Acton Commentary

Food Fight! Hunger in the Age of Biotechnology


The war against food has become one of the leading enthusiasms for environmentalists, technophobes, and protectionists in recent months. Their opposition to modern agricultural methods represents a tremendous blow to the cause of feeding the world’s hungry.

The nation’s two largest natural food supermarket chains, Whole Foods Market, Inc. and Wild Oats Markets, Inc., became the first U.S. companies to officially ban genetically modified ingredients from their products in late December. Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency also took the first steps toward restricting the cultivation of genetically modified corn, requiring farmers plant twenty to fifty percent of their acreage with conventional crop. These decisions follow a growing opposition to bio-engineered crops in Japan and Europe where some governments have gone so far as to outlaw the import of what many Europeans refer to as “Frankenstein foods.”

But bioengineering is not some new, freakish technology liable to give life to a hideous monster. Instead, it builds upon an old farming practice first pioneered in the nineteenth century by Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, in the large monastery garden of Brunn, Austria.

Mendel’s work demonstrated that all living things transmit traits to their offspring through information contained on what are now called genes. By crossbreeding one plant with another, particular traits can be selectively generated in the offspring. This trial-and-error process has been creatively employed to generate beautiful red roses and lucious tomatoes that the world otherwise might have never known.

Scientists have discovered in recent decades a less time-consuming and clumsy technique for achieving the same ends. This technique is broadly known as biotechnology. By isolating genes that carry a specific trait and then splicing them into a particular plant, the plant can be made resistant to weather damage, resilient to pests, or even healthier to the consumer. And this can all be done without the introduction of harmful chemicals or pesticides into the environment.

The National Academy of Sciences, the American Cancer Society, and numerous other scientific bodies and regulatory agencies have clearly stated the safety of eating non-organic foods.

University of Nebraska food scientist Steve Taylor is chairman of an international panel of scientists formed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization to come up with standards for biotech food safety evaluation. Taylor believes testing by major U.S. biotech companies “meets or exceeds” the standards set by the panel. The September issue of Consumer Reports concurs with his judgment: “There is no evidence that genetically engineered foods on the market are not safe to eat.”

In fact, David Aaron, Commerce Department Undersecretary for International Trade, testified before a Senate Finance Committee Panel that in the thirteen years of U.S. experience with genetically enhanced foods, there has been “not one rash, not one cough, not one sore throat, not one headache attributable to biotech products.”

Nevertheless, environmental and consumer groups can be seen regularly parading outside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with signs that read, “Genetically engineered food is poison.”

Despite a recent Gallup survey showing eighty percent of Americans feel confident that the food available in grocery stores is safe to eat, agricultural giants like Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Novertis AG, and the Dupont Company shelved some of their most promising efforts in response to the fear campaign. A loud, committed, and uninformed minority has successfully denied consumers their choice. And now its seeks to use the power of government to forcibly impose their choices upon others.

The debate over the health effects of genetically modified foods, however, is a luxury of rich countries, which do not have to worry about their ability to feed themselves. But with an increasing world population, farmers must meet a three-fold increase in demand for food by 2050, most of which will come from the world’s poorest countries, where they are currently not eating well and forced to rely on low-yield, slash-and-burn farming just to survive.

History has repeatedly proven the importance of technological advances in boosting crop-yields and helping to alleviate the problem of hunger. “These modern seed varieties have allowed us to feed an additional 1.5 billion people in the last two decades,” says Phil Pardey, research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Biotechnology offers the only hope that agriculture will be able to keep pace with population growth in the coming decades. Efforts to stymie development of this industry or hinder trade in bioengineered crops would be a grave moral wrong. It would ultimately bring defeat in our long-fought battle against hunger and condemn millions of the world’s most vulnerable persons to death.

An Augustinian monk once knew that human intelligence and labor could add to the human benefits of God’s creation. That pious insight from an Austrian monastery should not be lost today.