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Professional Luddite Grapples With Starvation

Not content with telling Americans what to eat, Luddite intellectual-in-chief Jeremy Rifkin subjects the British to his rantings in a regular opinion column for the Guardian newspaper. In this week’s installment of anti-American technophobia, Rifkin attacks U.S. plans to combat the European Union’s moratorium on genetically enhanced crops. Responding to the Bush Administration’s case that the moratorium exacerbates Africa’s hunger pangs, Rifkin trots out this classic non sequitur:

Today, 21 percent of the food grown in the developing world is destined for animal consumption. In many developing countries, more than a third of the grain is now being grown for livestock. The animals, in turn, will be eaten by the world’s wealthiest consumers in the northern industrial countries. The result is that the world’s richest consumers eat a diet high in animal protein, while the poorest people on earth are left with little land to grow food grain for their own families.

If only Belgians and Canadians would “go veg,” Rifkin suggests, there’d be enough food for everybody. Hooray!

Unsurprisingly, Rifkin fails to mention that African nations sell livestock for hard cash, which is perhaps the single most helpful commodity in the developing world. More to the point, much of the land used to grow grain for animal consumption is unfit to grow food for human consumption. And greater per-acre yields — the promise of biotech crops — would mean more food for both animals and people. While Africans starve, Rifkin dreams the impossible dream of forcing a vegan diet on First- and Third-Worlders.

In truth, Rifkin’s claim is just the latest variation on the theme that the problem of famine is one of distribution, not supply. There is plenty of food, the argument goes, but undernourished children just aren’t getting it. And that’s a political problem, not a technological one.

Like much of what Rifkin writes, this is only half true. Starvation in Africa is in large measure a problem of distribution and politics. At the same time, if there’s more to distribute in the first place, fewer people will go hungry.

It’s a point so obvious that one doubts Jeremy Rifkin has missed it. He just finds it an inconvenient truth, and therefore chooses to ignore it in his quest to abolish biotech crops. At least he hasn’t missed the fact that there’s a hunger problem. Other zealots in the campaign to rid the world of biotechnology have gone as far as denying that Africans are hungry at all.

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