Acton Commentary

EU Ban on Biotech Hard to Swallow


The challenges of world hunger and poverty seem, at times, insurmountable. More than 800 million people—nearly one in seven—face chronic hunger or malnutrition. In Africa alone, at least 30 million are threatened with starvation due to drought, and an estimated 200 million will be malnourished by 2020 if current trends continue. [1] Why, then, did Zambian government officials reject about 17,000 tons of donated U.S. corn last October with hungry Zambians standing nearby, groping at the life-saving food? [2] Apparently, heeding the European Union’s (EU) ban on biotechnologically-altered crops was more important than preventing famine deaths for the African country, and continues to be for many others.

The EU has banned agricultural biotechnology, the splicing of genes in plants that allows breeders to develop (or eliminate) traits in plants to increase productivity, since 1998.

Despite assurances from the United Nations and the World Health Organization that there is no evidence of any danger from the crops, and use of the technology for over a decade by the US, the EU maintains that biotech crops are unsafe to eat and destructive to the environment. However, these exaggerated claims emphasize the speculative risks wealthy Europeans foresee, and can dangerously delay or reverse the economic development necessary to improve not only human life but also human stewardship of the environment. Furthermore, citizens of developing nations are often forced to suffer longer in poverty with its attendant high rates of malnutrition, disease, and mortality; as a consequence, they are often the most injured by such misguided, though well-intentioned, policies. [3]

First of all, the EU urges that biotech foods are unsafe to eat, and pushes for increased regulation of bioengineered crops across the board, regardless of the level of risk individual varieties may pose. However, if the evidence that Americans have been eating corn flakes made with biotech corn for over ten years without incident isn’t enough, the EU should look at the differences between traditional breeding methods and biotech breeding. Numerous scientific bodies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and others, have concluded that gene splicing techniques themselves are safer than traditional breeding methods because breeders know which new genes are being added to plants and exactly which functions these genes perform. [4] Furthermore, the EU would never ban traditional breeding, which has been used for millennia; why would it ban a safer, more specific method that further utilizes human ingenuity to achieve the results it desires?

Second, the EU cites the potential negative impact on the environment that biotechnology may cause, and warns against pushing risky science on developing countries. However, decreased quality of life and low productivity damage the environment more than the any risk posed by the exaggerated claims of the EU. For instance, splicing a natural pesticide into a plant that it doesn’t naturally produce increases yields, saves raw materials and fuel used to produce synthetic pesticides, eliminates industrial waste and runoff into nearby land, and saves farmers millions of gallons of water and tens of thousands of days of labor every year. [5] In less developed nations where pesticides are typically sprayed on by hand, biotech crops have been even more beneficial, saving the lives of over 400 farmers per year who would have otherwise died from acute pesticide poisoning. [6] Similar benefits are derived from the proper stewarding of creation through manipulating genes for natural weed management and natural fertilizer .

Although biotechnology alone will not solve all of the complex problems of hunger and poverty in Africa, the EU’s release of its moratorium on biotech as requested by the US to the World Trade Organization on March 15 th would allow Africans to take full advantage of aid from the US and increase agricultural productivity for its people. Government officials fear that the EU’s protests will cost them votes if they accept US aid, and unfounded fears perpetuated by the EU have caused them to be wary of the technology. Furthermore, stringent regulation has resulted in constrained innovation, especially in smaller laboratories, as well as a significant decline in funding for public sector research from the World Bank and so many bilateral donors [7] . This violation of human rights cannot continue.

In the meantime, the US must continue to develop global partnerships, tailor research to local needs, promote regulations on biotech based on sound science, and emphasize the importance of productivity for the betterment of our world. Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, puts it this way: “Is it worth asking whether humanity achieved its capacity for learning by accident or through divine will? Should we have stopped learning at the bow and arrow? After the printing press? After hybrid seeds? Before Biotechnology? Do we dare to stop the knowledge process while more than 800 million humans are hungry?” Now, that would be hard to swallow.

Notes

  1. Avery, Dennis T., “Hunger for the Holidays,” American Outlook Today , January 1, 2003. http://www.hudson.org/general/popup_print.cfm?id=2129 .
  2. Avery, Dennis T., “Environmentalists to Africans: Drop Dead.” American Outlook Today , October 10, 2002.
  3. See The Cornwall Declaration , /ppolicy/environment/cornwall.html
  4. Conko, Gregory, “The Benefits of Biotech,” Regulation, Spring 2003.
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. “Nobel Peace Laureate Urges Adoption of Agricultural Technology to Feed the Developing World.” June 24, 2003. http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2003/06/0230.htm