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A Greener Earth Day

A Greener Earth Day

A Greener Earth Day

A Greener Earth Day

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- Henry I. Miller, Forbes, April 22, 2010

The first Earth Day celebration was conceived by then-U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson and held in 1970 as a "symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship." In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, New Age experience, and most activities were organized at the grassroots level.

More recently, Earth Day has provided an opportunity for environmental Cassandras to prophesy apocalypse, trash technology and proselytize. Passion and zeal trump science. A perennial target at these events is biotechnology applied to agriculture, which one anti-technology activist characterized as threatening "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust." Greenpeace seeks no less than biotech products' "complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment."

Who could tell from such apocalyptic language that what is at issue are products like pro-vitamin-A-fortified "Golden Rice," which promises to ameliorate the ravages of vitamin A in many poor countries, and papayas, corn and cotton plants genetically improved to give higher yields and resist pests grow under adverse climatic conditions and with less agricultural chemicals.

Activists' eco-babble ignores the scientific consensus that genetic engineering, the newest manifestation of biotechnology, is a refinement of less precise methods of genetic modification that have been applied for centuries. The U.S. National Research Council put the new biotechnology in perspective in a 1989 analysis: "With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the [characteristics] that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the [characteristics]."

In other words, the newer techniques are more precise and more predictable and often yield a safer, more useful product.

How well have the genetically engineered crops been accepted? Introduced only 16 years ago, they are the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history. In 2009, in 25 countries worldwide, the number of farmers cultivating genetically engineered crops reached 14 million, a 5% increase over 2008; the acreage jumped 7%; and record acreage was reported for the four principal genetically engineered crops--corn, cotton, canola and soy. Cumulative acreage over the past 15 years is more than 2 billion acres. Farmers praise the lessened need for agricultural chemicals--often accompanied by higher yields--and their improved bottom line.

Although far short of their potential, the positive impacts of genetically engineered plants have been monumental. Any innovation that decreases agricultural "inputs"--the factors that contribute to the costs of food production--benefits everyone involved in the path from the dirt to the dinner plate. Increased yields are environmentally important because they obviate the need to put additional land such as forests under cultivation. In addition, genetically engineered plants permit more efficient water usage and encourage wider use of environmentally friendly, no-till cultivation, which decreases soil erosion and releases less CO2 into the atmosphere. (Interestingly, organic farming--which explicitly prohibits the use of genetically engineered plant varieties and is the darling of the environmental movement--has the opposite effect on all these parameters.)

But in spite of these achievements and an extraordinary safety record, biotech has a tough row to hoe. In Europe, there remains widespread public and political opposition to cultivating genetically engineered plants and even to importing grains grown from genetically engineered seeds. Foods from genetically engineered plants have been banished by major supermarket chains. Vandalization of field trials by environmental activists is commonplace--and goes largely unprosecuted. Governments have imposed moratoria on commercial-scale cultivation of plants and regulatory approvals are virtually non-existent.

The situation in India illustrates biotech's vicissitudes. In only seven years, the introduction of pest-resistant, genetically engineered cotton has revolutionized the nation's cotton production--halved insecticide requirements, doubled yield and generated aggregate economic benefit for farmers of more than $5 billion. India has been transformed from a cotton importer to a major exporter.

And yet resistance from activists and bureaucratic intransigence remains. In February India's Minister of Environment and Forests imposed an indefinite moratorium on genetically modified, pest-resistant eggplant, claiming the science wasn't yet proven. His rationale is absurd. The eggplant variety had undergone nine years of intensive testing and scrutiny (much of it gratuitous). Approximately 200 scientists and experts from more than 15 public- and private-sector institutions participated. The application for commercialization passed the review of innumerable governmental panels and committees. Bluntly put, the minister caved in to extreme, anti-technology, anti-social activists.

Where does this leave farmers? Eminent Indian plant scientist C. Kameswara Rao offered this analysis in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: Farmers "lose 50-70% of their annual marketable eggplant yield to two insects--Leucinodes orbonalis and Helicoverpa armigera--which cause severe shoot and fruit damage. The damage inflicted by these pests is carried onto the next crop. The prevalent practice of very high application of synthetic pesticides does not help because the pests live deep inside the stem and fruit tissues. No eggplant variety is resistant to these pests." He concluded: "The government's stand has created huge regulatory uncertainties for no valid scientific reason or environmental concern. No innovator can afford to develop any biotech crop with an uncertain approval process that is divorced from science."

In the United States as well, regulators have imposed overly strict, unscientific rules on agricultural and food research that hinder new product development but in spite of the flawed regulation approvals trickle through.

In the long run, genetic engineering's virtues will convert many of the skeptics, especially when full commercialization of genetically engineered rice begins in China. (Last November, China announced it had approved biotech rice and corn varieties for commercial cultivation.) However, needed regulatory reform will be a struggle. Science and experience be damned, regulators are reluctant to relinquish their bloated bureaucracies, and abominable activists will provide political cover for them. United Nations' agencies' stultifying, unscientific regulatory strictures will be particularly hard to reverse.

Earth Day offers an opportunity for reflection about our planet. Science and technology must play vital roles in both environmental protection and improvement of the human condition, and anyone who mindlessly, summarily rejects them is out of step with the occasion.
Henry I. Miller is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was an official at the National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration.