ocean, as well as the stunning delivery of relief that is helping survivors recover. Something seldom seen or heard, however, is the silent tsunami of starvation that besets Africa. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases kill 2.2 million sub-Saharan Africans annually, by my rough estimate, a death toll ten times greater than the waves of mass destruction that pulverized coastal south Asia and east Africa on December 26.
The excellent news is that biotechnology is shining a bright ray of hope on today’s grimness. Genetically improved seeds and advanced agricultural technology are boosting crop output on acres that crawled with parasites and viruses just a few years ago. These developments will keep improving lives in Africa (and throughout the third world), so long as they are not squelched by irrationally fearful eco-hand-wringers.
As part of its Martin Luther King Day observations, the New York-based Congress of Racial Equality organized a January 18 seminar on biotech’s costs and benefits. As a United Nations-designated nongovernmental organization, CORE invited some 700 diplomats, scientists, journalists, and Gotham high-school students to debate these issues at U.N. headquarters. I was among the event’s moderators.
Agricultural biotechnology, or the introduction of positive attributes in food through genetic engineering, offers the third-world three key advantages:
Ag-biotech protects the environment. “The Green Revolution saved vast tracts of forests and wildlife habitat by increasing yields on land that was cultivated,” according to Norman Borlaug, a robust 90-year-old. His groundbreaking work in this field earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. “You can cut down on the amount of chemical pesticides needed to control insects.”
Terri Raney of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) presented research on farm performance in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Biotech boosted cotton production 65 percent in South Africa and 80 percent in India while slashing chemical use by 58 percent in South Africa and 67 percent in China.
Ag-biotech boosts the bottom line. This know-how helps the same plot of land generate more food while curbing pesticide and herbicide expenditures. Rutgers University professor Carl Pray found that conventional Chinese cotton growers sprayed pesticides 19 times per season versus just five times for those who grew insect-resistant biotech cotton. These factors boosted profits on the South African farms the FAO studied by 299 percent while Chinese net revenues burgeoned 340 percent.
Ag-biotech makes third-world waistlines bigger. In those parts of the world, that is positive. “With this technology, my life has changed completely,” said one Kenyan farmer interviewed in a film CORE unveiled at its seminar. “My wife is now big, and my children are healthier than before.” His family now watches its first TV and eats fruits that are kept cool and bug-free in their new refrigerator.
Gary Comstock, a North Carolina State University ethicist, offered an interesting word of caution. Just as in America, increased farm efficiency likely will displace superfluous agricultural laborers in poor countries. Also, while biotech food has shown no negative human health effects, potential ecological risks from genetically modified pollen may merit scrutiny.
Still, as one African remarked, “We should try this technology. If it creates problems, we can stop using it.” Given Africa’s infinite challenges, it’s hard to argue with that.
“This technology just contributes to the solution,” said Monsanto’s Jerry Steiner. “We need roads to get products to market. We need fertilizer. We need credit to get people started. The magic begins when you have all of these things and biotech working together.”
Critics of agricultural biotechnology spin spooky stories of “Frankenfoods” that will unleash unimaginable horrors on third-world farms and first-world kitchens. They argue instead for “sustainable development” to help destitute farmers “keep it real” through indigenous farming techniques not seen in America since the 19th century. Conceptually, “sustainable development” makes elite Western liberals purr like kittens. For many Africans, it is as cozy as a stone pillow. Meanwhile, agricultural biotechnology is beginning to defeat two problems that tirelessly menace that blighted continent: sustainable poverty and sustainable starvation.