Europe’s Forgotten Promise

Delegates to this week's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, will have to confront several stark ironies. Their lavish, $50 million soiree will be held in the shadow of 13 million hungry drought victims in the continent's southern cone — a problem made all the more miserable by obstructionist policies in scores of countries around the globe. What's more, all of this may have been avoided if only these environmental activists and politicians had lived up to a promise they made 10 years ago. As recently as two years ago, southern African countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe were highly productive agricultural producers and important exporters of corn, beef and poultry to other countries in Africa and Europe. Today, deep in the midst of a severe drought, denizens of these and four other nations in southern Africa are struggling just to stay alive. You'd think that their governments would be grateful to have nearly $100 million worth of food aid from the United States. But even with some 2.3 million people at risk of starvation this year, some of them are refusing to accept it because it consists of biotechnology-enhanced corn. About a third of the U.S. corn crop is from biotech varieties, and the harvested kernels are mixed into the commodity shipping stream with nearly all the other corn grown in the United States. It is this same commodity system from which the food aid for Africa has been drawn. Yet, even though American consumers have been eating biotech corn for the past six years without a hiccup or headache to show for it, lots of people around the world have been convinced by environmental campaigners to reject the fruits of biotechnology. The politically powerful European environmental movement has raised such a fuss, for example, that European Union countries have rejected U.S. corn exports for more than three years. European food importers have instead turned to other countries in southern Africa and South America for a non-biotech corn supply. Ironically, it is this newly privileged position of supplier to Europe, and a fear of losing that important export market, that made the African nations suspicious of U.S. aid. Harvested corn kernels can be planted to grow new plants, and it is not uncommon for small portions of food aid to be diverted to seed-stock by forward-thinking recipients. Unfortunately, once the drought ends, the presence of biotech corn growing anywhere in those countries would all but disqualify them from exporting harvested corn or corn-fed livestock to western Europe. Political leaders in Zambia and Zimbabwe have decided that protecting tomorrow's export markets is more important than satisfying the dire need for food today. What makes this situation all the more tragic, is that political leaders and environmentalists in Europe have created the regulatory apparatus that makes such a difficult choice necessary. And they are doing next to nothing to make the result of that choice easier for African people to tolerate. As Wellesley College biotech expert Robert Paarlberg has noted, “Instead of helping Africa's hungry to grow more food, European donors are helping them grow more regulations.” The fact that starving nations in southern Africa are turning away biotech food is especially ironic this week, as negotiators in Johannesburg haggle over sustainability. Few agricultural technologies would promote the goals of sustainable development better than biotechnology. U.S. farmers who grow biotech crops have already achieved many important environmental benefits, including reduced pesticide and herbicide use, higher yields, improved soil quality, less erosion and many others. Farmers in less developed nations, like Argentina, China and South Africa, have achieved similar benefits. And many other biotech varieties created specifically for use in impoverished regions will soon be ready for commercialization. Examples include insect-resistant rices for Asia, virus-resistant sweet potatoes for Africa and virus-resistant papayas for Caribbean nations. Still other crops, now in research labs around the world, have been enhanced to grow in the poor soils and harsh climates characteristic of these countries. It is worth noting that the promise of environmental benefits like these once convinced the green movement to support biotechnology. Ten years ago, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, delegates actually committed to foster the introduction of advanced biotechnologies into less developed nations. Two important agreements signed in Rio, the Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21, both acknowledge that biotechnology can be used to improve food security, health care and environmental protection. By signing them, member governments committed to “encourage international agreement on the safe and environmentally responsible management of biotechnology, to engender public trust and confidence, to promote the development of sustainable applications of biotechnology and to establish appropriate enabling mechanisms, especially within developing countries.” But for most of the past 10 years, signatories of those two agreements, especially the EU nations, have done nothing but erect roadblocks against biotech development. The United Nations' 2001 Human Development Report found that “the opposition to yield-enhancing [biotech] crops in industrial countries with food surpluses could block the development and transfer of those crops to food-deficit countries.” Restrictions and regulations that are scientifically unjustified have jeopardized the ability of the poorest nations to feed growing populations. So, to continue blocking biotechnology, as these countries are doing, is a violation of commitments they lobbied for in Rio. Given results like these, one could be forgiven for thinking that this week's Summit on Sustainable Development is premature. Instead of laying a broad new plan to save the planet from humanity, perhaps negotiators should be reminded that they already have unmet obligations to live up to? Convincing the governments of countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe that they won't be penalized for feeding their people would be a good start.