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Battle on to avoid compromising potential for biotech progress

There are few people who have made an impact on world hunger like Dr. Norman Borlaug. Here are a few comments made about Dr. Borlaug before reading his comments about biotechnology.

Dr. Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution that transformed much of the hungry Third World. As U.S. Food for Peace Administrator in the 1960s, I shipped 4 million tons of food aid per year to India; now it can export food. Dr. Borlaug's scientific leadership not only saved people from starvation, but the high-yield seeds he bred saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed down. He is one of the great men of our age.
— The Honorable George McGovern, Former U.S. Senator, U.N. “Ambassador to the Hungry”

“Norman Borlaug is the living embodiment of the human quest for a hunger free world. His life is his message.”
— Professor M. S. Swaminathan, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foun- dation (India)

“Some credit him with saving more human lives than any other person in history.”
— Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, USA

“It is very likely that Dr. Borlaug is directly responsible for saving more lives than anyone else in the twentieth century…Dr. Borlaug has never stopped fighting, teaching, inventing, or caring…The world owes Dr. Borlaug endless amounts of gratitude”
— Senator ‘Kit’ Bond, (R) Missouri, in a congressional record marking Borlaug's 90th birthday

By Norman Borlaug 190 Noble Peace Prize Recipient

Compromising the Potential of Biotechnology Norman Borlaug's foreword to “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution” by Henry Miller and Greg Conko (Praeger Publishers, 2004)

Henry Miller and Gregory Conko have written a brilliant account of how self-interest, bad science, and excessive government regulation have profoundly compromised the potential of the new biotechnology. This book is a call to action to resist a pernicious political process that is currently denying enormous potential benefits to consumers throughout the world.

All of life involves weighing risks against benefits. Through our own experience, and by observing that of others, we assess the risks of familiar activities and, sometimes almost subconsciously, we adapt to them. A child soon learns, sometimes painfully, about the high risk of touching a hot stove. Usually without a great deal of thought, we run the hazard of shark attacks at the beach. Academics and insurance company experts have been able to quantify the risks of, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, commuting to work by car, or undergoing cardiac surgery. Risk is more problematic when we are confronted with unfamiliar activities or products. In the absence of sufficient experience (what scientists would call “data”) to make a confident assessment of risk, we tend to become anxious and to compensate for our lack of knowledge by overestimating the risk.

The authors use an apposite contemporary example to illustrate public policy run amok: the regulation in the United States and abroad of the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, which has great potential to improve plants and microorganisms for agriculture and food production. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko make a persuasive case not only that the benefits of the technology far exceed its risk but also that there has been an abject failure in the formulation of public policy. The result has been, they argue correctly, gross over-regulation of the technology and its products, disincentives to research and development, and fewer choices and inflated prices for consumers.

As a plant pathologist and breeder, I have seen how the skeptics and critics of the new biotechnology wish to postpone the release of improved crop varieties in the hope that another year's, or another decade's, worth of testing will offer more data, more familiarity, more comfort. But more than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.

I am reminded of our using the technology at hand to defeat the specter of famine in India and Pakistan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most “experts” thought that mass starvation was inevitable, and environmentalists like Stanford's Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions would die in Africa and Asia within just a few years “in spite of any crash programs embarked upon.” The funders of our work were cautioned against wasting resources on a problem that was insoluble.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government formed the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT) and sent my team to South Asia to teach local farmers how to cultivate high-yield wheat varieties. As a result, Pakistan became self sufficient in wheat production by 1968 and India a few years later.

As we created what became known as the “Green Revolution,” we confronted bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers' customs, habits, and superstitions. We surmounted these difficult obstacles because something new had to be done. Who knows how many would have starved if we had delayed commercializing the new high-yielding cereal varieties and improved crop management practices until we could perform tests to rule out every hypothetical problem, and test for vulnerability to every conceivable type of disease and pest? How much land for nature and wildlife habitat, and topsoil would have been lost if the more traditional, lowyield practices had not been supplanted?

