The World Summit on Food Security in Rome just finished a few days ago. A few words of Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, talking about how hostility to new food technologies exacerbated the global food crisis by holding back agricultural productivity, “It is disheartening to see how easily a group of well-intentioned and well-fed activists can decide about new technologies at the expense of those who are starving.”
Some have dismissed these remarks. Harder to dismiss are the thoughts of Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University and author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It,” in the New York Times,
The debate over genetically modified crops and food has been contaminated by political and aesthetic prejudices: hostility to U.S. corporations, fear of big science and romanticism about local, organic production.
Food supply is too important to be the plaything of these prejudices. If there is not enough food we know who will go hungry.
Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative. As Africa’s climate deteriorates, it will need to accelerate crop adaptation. As population grows it will need to raise yields. Genetic modification offers both faster crop adaptation and a biological, rather than chemical, approach to yield increases.
Opponents talk darkly of risks but provide no scientific basis for their amorphous expressions of concern. Meanwhile the true risks are mounting. Over the past decade global food demand has risen more rapidly than expected. Supply may not keep pace with demand, inducing rising prices and periodic spikes. If this happens there is a risk that the children of the urban poor will suffer prolonged bouts of malnutrition.
African governments are now recognizing that by imitating the European ban on genetic modification they have not reduced the risks facing their societies but increased them. Thirteen years, during which there could have been research on African crops, have been wasted. Africa has been in thrall to Europe, and Europe has been in thrall to populism.
Genetic modification alone will not solve the food problem: like climate change, there is no single solution. But continuing refusal to use it is making a difficult problem yet more daunting.
I have written on a related aspect of this issue, In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo. When there is no direct burden to people, they tend to take “better safe than sorry” as their overarching risk-management principle. Sometimes this approach works, but it also can magnify risk grossly out of proportion to reality.