Politics & Policy

Kill Thy Neighbor?

Hezbollah and organic-food fanatics have some things in common.

Recent events in Israel make it clear once more that a hard-line minority of Palestinians absolutely refuses to peacefully coexist with Israelis. The Palestinian extremists proclaim they will continue to do everything to drive the Israelis out, including murder.

It is now clear that a hard-line minority of food fanatics also refuses to live peacefully with neighbors who don’t believe as they do. Unfortunately, their actions have also led to ongoing and needless human death and sorrow.

In neither case should the extremists be allowed to veto humanity’s future. This message must be foremost as the Bush administration extends efforts to improve the lives of Africans and moves forward with formal World Trade Organization challenges to the European Unions’ anti-technology food policies.

A recent agricultural science and technology conference hosted by the Bush administration in Sacramento, California, witnessed the predictably hysterical street protests of organic-food fanatics who have rejected nearly every scientific advance in farming for the past 50 years. For nearly a decade these agri-extremists have attempted to totally block agricultural biotechnology, the most important and critically needed agricultural advance in human history.

The organic extremists first attempted to block government approvals of biotech crops by claiming that too little was known about the crops’ health or environmental effects. While hard-line Islamists told their children that Jews are descendents of monkeys and kill and eat Arab children, organic extremists fabricated fantastical stories about biotech crops causing birth defects, abortions, cancer, and environmental catastrophes.

This strategy worked in Europe. Approvals of biotech crops have been stalled there for five years while European scientists conduct field tests to appease the extremists. In response, the extremists repeatedly attempted to destroy the test crops. Despite the sabotage, the EU tests have proven that biotech crops are safe for both humans and the environment.

Unfortunately, the organic hard liners have done far more damage than uproot crops. They have caused the death of unknown thousands of Africans with their campaign of disinformation a slow-motion tragedy that continues to unfold today.

Last year we had advance warning that a food shortage was looming in southern Africa, due to a region-wide drought and political upheaval in Zimbabwe. The U.S. government mobilized shipments of food aid corn (corn is the staple diet of southern Africans) from U.S. grain stores to the United Nations Food Program to be distributed freely in southern African countries. The United States’ corn donations accounted for 60 percent of the food aid mobilized to the region.

But in advance of the arrival of U.S. food aid, the extremists mobilized disinformation squads to the region to spread scare stories about U.S. corn. Zambia’s president, Levy Mwanawasa, said they informed him that GM foods were “poison.” He subsequently rejected all U.S. food aid, including hundreds of tons of U.S. corn already in warehouses in famine-hit areas. In one small southern Zambian town, thousands of starving villagers overpowered an armed guard and “liberated” 43 tons of U.S. corn after the Zambian government announced plans to take it back.

Now, with the safety and environmental sensitivity of biotech crops and foods amply demonstrated in numerous countries around the world, the organic extremists are huddled behind their last roadblock on the highway of progress: what they call “genetic pollution.”

Organic extremists claim that an organically grown crop or food is no longer “organic” if it is “contaminated” by DNA from biotech plants. Never mind that farmers have had to deal with pollen from neighbor’s crops since the dawn of agriculture. (Pollen is like organic fertilizer, it happens.)

In the U.K., the Soil Association has established a zero-tolerance policy for “GM contamination,” even though science allows us to detect known DNA sequences at parts per quadrillion levels. (Equal to one second in a million years) In the United States, there is no official tolerance — a de facto zero tolerance.

Yet this zero-tolerance is contrary to all historical organic standards. For example, organic farmers have always had to live with trace contamination of their crops by synthetic pesticides and other chemicals forbidden under their self-imposed rules. So the organic groups simply set realistic tolerances for these chemicals (5 percent of maximum legal residues).

Organic labels have never guaranteed pure content, only adherence to specific production practices. But in their extreme opposition to biotech crops, the organic activists are willing to turn their own system on its head. Practice is tossed out and content is king.

Neither Hamas nor the hodgepodge of organic extremists will sign a peace agreement in their respective fights. The answer is not trying to appease these unappeasables. The answer is to push aside their roadblocks and move on.

— Alex Avery is director of research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia.


The Latest