Unjustified Assault on Biotech Foods will Cost Lives and Harm the Environment

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

McDonald's recently announced it would not use genetically modified (GM) potatoes to make french fries. In response, J.R. Simplot Co., McDonald's potato supplier, told its farmers it would also no longer accept bioengineered potatoes. McDonald's and Simplot are not alone. Baby food manufacturers Gerber and Heinz, snack food king Frito-Lay and Seagram's liquors, have all recently said their products would be free of biotech crops.

Their decisions are bad news for American farmers and consumers, the environment, the approximately 800 million people who do not currently get nutritionally adequate diets and the 3 billion additional people expected to populate the world by 2100.

Why? The world's farmers currently produce more than enough food to feed the earth's six billion people, using approximately six million square miles - an amount of land equal in size to the United States and Europe - to do so. Where malnutrition, famine and starvation does occur, broken distribution systems due to wars (civil and otherwise), and totalitarian regimes who use starvation as a political tool are primarily to blame.

This won't always be the case, however. Here's the problem. In order to feed the nine billion people (and their pets) expected to populate this planet, diets similar to those currently enjoyed by people in industrialized countries, we will have to triple production of food by 2050. Yet if all farmers adopted the most 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 not triple it.

Furthermore, 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. Massive biodiversity losses is especially likely since the relatively undeveloped tropics, the most biodiverse region on earth, is also where population growth is occurring and where hunger and malnutrition are most prominent.

There is another way. With judicious use of biotechnology - which can produce hardier, disease resistant, pest-resistant and vitamin fortified crops - carefully regulated to end the use of products shown to cause harm, scientist's estimate that we could increase food production the three fold needed for the world's nine billion people to eat well. And all without increasing the amount of acreage in production.

Unfortunately, environmental extremists have targeted the use of bioengineering. They raise baseless fears about "Frankenfoods" escaping the lab and argue that no technology should be put into use until it is can be shown to pose no threat of harm to humans or the environment.

Arguing that biotech researchers are "playing God," environmental groups including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the U. S. Public Interest Research Group threatened last year to lead a consumer boycott of companies that used bioengineered foods and to create a flood of negative publicity. The reaction from food companies like McDonald's was quick and will likely prove devastating to farmers who have begun to rely on biotech foods to reduce their reliance on costly pesticides.

Seeing that the environmentalist's scare tactics have raised concerns about GM food safety, some scientists are now responding. In April, the National Research Council (NRC) issued a comprehensive report on GM foods that found "there is no evidence suggesting [genetically modified food] is unsafe to eat." It also reported there is "no strict distinction between the health and environmental risks posed by plants genetically engineered through modern molecular techniques and those modified by conventional breeding practices." In addition, the NRC concluded that any unintended negative impacts on beneficial species are likely to be smaller than that from chemical pesticides. Indeed, the NRC found that using bio-engineered pest-protected crops in place of conventional crops with chemical pesticides could lead to greater biodiversity in some geographical areas.

The extreme environmentalist's scare tactics and demands ignore the very real dangers of doing without the new technologies. We should instead seek a balance between the risk of introducing new biotechnologies and the harms arising from hunger and poverty. Turning our back on nutritional, safe, federally approved bioengineered foods without evidence that they cause any harm, would irresponsibly condemn millions of people to unnecessary suffering and early deaths - now that would be playing God.