Dennis T. Avery

Food technology has made vital contributions to human nutrition since we first learned to make cheese, put yeast in bread, and brew beer.

Since 1950, food-related science and technology have helped the world meet another challenge—saving wild-lands. Science has been the key to tripling the food production from the land we were already cropping. The modern food system has saved more than 15 million square miles of forests (equal to the whole world’s forest area) from being cleared for low-yield food production.

The additional food security produced by higher crop yields and modern food preservation has even helped slow population growth. (You don’t have to have 10 children to be sure one will care for your old age.) Births per woman in the Third World have fallen from 6.5 in 1960 to perhaps 2.9 today—and stability is 2.1. Current birth trends indicate a peak population of 8.5 billion, around 2035.

But some 800 million people are still undernourished in this world, and billions are malnourished. The more populous and affluent world of 2050 will need nearly three times today’s harvest to provide high-quality diets for its children and pets. And we’re already using 37% of the world’s land for agriculture.

Unfortunately, some of the world’s already well-fed people are demanding that society reject biotechnology, the latest and most powerful advance in our knowledge of how to improve food security and nutrition. They say biotech is too powerful, and carries too much risk.

Even such vital technologies as electricity would not pass their “Precautionary” test (too many accidental electrocutions and fires). But without it, more people would die from food poisoning (no refrigeration) and heat stroke (no fans or air conditioning).

The activists say the world could ease the food challenge by becoming vegetarian, but the world has never had a voluntarily vegetarian society. Fewer than 0.5% of Americans forego the resource-costly livestock calories, while China doubled its meat consumption in the 1990s.

Activists claim, “Natural food is best.” But for centuries people ate all-natural foods and lived an average of 25 years. We’ve added 30 years to lifespans in the 20th century, eight since we started spraying pesticides and using food additives to prevent such diseases as rickets and goiter.

The French government today is comparing biotechnology in food to “mad cow disease.” It’s true that both genetic engineering and mad cow disease involve uncertainty. But the latter is a frightening uncertainty, like bubonic plague, while the former is a hopeful uncertainty, like electricity in the heady days when Edison was trying to invent the light bulb and Marconi the radio.

When pressed about biotech dangers, French experts offer only the threat of new allergens. So far, no approved biotech crop or food has caused allergies. (One potential allergen was discovered and stopped in the research process.) If a new biotech product did cause allergies, it would, of course, not reach commercial markets or would be properly labeled. Meanwhile, biotech researchers are working to take the natural allergens out of wheat, milk, and even peanuts. Thus, biotechnology will reduce our allergy problems, not aggravate them.

A new biotech rice carries a gene from the corn plant to get a higher rate of photosynthesis and therefore a 35% yield increase. With the higher yields, we can save 140 million acres of land, for either more food or more wildlife habitat. That’s about equal to all the forest land in India today. Should we plow down Asia’s remaining forests for low-yield rice as a precaution?

Two Mexican researchers have produced the world’s first acid-tolerant crops. They will raise crop yields by perhaps 50% on about half of the arable land in the tropics. Should we risk planting acid-tolerant crops, or should we be cautious and plow down the tropical forests that are home to most of the world’s 30 million wildlife species?

Golden rice, genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, will save millions of kids in poor rice cultures from going blind or dying from severe vitamin A deficiency. Activist Vandana Shiva says, “Let the children eat weeds.” She claims that the wild greens that women in her native India collect for their families’ meals contain lots of vitamin A. The experts at UNICEF say the vitamin A in the greens isn’t bioavailable—that’s why vitamin A deficiency is rampant in India.

Activists complain that science is taking over our lives. But science is simply the confirmed reality of the world. It is hard to advance human society by ignoring new knowledge as important as the DNA blueprints for natural heredity.

The activists are flinging a serious challenge at the world’s nutrition and conservation. The fundamental question is whether the world will continue to pursue technological abundance—or relapse into the misery and deprivation of an artificial scarcity, managed by an inhumane elite.

by Dennis T. Avery, formerly senior agricultural analyst in the U.S. State Dept., is Director of Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute, Churchville, Va.