At the time, Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, “Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won't be able to get permission for more of these efforts.” Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later. As Henry Miller and Gregory Conko describe in this volume, the naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available.

From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an increase in yield of more than 150 percent. Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation — with losses of pristine wilderness a hundred times greater than all the losses to urban and suburban expansion.

Today, we confront a similar problem: feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people in the coming quarter of a century. The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to meet this challenge. The new biotechnology can help us to do things that we could not do before, and to do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way. The crucial question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology. Extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in the regulatory agencies are more than eager to help.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement for raising global awareness of the importance of air and water quality, and of wildlife and wilderness preservation. It is ironic, therefore, that if the platform of anti-biotechnology extremists were to be adopted, it would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.

For a decade, the United States has produced ever-larger quantities of gene-spliced, insect-resistant corn that yields as much as or more than the best traditional hybrids but with far less need for chemical pesticides. No negative health or environmental effects have been observed. Yet there is an immensely strong, rabid anti-biotech lobby, especially in Europe, where activists have convinced many governments thwart new approvals and have opposed the use of gene-spliced corn and soybeans as food aid in famine-stricken parts of Africa and Asia. Recently, in the southern African countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola, where many people are dying of starvation, this anti-biotech movement has helped to persuade government authorities to refuse food aid from the United States because it contains gene-spliced corn. But the risk-benefit characteristics of gene-splicing in general, and of this insect-resistant corn in particular, are extraordinarily favorable; this is an obscene exaggeration of risk.

Tragically, this is not an isolated case. There are many other examples of overreaction and resistance to technology. The American Council on Science and Health has documented a series of twenty cases — including pesticides on cranberries in 1959, the supposed hazards of cyclamates in 1969, “agent orange” in 1979, and Alar on Pacific coast apples in 1989in which scare stories trum

By Patrick Moore

We sailed the seas saving whales, protesting nuclear testing and nuclear dumping, halting supertankers, saving baby seals, preventing toxic waste discharge and interfering with drift-nets. They were heady times with countless moments of excitement, danger, frustration and victory. Looking back it is hard to believe we accomplished so much, as we raised public awareness about all things environmental. They were the best years of my life.

I was raised in the tiny fishing and logging village of Winter Harbour on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, where salmon spawned in the streams of the adjoining Pacific rainforest. In school I discovered ecology, and realized that through science I could gain insight into the natural beauties I had known as a child. In the late 1960s I was transformed into a radical environmental activist. A rag-tag group of activists and I sailed a leaky old halibut boat across the North Pacific to block the last hydrogen bomb tests under President Nixon. In the process I co-founded Greenpeace.

By the mid 1980s my interest was in “sustainable development” that would take environmental ideas and incorporate them into the traditional social and economic values that govern public policy and our daily behavior. Every morning, 6 billion people wake up with real needs for food, energy, and materials. The challenge is to provide for those needs in ways that reduce negative impact on the environment while also being socially acceptable and technically and economically feasible. Compromise and cooperation among environmentalists, the government, industry, and academia are essential for sustainability.

Not all my former colleagues saw things that way, however. Many environmentalists rejected consensus politics and sustainable development in favor of continued confrontation, ever-increasing extremism, and left-wing politics. At the beginning of the modern environmental movement, Ayn Rand published Return of the Primitive, which contained an essay titled “The Anti-Industrial Revolution.” In it, she warned that the new movement's agenda was anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-human. At the time, she didn't get a lot of attention from the mainstream media or the public. Environmentalists were often able to produce arguments that sounded reasonable, while doing good deeds like saving whales and making the air and water cleaner.

Home to roost

But now the chickens have come home to roost. The environmentalists' campaign against biotechnology in general, and genetic engineering in particular, has clearly exposed their intellectual and moral bankruptcy. By adopting a zero tolerance policy toward a technology with so many potential benefits for humankind and the environment, they have lived up to Ayn Rand's predictions. They have alienated themselves from scientists, intellectuals, and internationalists. It seems inevitable that the media and the public will, in time, see the insanity of their position. As my friend Klaus Ammann likes to hope, “maybe biotech will be the Waterloo for Greenpeace and their allies.” Then again, maybe that's just wishful thinking.

