Washington View: Science can help feed the starving

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

Published:

 
photoDon Brunell recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.

It's hard to believe there are starving people in the world when Americans shop in well-stocked supermarkets and dine out at any of our 618,000 restaurants.

But the U.N. estimates that nearly 870 million people in developing nations suffer from chronic malnutrition. Its children's agency, UNICEF, reports that one of every 15 children in those countries will die before age 5. And the problem will only get worse: The world population is expected to increase by almost a billion people by 2030.

At the same time, land devoted to agriculture is shrinking. The American Farmland Trust estimates we lose an acre of farmland every minute. In the Puget Sound area, more than 800,000 acres have been lost since 1950.

Fortunately, researchers have been working on growing more food on less land.

On June 19, three scientists from Belgium and the U.S. were awarded the 2013 World Food Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for food science. (Created in 1987 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, the prize is the foremost award for achievements in increasing the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.) Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton of Belgium, and Robert Fraley of the U.S. made breakthroughs in agricultural biotechnology β€” genetic modification β€” that increase crop yields and make harvests more resistant to insects, disease and drought. Their work is a vital part of the effort to alleviate world hunger. And yet, some see these scientists as villains.

Hooey!

Humans have modified crops for thousands of years, cross breeding varieties to make them tastier, bigger and more productive. The tomato was transformed from a marble-sized fruit to today's giant beefsteak variety. Farmers manipulated a weedy plant called teosinte, with an ear about an inch long, into today's foot-long ears of yellow and white corn.

Today, scientists use genetic modification, transplanting a drought-tolerant or insect-resistant gene into wheat. The result: wheat that doesn't require as much water or pesticide.

Some opponents used junk science and fear mongering to convince the European Union to impose the most stringent GM regulations in the world despite more than $425 million of studies by the EU in the past 25 years that show GM crops as safe as any other method.

Yet some activists continue to urge elected officials to reject science and ignore the consensus of The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society that GM crops are safe for consumption. If opponents succeed, the results will be disastrous, especially for the poor.

In 2002, the Zambian government refused to allow its starving population to eat imported genetically modified corn in a severe famine. What, pray tell, is worse than starving to death when food is available?

Mark Lynas, who once campaigned against genetically modified foods, is now calling on environmentalists to stop blocking lifesaving developments in nutrition and food production.

"Millions, possibly billions of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies," he said.

Americans have been safely consuming genetically modified food for years. We benefit from the most advanced agricultural and nutrition research in the world. Universities, such as Washington State University, are continually developing new farming techniques, crop improvements and ways to control erosion and conserve water.

Without the benefits of scientific advancements, we will find it increasingly difficult to feed a hungry world.


Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.