Biotech Can Feed the World
By Dennis T. Avery
The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2000, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
CHURCHVILLE, Virginia -- Activists opposing the use of biotechnology in
farming will seek the spotlight at the U.S. Republican Party's national
convention next week, and again when the Democrats holds their own
gabfest later this summer. But whatever their antics, these scaremongers
are fighting a futile, rearguard action in much of the world. Would that
the same could be said for Europe, however.
Outside the Continent, transgenic crops have swept across the world more
rapidly than any previous farming technology, mainly because they protect
crops more effectively and use less pesticide. The world's farmers are
likely to plant biotech crops in record number of acres this year.
Most of the biotech plantings will be in the United States, where nearly
75 million acres will be devoted to corn, soybeans, canola and other
crops. Argentina will plant 17 million acres, mostly corn and soybeans,
and Canada 10 million acres, mostly canola. China, Australia, South
Africa, Mexico, Romania and Ukraine also are planting transgenic crops.
The reason that the biotech acreage will increase is that new
breakthroughs continue to emerge from the lab. Among the recent ones:
-- A new "super-rice" that incorporates a corn gene for a
higher rate of photosynthesis. It yields 35% more grain per acre.
-- Frost-tolerant crops that will survive lower temperatures than
traditional crops, meaning higher yields for Canada and Russia, and more
twice-yearly harvests in the United States and China.
-- A natural substance (avidin, from egg whites), that when bred into
crops will protect them from storage insects -- thus eliminating the need
for pesticides during crop storage.
-- One of the key biotech triumphs to date has been "golden
rice" that should prevent the Vitamin A deficiency that blinds or
kills millions of children each year in poor rice-eating countries. The
new rice contains beta-carotene, as carrots do; the body converts the
beta-carotene into Vitamin A. (Many of these afflicted areas are too poor
to make carrots a regular part of their diet.)
Amid all these discoveries, the European Union has embarked on a quixotic
quest to explain why it should be allowed to block imports of transgenic
foods under the "precautionary principle." This holds that
authorities should bar a technology until there's proof that it's not
To see how this would work in practice, look at the humble tomato, that
American import that is now at the base of so many great European dishes.
In the early 1800s, both Europeans and Americans thought the tomato was
poisonous because it was a relative of the deadly nightshade plant. The
precautionary principle would have done away with the tomato, and along
with it that tasty pasta dish you ate last night.
The EU says it is taking action because European consumers are frightened
of the new technology -- even though there is no proof that any of the
foods are dangerous. This behavior runs afoul of the World Trade
Organization Treaty, which demands scientific proof of danger to bar
imports. But to this WTO objection, some French scientists have a ready
response -- they claim that some biotech foods have the potential for new
allergies. But no approved biotech food has been found to cause
allergies. One product that did was caught and stopped in the research
process. If any allergen did get approved, of course, it would be quickly
In fact biotech researchers are working to take natural allergens out of
wheat, milk and peanuts, which would free millions of people from the
torment of these allergies. Biotechnology will reduce food allergies, not
If EU officials really think that European consumers do not like these
products, then there's no problem. Who would buy them? If Europe on the
other hand is allowed to block imports for reasons of public fear, then
fear campaigns could become trade barriers against virtually all imported
products. Hong Kong could say that its consumers think French wines cause
cancer and must therefore be banned. France might retaliate by saying
Hong Kong textiles are made with "Frankenstein cotton" and must
be banned in turn. Before we knew it, the much-discussed trend toward
globalization could be pitched back into the high-tariff days of the
1930s. Perhaps another Great Depression would follow.
That would be tragic. Small-scale Chinese farmers are planting more than
700,000 acres with pest-resistant biotech cotton this year, half of it
from China's own labs. The biotech cotton needs no more than one
pesticide spray per year, instead of the current 15. This new cotton is
putting an extra $150 in profits per hectare into the pockets of one
million Chinese farmers who now earn $500 to $1,000 per year. China says
biotech cotton has single-handedly saved its biggest source of jobs. The
cotton bollworm was developing resistance to pyrethroid insecticides and
would have driven cotton production out of the country. China's cotton
industry employs many millions of textile workers as well as farmers --
whose jobs were saved by biotech.
The Chinese also have genetically improved tomatoes, tobacco and
cucumbers, and are actively researching biotech varieties of corn, wheat,
and canola, along with many fruits and vegetables. Based on the Chinese
experience, an Indian government committee has recommended that India
plant its own biotech cotton varieties.
Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for breeding the
"miracle wheat" of the Green Revolution, is enthusiastic about
biotech crops. He warns that organic farming could not feed more than
four billion people -- the world already has more than six billion --
even if we plowed down all the forests on earth to create more farmland.