On Oct. 15, 2001 I found myself sitting in my office in Vancouver after Greenpeace activists in Paris successfully prevented me from speaking via videoconference to 400 delegates of the European Seed Association. The Greenpeacers chained themselves to the seats in the Cine Cite Bercy auditorium and threatened to shout down the speakers. The venue was hastily shifted elsewhere, but the videoconferencing equipment couldn't be set up at the new location, leading to the cancellation of my keynote presentation.

The issue, in this case, was the application of biotechnology to agriculture and genetic modification. The conference in Paris was a meeting of delegates from seed companies, biotechnology companies, and government agencies involved in regulation throughout Europe. Surely these are topics covered by the rules of free speech.

Had those rules not been violated, I would have told the assembled that the accusations of “Frankenstein food” and “killer tomatoes” are as much a fantasy as the Hollywood movies they are borrowed from. I would have argued that, if adding a daffodil gene to rice in order to produce a genetically modified strain of rice can prevent half a million children from going blind each year, then we should move forward carefully to develop it. I would have told them that Greenpeace policy on genetics lacks any respect for logic or science.

In 2001, the European Commission released the results of 81 scientific studies on genetically modified organisms conducted by over 400 research teams at a cost of U.S. $65 million. The studies, which covered all areas of concern, have “not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods.” Clearly my former Greenpeace colleagues are either not reading the morning paper or simply don't care about the truth. And they choose to silence by force those of us who do care about it.

The campaign of fear now waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic. In the balance it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by its detractors.

The programs of genetic research and development now under way in labs and field stations around the world are entirely about benefiting society and the environment. Their purpose is to improve nutrition, to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, to increase the productivity of our farmlands and forests, and to improve human health. Those who have adopted a zero tolerance attitude towards genetic modification threaten to deny these many benefits by playing on fear of the unknown and fear of change.

Golden rice

The case of “Golden Rice” provides a clear illustration of this. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Among them, half a million children lose their eyesight each year, and millions more suffer from lesser symptoms. Golden Rice has the potential to greatly reduce the suffering, because it contains the gene that makes daffodils yellow, infusing the rice with beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A.

Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss co-inventor of Golden Rice, has said that a commercial variety is now available for planting, but that it will be at least five years before Golden Rice will be able to work its way through the byzantine regulatory system that has been set up as a result of the activists' campaign of misinformation and speculation. So the risk of not allowing farmers in Africa and Asia to grow Golden Rice is that another 2.5 million children will probably go blind.

What is the risk of allowing this humanitarian intervention to be planted? What possible risk could there be from a daffodil gene in a rice paddy? Yet Greenpeace activists threaten to rip the G.M. rice out of the fields if farmers dare to plant it. They have done everything they can to discredit the scientists and the technology, claiming that it would take nine kilos of rice per day to deliver sufficient Vitamin A. Potrykus has demonstrated that only 100 grams of Golden Rice would provide 50 percent of the daily need.

Golden Rice is not the only example of civilization being held hostage by activists. Since its introduction to Chinese agriculture in 1996, GM cotton has grown to occupy one third of the total area planted in what is northern China's most important cash crop. This particular variety, called Bt cotton, has been modified to resist the cotton bollworm, its most destructive pest worldwide.

On June 3, 2002 Greenpeace issued a media release announcing the publication of a report on the “adverse environmental impacts of Bt cotton in China.” In typical Greenpeace hyperbole, we were advised that “farmers growing this crop are now finding themselves engulfed in Bt-resistant superbugs, emerging secondary pests, diminishing natural enemies, destabilized insect ecology,” and that farmers are “forced to continue the use of chemical pesticides.”

