Whether Gold or Grain

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Whether gold or grain, humans don't give it away.

Globally, a thousand people die of hunger every hour. Over 800 million of us are chronically malnourished. Yet studies consistently conclude that the world actually produces enough food for everyone; if only it were more evenly distributed we could eradicate hunger.

This is a major plank in the argument against using modern farming methods to increase food production: there's already enough food, so we don't need modern technology.

All we need do, according to this simple argument, is to redistribute the surplus grain from those who have it to those who don't.

But humans have been starving for eons, even as the world has been producing grain and other food surpluses all along. Clearly, if redistribution were as simple a solution as some suggest, hunger would have been eradicated long ago.

The same argument can be made of poverty. On a world scale, poverty is widespread and massively crippling, yet there is plenty of total wealth. We could eradicate poverty simply by taking the surplus gold from rich people and giving it to the poor. As with global food production and hunger, society has always had poor people even in a world filled with bountiful riches. And the simple solution is to redistribute wealth from those who have to those who haven't.

But complex problems are not solved with sound bites. Hunger persists, and the simplistic solutions simply don't work. Worse, they actually impede the development of realistic solutions to reduce, if not eradicate, hunger and poverty.

Biotechnology and other techniques of modern farming offer a practical means to provide more nutritious food to more people, and do so in an environmentally sustainable manner. Yet these methods are under attack by some of the very people who claim to represent the hungry and impoverished. Biotech crops and foods have now been grown by farmers, and eaten by hundreds of millions of consumers, for ten years. In that time, farmers report a dramatic drop in pesticide usage, increases in yield, and higher quality grain with less insect and microbial damage and contamination. Important also is the safety record: after ten years, there is still not a single documented case of harm from eating biotech foods.

In developing countries, crops underperform largely due to devastation from weeds, insects, and disease. When whatever's left of the crop is finally harvested, as much as a third spoils before humans can eat it. These are exactly the problems that judicious use of biotechnology can overcome and a large reason why biotech crops have been so enthusiastically embraced in developing countries. In the Philippines, for example, farmers growing biotech corn report a 30% increase in yield and a huge drop in insect damage and contamination. Sadly, hungry people in some developing countries are denied access to this life-saving technology because their politicians listen to the unsupported scare stories. Zambia, for example, in 2002 rejected biotech corn as food aid for their starving masses because European activists told Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa that biotech was "poison" and that any future food exports to Europe would be jeopardized due to the strict EU rules on biotech foods. Never mind that Americans have been eating the same supposedly "poison" biotech corn for years with no documented ill effects -- the emotional if unsubstantiated scare stories overwhelmed any rational evaluation.

But let's return to the "redistribution" scenario and question its feasibility. Is it realistic to expect American farmers, responsible for much of the world's surplus grain, to deliver that excess, uncompensated, to the hungry overseas? Will our productive farmers continue to grow surpluses if they have to give away the excess grain? Having the world's poor and hungry fed by American farmers does nothing to stimulate self-respect and self-sufficiency. In banning biotech crops and foods, we deny the impoverished and hungry a means to overcome both and continue the cycle of dependency on charity.

American farmers have overwhelmingly adopted biotech crops, as have farmers in every country where such crops are allowed. Because the grain surpluses come mainly from these biotech crop farmers, redistribution faces another roadblock. The same activists spouting the "redistribution" argument have succeeded in banning biotech grain in many hungry countries. Since biotech grain forms the bulk of the surplus, redistribution to those countries will be prohibited, and the people will continue to be hungry.

One of nature's immutable laws holds that simple solutions to complex problems don't work. Let's reject this redistribution fallacy and focus on real solutions.

Dr. Alan McHughen is a Biotechnology Specialist and Geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, and an ACSH Advisor.