The world's most distinguished scientists agree with Mr. Borlaug in a new
report issued by the academies of science of Brazil, China, India,
Mexico, and the United States along with the Third World Academy of
Sciences in Trieste, Italy and the British Royal Society. The report,
released earlier this summer, calls biotech foods crucial to overcoming
hunger for 800 million food-short residents of poor countries and
preventing the deaths of six million children under five who currently
die each year from malnutrition.
Surprisingly, the activists opposed to bio-foods are not protesting the
use of biotechnology in medicine, where new developments hold the promise
of saving millions of people from AIDS, colon and breast cancer.
Ethically, of course, there's no justification for using biotechnology to
help the sick, but not the hungry. Fortunately, the activists won't have
to wrestle with that dilemma much longer. The march of progress already
is leaving them behind in much of the world, and will soon in Europe as
Mr. Avery is director of global food issues for the Hudson
Institute. A related article by Mr. Avery appeared in our
"Scrap CAP" series July 5.
Also, in the U.S. edition of the WSJ today:
Bring Back DDT, and Save Lives
By Alex Avery And Dennis Avery. Dennis Avery is director,
and Alex Avery is director of research and education, at the Hudson
Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
New York City cancelled a concert in
Central Park on Monday night for fear of the West Nile virus, a dangerous
mosquito-borne disease. New York immediately forgot its fear of
pesticides and began spraying to control mosquitoes. But DDT, the most
effective mosquito control agent known, will not be used. In fact, if
environmental activists have their way, DDT will soon be banned from the
This is a mistake that could cost millions of lives across the
For nearly 30 years, DDT has been banned from America's arsenal of
pesticides because of concern for the environment. The United Nations
Environment Program is now sponsoring a legally binding convention for a
worldwide ban on DDT.
Strong opposition to a global DDT ban has arisen, however, from doctors
and public health experts. The reason: a resurgence of mosquito-borne
malaria in areas where it had previously been eradicated, including urban
areas in South America, Asia and Africa. Globally, the number of malaria
cases is increasing at an accelerating rate. Last summer, two boy scouts
even contracted malaria while camping in New York state, an incident that
was overshadowed by an outbreak of West Nile virus that killed seven
people later in the year.
Earlier this year, a group of 380 scientists signed an open letter,
arguing for the renewed use of DDT inside houses to fight the spread of
malaria. As these doctors point out, the standard environmental concerns
-- such as eggshell-thinning in raptor birds -- have nothing to do with
spraying indoors. In poor, developing countries, small amounts of DDT are
sprayed on the inside walls of homes and huts. The DDT mostly repels,
rather than kills, the mosquitoes. Tiny amounts of DDT are used compared
with the millions of pounds that were once sprayed on agricultural fields
in the 1950s and 60s. The environmental consequences, as a result, would
According to many experts, the de facto ban on DDT use is the main reason
for the increase in malaria cases. After the U.S. and other
industrialized countries outlawed DDT, the ban was gradually extended to
countries in the developing world, leveraged through unconscionable
restrictions in foreign aid dollars. Essentially, we blackmailed poor
countries into dropping their most effective anti-malarial weapon.
The decline in DDT use was, predictably, followed by malaria epidemics.
Sri Lanka stopped spraying houses with DDT in 1961 and subsequently had a
major malaria epidemic. More than 100,000 people died during malaria
epidemics in Swaziland and Madagascar in the mid-1980s, following the
suspension of DDT house spraying. South Africa, which had stopped using
DDT, began using it again this year after an ugly resurgence in
Why is DDT so important? Aren't there plenty of other pesticides that can
be used? The answer is yes, and no.
DDT acts primarily as a mosquito repellent, not as a killer. Research by
Don Roberts, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences,
has shown that only 3% as many mosquitoes enter huts sprayed with DDT
compared with huts sprayed with the most widely used alternative
pesticide. Moreover, in DDT-sprayed huts, most mosquitoes immediately
leave without biting. As Dr. Roberts notes from his uncomfortable
personal research, "the whole time the mosquitoes were in huts
sprayed with the other pesticide, they were actively biting
DDT's effectiveness as a mosquito repellent lasts for six months or more.
This compares very favorably with the shorter duration and less effective
nature of alternative pesticides that cost three to four times as
In a nutshell, nothing is as cheap, or as effective, as DDT. While
wealthy nations can afford more expensive, less effective pesticides --
such as the pyrethroid that New York is currently spraying -- poorer
nations have few alternatives to DDT other than death and
But isn't DDT a danger to people? So Rachel Carson claimed in her 1962
book, "Silent Spring." But as a recent article in the Lancet, a
British medical journal, notes, we have yet to find a single significant
health threat from DDT use even after 40 years of exhaustive research.
Yet activists have succeeded in convincing the public that DDT is so evil
that we should accept the suffering and death of millions in poor
countries to save the world's paranoid wealthy from theoretical health
risks we still can't identify. That is Ms. Carson's shameful
Alex A. Avery
Director of Research and Education
Center for Global Food Issues
P.O. Box 202
Churchville, VA 24421
fax: (540) 337-8593