Let's examine these allegations one at a time:

  • Bt-Resistant Superbugs: There is not a single example or shred of evidence in the Greenpeace report of actual bollworm resistance to Bt cotton in the field. There is evidence from lab studies in which bollworms were force-fed Bt cotton leaves, but any scientist knows that this kind of experiment will eventually result in selection for resistance. Greenpeace, however, is claiming selection for resistance has actually happened to farmers in the field. According to Professors Shirong Jia and Yufa Peng of the Chinese National GMO Biosafety Committee, “no resistance of cotton bollworm to Bt has been discovered yet after five years of Bt cotton planting. Resistant insect strains have been obtained in laboratories but not in field conditions.” So much for the superbugs.

  • Emerging Secondary Pests: Greenpeace points out that there are more aphids, spiders, and other secondary insect pests in fields of Bt cotton than in conventional cotton.This is called an “adverse” impact in their report. The fact is, because Bt cotton requires much less chemical pesticide than conventional cotton, these other insects can survive better in Bt cotton fields. For the scientifically literate, this reduction of impact on non-target insects is actually considered one of the environmental benefits of G.M. crops. How Greenpeace figures this is “adverse” is beyond comprehension.

  • Diminishing Natural Enemies: The Greenpeace media release states that there are fewer of the bollworm's natural predators and parasites in Bt cotton fields compared to conventional cotton, and calls this an “adverse impact.” Again, a careful read of the report comes up with no evidence for this claim. And again, according to Professors Jia and Peng, “as of today, there are no adverse impacts reported on natural parasitic enemies in the Bt cotton fields.” And after all, isn't it a bit obvious that if using Bt cotton reduces bollworm populations, that bollworm parasite populations will also be reduced? Will Greenpeace now embark on an international campaign to “save the bollworm parasites”?

  • Destabilized Insect Ecology: This one is a hoot. To speak of “insect ecology” in a monoculture cotton field that was sprayed with chemicals up to 17 times a year before the introduction of Bt cotton is ridiculous. The main impact of Bt cotton has been to reduce chemical pesticide use and therefore to reduce impacts on non-target species.

  • Farmers Forced to Continue Using Chemical Pesticides: This claim gets the Most Misleading and Dishonest Award. No, Bt resistance does not provide 100 percent protection. Because secondary pests sometimes need to be controlled, farmers using Bt cotton usually use some pesticides during the growing cycle.

Bt cotton summation

Professors Jia and Peng sum it up this way: “The greatest environmental impact of Bt cotton was…a significant reduction (70-80 percent) of the chemical pesticide use. It is known that pesticides used in cotton production in China are estimated to be 25 percent of the total amount of pesticides used in all the crops. By using Bt cotton in 2000 in Shandong province alone, the reduction of pesticide use was 1,500 tons. It not only reduced the environmental pollution, but also reduced the rate of harmful accidents to humans and animals caused by the overuse of pesticides.”

The Greenpeace report is a classic example of the use of agenda-based “science” to support misinformation and distortion of the truth. Once again, Greenpeace demonstrates that its zero tolerance policy on genetic modification can only be supported by distortions and false interpretations of data — in other words, junk science.

A hunger strike led by Greenpeace finally ended in Manila on May 22 after 29 days. Activists were protesting the introduction of Bt corn into the southern Philippines. In order to whip up media attention, activists have spread scare stories that GM corn “would result in millions of dead bodies, sick children, cancer clusters and deformities.” Thankfully, the government did not give in to these fools and stood by its decision, based on three years of consultation and field trials, to allow farmers to plant Bt corn. Already there are indications of higher yield and improved incomes to farmers who chose to use the Bt corn.

For six years, anti-biotech activists managed to prevent the introduction of GM crops in India. This was largely the work of Vandana Shiva, the Oxford-educated daughter of a wealthy Indian family, who has campaigned relentlessly to “protect” poor farmers from the ravages of multinational seed companies. In 2002, she was given the Hero of the Planet award by Time magazine for “defending traditional agricultural practices.”

