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Unexpected support for biotechnology

Amid all the yammering by the anti-pesticide crowd and those who would return agriculture to the days of mules, manure, and muscle, there have, of late, been some rays of reason from unexpected sources — New Yorkers.

The New York Times, not usually an advocate for agriculture, weighed in on genetic engineering, noting that while there have been problems, such as weeds developing resistance to glyphosate, “Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring.”

Rather than condemning biotech, the Times said, there is a need to recognize that “genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.”

Doing that would also require opponents “to realize that, by demonizing this technology, they’ve hindered applications … that could save lives and protect the environment.”

They “have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though … (these) crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.”

The stakes are too high, the Times asserts, “for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse, and sustainable will go unfulfilled.”

Much of the opposition to biotech crops comes from food elitists, says Michael Specter, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and author of the book, “Denialism — How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.”

Denialism, Specter says, is what happens when “an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

Participating in a Council for Biotechnology panel on public perceptions and the impact that misperceptions can have on the adoption of agricultural biotechnology, Specter noted that it’s easy for those living in countries with relative food abundance to make decisions that affect hungry developing nations under the guise of protecting their best interests — food elitism.

Attacks on progress, whether biotech foods or vaccinations to stamp out diseases such as measles and polio, “have become routine,” he writes in his book. “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality, or you don’t.”

We are “either going to embrace new technologies, along with their limitations and threats,” Specter says, “or slink into an era of magical thinking.”

“In other parts of the world,” he said in a National Public Radio interview, “a billion people go to bed hungry every night. Those people need science to help them.”

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