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A Precautionary Tale

We thought that maybe, just maybe there were still a few corners of the world untouched by the unscientific rantings of anti-biotech-food activists. We were wrong.

It’s hardly news that participants in this week’s international Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, are poisoning the well against potentially lifesaving, genetically modified (GM) foods. Europe has long been aligned against food technology, to the point where a trade war might soon erupt with the United States over biotech grains.

Sub-Saharan Africa has also recently fallen under the spell of those who would put environmental orthodoxy before the needs of starving millions. Witness the case of Zambia, whose leaders have declined biotech food aid, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) says that it’s safe to eat, and an estimated 2.5 million of its citizens will likely starve without it. Elsewhere in Africa, Zimbabwe is resisting attempts by WHO to distribute biotech grains, even though 300,000 people there could die within the next six months.

Tragic outcomes like these are a direct outgrowth of environmental Luddites’ influence on the world stage. As international food policy expert Robert Paarlberg notes in The Wall Street Journal, the “precautionary principle” has run amok, putting untold millions of lives at risk. “Greens and GM critics,” says Paarlberg, “argue that powerful new technologies should be kept under wraps until tested for unexpected or unknown risks as well. Never mind that testing for something unknown is logically impossible (the only way to avoid a completely unknown risk is never to do anything for the first time).”

In a recent column, Ronald Bailey (science correspondent for Reason magazine) notes that various European Union (EU) “green” factions are “trying to smuggle the precautionary principle” into world food politics via the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. “It’s clear,” Bailey writes, “that the EU ban [on GM foods] is not so much a safety precaution as a barrier to trade. The EU is citing phony safety concerns to protect its farmers from competition and to protect its system of bloated farm subsidies.”

As one example of just how much damage precautionary-principle politics can do when applied to the Third World, Gar Smith (president of the Earth Island Institute) recently told reporters in Johannesburg that introducing basic technologies like electricity into poor nations is not necessarily a good thing. “There is a lot of quality to be had in poverty,” Smith said. “The idea that people are poor doesn’t mean that they are not living good lives… I don’t think a lot of electricity is a good thing. It is the fuel that powers a lot of multinational imagery.”

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