Biotechnology Could Feed the World and Save the EnvironmentCommentary by Pete du Pont
February 10, 2000
The world is at a crossroads. One path takes us to brighter future, one where it is possible to feed the world's growing population without increasing pesticide use or converting more forests and meadows to croplands. The other path leads to lower food supplies, more illness and disease, and environmental degradation. Disturbingly, environmentalists are leading the charge to take the world down the second path.
Environmentalists in Europe and America have targeted the use of genetic engineering and biotechnology to produce hardier, disease resistant and pest-resistant crops. These agricultural technologies hold out the best hope of feeding the growing population in the next century. But environmentalists argue that by altering crops researchers are "playing God -" tampering with things beyond human understanding with the potential to cause catastrophic changes to the environment. The environmentalists have presented no evidence to show that bio-engineered crops pose a hazard to human health or the environment. Rather, they argue for the "Precautionary Principle:" No human technology should be used or introduced into the environment until it is can be shown to pose no threat of harm to humans or the environment.
While this sounds reasonable in theory, it would be disastrous in practice. One cannot prove a negative. Every food (yes, including organic foods), product and tool poses some risk of harm. Without the use of fire, automobiles, anti-biotics, coffee, water, salt, and chlorine - just to name a few natural and human created foods, applications and tools - human life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes: "would be nasty, poor, brutish and short." Yet none of these products would pass the standard set by the precautionary principle.
Consider: approximately 800 million people do not currently get nutritionally adequate diets. 400 million people currently suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, including millions of children who go blind each year for lack of Vitamin A. Human population is growing, especially in countries where people are already malnourished. The global population will peak at about 9 billion people.
With approximately 6 million square miles - an amount of land equal in size to the United States and Europe - under cultivation, the world currently produces more than enough food to feed the earth's 6 billion people. Malnutrition and famine and starvation are the consequence of bad political decisions by governments, as when starvation is used as a political tool under totalitarian regimes.
But feeding 9 billion people diets similar to those enjoyed by people in industrialized countries will require that approximately 3 times more food be produced by 2050.
If all of the worlds farmers adopted best modern farming practices with high inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, it might be possible to double current crop yields on the same amount of land - but we need to triple yields to feed the coming generations. Alternatively, if we went totally "organic," eschewing the use of fertilizers, pesticides and biotechnologies, we would have to double the amount of land under active cultivation. This would be disastrous for wildlife and native plants, as the lands most likely to be converted to agriculture are forests, rangelands and other wildlands.
There is a third option: the judicious use of biotechnology; being quick to regulate or end the use of products that are shown to cause harm. Agricultural biotechnology is already improving lives. For instance, Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute points to the success of the Rockefeller Foundation's "golden rice" project. This genetically altered rice was modified to contain beta-carotene (which readily converts to Vitamin A) and new genes to overcome iron deficiency. The Rockefeller foundation reports that golden rice is preventing thousands of cases of childhood blindness and reducing the amount of anemia suffered by more than 2 billion women in rice dependent countries.
Avery estimates that using bioengineered agricultural products already in existence, those currently being developed and/or tested, and those that are likely to be discovered, we could increase food production the three fold needed for the worlds 9 billion people to eat well - and all without increasing the amount of acreage in production.
Using biotechnology we can provide the world's future population with enjoyable, nutritionally adequate diets. Otherwise we cannot, at least not without unacceptable environmental consequences. Turning our back on lifesaving, welfare enhancing bioengineered products, when there is ample evidence of the ills they can prevent and little or no evidence that they threaten any harm would be to irresponsibly condemn millions of people to unnecessary suffering and early deaths.
The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.