The Green Man’s Burden

Call it a new noblesse oblige or the Green Man’s Burden. Whatever you call it, the desire of privileged western-world activists to keep poor, developing nations from making their own decisions on matters of human and environmental health hearkens back to the bad old days of European colonialism. Such attitudes get no more paternalistic than the ones I witnessed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting held in Seattle in November.          

On the front lines at Seattle, several of my colleagues and I debated protestors who oppose free trade because they fear that the growing use of important technologies in manufacturing and agriculture could damage the environment. For me, the nadir of the WTO circus was watching as a British woman lectured my colleague, Barun Mitra, about Indian farmers, saying "I’ve lived in India, and I know what it’s like." Mitra, an analyst at the Liberty Institute in New Delhi, could only respond with a dumbstruck, "But I am Indian, and I’ve lived there all my life!"                                                         

Details like that hardly matter to some environmental activists. They aren’t concerned about people so much as they are about protecting flora and fauna at all cost. They’ve come to realize that controlling multinational agreements such as the World Trade Organization–and many others–could actually give them some power to impose their vision on the rest of the world. That’s why they showed up in Seattle.   

Take their view on agricultural biotechnology as an example. Many activists oppose it because they believe there’s just something unnatural or unsafe about genetic engineering–that it’s part of a "human siege on the natural environment." Some have even argued that biotech is "much worse than nuclear weapons or radioactive wastes."

For sheer chutzpah, however, nothing beats the observation of Britain’s Prince Charles that we shouldn’t be "redesigning the natural world for the sake of convenience." He and other biotech opponents from wealthy western nations already have more food than they can eat. For them, the benefits of biotechnology may indeed seem small, hardly worth the risks portrayed in countless scare stories about Frankenstein Foods. They may be willing to forsake the "convenience" of genetic engineering, but it’s the poor of the developing world who bear the brunt of stifled technology.

Developing nations simply cannot afford to allow largely hypothetical environmental concerns trump discussion of the critical need for boosting agricultural productivity. They have different priorities than the US and Europe, among them freeing hundreds of millions of people from hunger and grinding poverty. Former President Jimmy Carter says that, without genetic engineering, "people from Africa and Southeast Asia will remain prisoners of outdated technology."

That’s one reason why developing-world scientists, such as Florence Wambugu, from Kenya’s Eggerton University, have chastised western environmental organizations for their arrogant opposition to genetic engineering. Wambugu says that "Western lobby groups are trying to make Africa believe that it would be the target of malicious introduction of biotechnologies because it lacked the capacity to tell good from evil." Dr. John Wafulu, head of biotechnology at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, argues that while the US-Europe biotechnology debate may be "driven by competition for markets and profits," biotechnology in Africa is necessary for "averting mass starvation and alleviating rampant poverty."

There is much to be hopeful for. Although the first generation of biotech products was targeted for farmers and consumers in the western world, recent advances in genetic engineering include African wheat varieties and Asian rices altered to resist common viral diseases, and corn and papaya developed to grow in poor tropical and arid soils. Other foods are being developed with greater nutritional value, such as soy beans with high levels of Vitamin E, sweet potatoes with greater protein content, rice with boosted levels of iron and fortified with Vitamin A, and even potatoes and bananas engineered to grow vaccines straight from the ground.

Like any technological development, the ability to alter living organisms carries with it some potential risks. But crops produced through genetic engineering are already subject to rigorous testing for both human health and environmental safety before they ever make it to market. And during nearly thirty years of intense scrutiny, the scientific community has reached a broad consensus that the risks associated with genetically engineered plants are the same in kind as those associated with plants modified through more "traditional" methods of breeding. In short, agronomists know what types of risks to expect from genetically engineered plants, and know how to mitigate against them.

Most importantly, however, the benefits of biotechnology clearly outweigh the risks. In a world where half the population gets inadequate levels of important vitamins and minerals, and where nearly a billion people go to bed hungry, more nutritious and resilient crops aren’t just convenient, they’re necessary.

As the tear gas faded from the streets of Seattle, environmental activists began claiming victory for their protests against free trade. With such successes under their belts, you can expect to see those activists redoubling their efforts at erecting worldwide trade barriers against biotech products. The next stop is negotiations on the Convention on Biodiversity to be held in Montreal this month.

Erecting further barriers to development in biotech goods would be a tragedy. Denying the developing world access to better food is one burden the rich should go without.

Economic Policy Analyst Gregory Conko was one of CEI’s Non-Governmental Organization representatives at the Seattle WTO meeting.