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Britain donating millions for biotech crops (but not in Britain)

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted August 24, 2009

Britain has pledged more than US$150 million over the next five years to support high-tech food crops for the world's poorest countries—primarily through genetic engineering.

The irony?  Britain does not yet allow any biotech foods to be grown commercially within its borders. Not even to develop a genetically modified potato that is resistant to the new strain of potato blight that is ravaging British potato fields.

If the eco-activists hadn't pledged to rip out test plantings, the world would already have blight-resistant potatoes—a huge step forward in Third World food security. Potatoes produce more food per acre than any other crop, and they are increasingly important in such crowded places as China, India, and the African highlands. So far, however, there remains the threat of replaying the terrible Irish potato famine of the 1840s, not only in Britain, but in all potato dependant areas.

The biggest piece of the new British funding will support development of drought-tolerant corn for Africa, following up the recent success of drought-tolerant biotech wheat in Australia. Such corn would be the biggest possible step forward for drought-prone small African farmers, ranking even ahead of the witchweed-resistant corn varieties recently produced by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

Another chunk of funding will support Syngenta's international work in developing genetically modified "Golden Rice," which will prevent childhood blindness due to severe shortages of Vitamin A in rice-dependent cultures. This deficiency is the world's leading preventable source of childhood blindness, and involves millions of deaths.

The eco- activists, of course, are raging mad over the British aid pledge. They continue to claim that biotech crops don't produce any higher food yields to prevent hunger, or help poor farmers earn higher incomes—but that's a lie.

Biotech has already racked up massive yield gains from pest-resistant cotton in China and India, freeing up hundreds of millions of additional acres for food crops. This dwarfs anything the eco-activists have done to make the world more sustainable.

The drought-tolerant wheat recently test-planted in Australia yields 20 percent more grain during droughts, with no yield penalty during years of good rains. This, too, will mean greater food security for wheat-dependent cultures in India, Turkey, and other countries.

Biotech crops have also eliminated spraying of millions of pounds of pesticides that the eco-activists themselves have long claimed (without foundation) were producing severe health risks for humans.

The activists' case for opposing these crop production advances:  Genetically modified crops "are probably unsafe for human consumption," claims activist Brian John, though no peer-reviewed studies confirm the claim.  In more than a decade of growing genetically modified food, no health problem has been traced to biotechnology.  Not a single case of food poisoning; not even a headache; just more food, produced more reliably, and at lower cost to society.

Could that be the real activist complaint about biotech? The environmental movement has hated the Green Revolution, and pilloried Dr. Norman Borlaug, the famed "man who saved a billion humans from starvation." Could it be that the environmental movement still blames high-yield farming for supporting "too many people"? 

If that's true, they should also remember that without the Green Revolution, the planet's wildlife habitat would already have been largely destroyed to grow more low-yield crops. The challenge now is to feed the 8 billion humans expected at the peak—along with their pets—from the land we already farm.

We applaud Britain for its humanitarianism toward poor countries, even though allowing an anti-science backlash to flourish within its own boundaries.  ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.


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