The late Dr. Carl Sagan wrote in 1989 that “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” Looking at today’s organized opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods, it’s clear that Sagan’s bleak society hasn’t advanced much.
The problem goes far beyond scientifically deficient U.S. activists clamoring for mandatory labels on biotech-enhanced veggies. France’s new government, aided by environmental activists, now plans to ban the only GM crop grown in Europe. (The EU counters that this might not be legal.) Last week, French activists destroyed three test fields of the disease-resistant corn.
In Brazil last weekend, armed activists protesting “the evil effects of genetically modified products” invaded a Swiss-owned biotech farm. They were met by armed security guards; one person on each side of the fracas ended up dead. The Hudson Institute notes that these deaths are just the tip of a larger iceberg, as “new technologies that would save millions of lives every year are being held back by activist-scared regulators.”
There is some good news. The European Commission has just approved new varieties of GM corn and sugar beets. And American wheat farmers are beginning to demand the sort of technological advances that have brought corn and soybean farmers so many benefits.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, “Green Revolution” godfather Dr. Norman Borlaug notes that scientific research and development — not irrational fear — is needed to help poor African nations develop their economies and help their people survive:
R&D is especially needed to address Africa’s special [crop] production circumstances … New science and technology, including the tools of biotechnology, will be needed to develop crops better able to withstand climatic stresses such as drought, heat and flooding. [subscription required]
And if you’re looking for a clear illustration of Carl Sagan’s vision of a techno-illiterate society, writes liberal UK politician Dick Tavern in The Prospect magazine, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than Great Britain.
Public discussion of GM food in the British media, and throughout Europe, reflects a persistent suspicion of GM crops. Supermarkets display notices that their products are "GM-free." Sales of organic food, promoted as a natural alternative to the products of modern scientific farming, are increasing by about 20 per cent a year … The public is led to believe that GM technology is not only unsafe but harmful to the environment, and that it only serves to profit big agricultural companies. Seldom has public perception been more out of line with the facts. The public in Britain and Europe seems unaware of the astonishing success of GM crops in the rest of the world.
Taverne concludes that a “cult of ‘back to nature’” is responsible for intentionally sowing seeds of confusion:
There can be little doubt that GM crops will be accepted worldwide in time, even in Europe. But in delaying cultivation, the anti-GM lobbies have exacted a heavy price … Above all, delay has caused the needless loss of millions of lives in the developing world. These lobbies and their friends in the organic movement have much to answer for.