Yesterday’s report from a British environmentalist group called the Soil Association claimed (among other things) that widespread use of genetically improved food crops has cost the United States over $12 billion since 1999. Now a coalition of U.S. farming groups has responded quickly with their own accounting, which suggests a net benefit of $973 million in 2001 alone.

Curiously, news coverage of these conflicting reports has focused largely on the financial impact of modern farming, while ignoring its environmental benefits. This although the American report specifically highlights the reduction of chemical pesticide use and soil-depleting plowing among farmers who plant biotech crops. Indeed, a Canadian report issued on Monday also found that farmers who raise genetically improved soybeans “reduce fossil fuel use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce applications of pesticides, and reduce levels of soil erosion.”

The news keeps getting better and better for modern farming. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service reported this week that a new strain of biotech rice could provide malnourished populations with phosphorous, a vital nutrient. And Hawaiian researchers have genetically modified soybeans to eliminate the ingredients that induce allergic reactions among some consumers.

The consensus is growing on the safety and importance of biotech foods — Canada now says that they “pose no risk to human health,” and even Mexico has decided to lift its politically-motivated moratorium. So it’s disheartening to find that the Brits are still fighting 20th-century battles in this new era.

Even more disturbing, however, are the consequences for the Third World if Europe’s collective anti-biotech-food tantrum bears fruit. United Nations aid workers say that 13 million people in six African countries face starvation and food shortages. Zambia’s ruler still refuses to distribute biotech corn to his people, largely because of meddlesome European activist groups. Zimbabwe’s opinion leaders are wondering aloud how many lives might have been saved if biotech grain had been accepted there months ago.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included an editorial laying the blame for this avoidable tragedy squarely on the shoulders of “Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the like.” The environmental lobby, notes the Journal, “has targeted the Third World with a five-year $175 million campaign against GM foods.” And the Christian Science Monitor notes this week that “Africa’s hungry aren’t picky.” Starving chidren, the paper reasons, “couldn’t care less about theoretical risks from food that has been on tables in North America for years.”