Read: poverty and ignorance. It looked like Shiva would win the GM debate until 2001, when unknown persons illegally planted 25,000 acres of Bt cotton in Gujarat. The cotton bollworm infestation was particularly bad that year, and there was soon a 25,000-acre plot of beautiful green cotton in a sea of brown. The local authorities were notified and decided that the illegal cotton must be burned. This was too much for the farmers, who could now clearly see the benefits of the Bt variety.

In a classic march to city hall with pitchforks in hand, the farmers protested and won the day. Bt cotton was approved for planting in March 2002. One hopes the poverty-stricken cotton farmers of India will become wealthier and deprive Vandana Shiva of her parasitical practice.

Until recently the situation in Brazil was far from promising. A panel of three judges managed to block approval of any GM crops there. Meanwhile, the soybean farmers in the south of the country have been quietly smuggling GM soybean seeds across the border from Argentina, where they are legal. The fact that Brazil was officially GM-free has allowed European countries to import Brazilian soybeans despite the European Union moratorium on the import of GM crops. But recently things have changed.

Farmers rebel

With the election of President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers Party in 2002, the Green elements within the party pressed the government to enforce the ban on genetically modified organisms. There was something ironic about a “workers party” enforcing a policy that will damage farmers who have come to enjoy the benefits of biotechnology. In the end, the Brazilian farmers rebelled like those in India. In 2003 the government relented and allowed GM soybeans to be planted. The soybean farmers of southern Brazil have become prosperous, bringing benefits to the environment and their local communities.

Surely there is some way to break through the misinformation and hysteria and provide a more balanced picture to the public. Surely if reasonable people saw the choice between the risk of a daffodil gene in a rice plant versus the certainty of millions of blind children, they would descend on Greenpeace offices around the world and demand to have their money back. How is it that these charlatans continue to stymie progress on so many fronts when their arguments are nothing more than wild, scary speculation?

The main reason for the failure to win the debate decisively is the failure of supporters of GM technology to act decisively. The activists are playing hardball while the biotech side soft-pedals the health and environmental benefits of this new technology. Biotech companies and their associations use soft images and calm language, apparently to lull the public into making pleasant associations with GM products. How can that strategy possibly hope to counter the Frankenfood fears and superweed scares drummed up by Greenpeace and so many others?

Just from a brief scan of the Monsanto, Syngenta, and Council for Biotechnology Web sites, it is clear that these companies and organizations are trying to project positive, clean, and calming thoughts. This is all well and good, but it is no way to turn the tide. Stronger medicine is needed. Imagine an advertising campaign that showed graphic images of blind children in Africa, explained Vitamin A deficiency, introduced Golden Rice, and demonstrated how Greenpeace's actions are preventing the delivery of this cure.

Imagine another ad that showed impoverished Indian cotton farmers, explained Bt cotton, and presented the statistics for increased yield, reduced pesticide use, and better lives for farmers — followed by the clear statement that activists are to blame for the delayed adoption of the technology.

How about an ad that graphically portrays the soil erosion and stream siltation caused by conventional farming versus the soil conservation made possible by using GM soybeans? And another one that shows workers applying pesticides without protection in a developing country versus the greatly reduced applications possible with Bt corn and cotton? What if all these ads were hosted by a well-known and trusted personality? Wouldn't this change public perspectives?

The biotechnology sector needs to ramp up its communications program, and to get a lot more aggressive in explaining the issues to the public through the media. Nothing less will turn the tide in the battle for the minds, and hearts, of people around the world.

Patrick Moore is chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies, an environmental consulting agency.

(Editor's Note: Two scientists, Norman Borlaug and Patrick Moore, could not be more different in their backgrounds. Bourlaug bred wheat in the dusty fields of Mexico to feed millions of starving people and won the Noble Peace Prize for it. Moore founded Greenpeace and put his life in harm's way to stop whaling. His photograph huddling over a baby seal to keep it from being clubbed to death appeared in 7,000 newspapers worldwide. Yet, both of these men are bold supporters of biotechnology. As voters in four California counties go to the polls to vote on anti-GMO initiatives in a few weeks, Western Farm Press prints the comments of Borlaug and Moore in the following two articles)

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