FoodPolitik: Earth Day

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Spring is here, and with Earth Day just around the corner it’s a good time to smell the flowers and appreciate nature.

It’s also time we reconciled the various competing visions about what’s best for the planet. On one end of the spectrum, businesses promote technological growth—and its resulting prosperity—as our best hope for managing our resources intelligently. At the opposite pole, the modern environmental movement acts as if technology will inevitably be the world’s undoing.

To those not suffering from willful blindness, the forty years since the first Earth Day have demonstrated that regressing to our great-grandparents’ comfort zones won’t do much to help humanity or the planet we live on.

One of the biggest fights pitting green groups against everyone else concerns the growth of agricultural biotechnology. The Greenpeaces of the world, of course, cling to on an all-organic utopia as the way forward—or perhaps the way backward.

Recently a gaggle of environmental activists, and their lawyers, sued the federal government for approving biotech crops for commercial planting. The grave sin they’re opposing involves the genetically manipulation of plants for modern agricultural purposes. One common product of this scientific exploration, for example, is a crop that produces its own pesticide, so farmers can apply less in their fields.

To the environmental movement, most technologies are bastardizations of nature. Leveraging the “precautionary principle,” they claim biotech foods “could” pose hidden health risks over time and “could be” worse for the environment. The practical fallout of this tactic is that scientists and regulators are constantly asked to prove a negative—to guarantee that new farming genies will never escape their bottles.

Some Americans, but fewer and fewer of them, are skeptical of food biotechnology. But there’s little call for concern.

We’ve all been eating genetically modified foods for decade generation, and no one has suffered so much as a case of the sniffles.

The risks are minuscule and hypothetical. The benefits for people and the environment, however, are tangible and demonstrated year after year.

Biotech crops yield more food per acre, so less land is required to produce a given amount of food. By comparison, an all-organic world would require immense amounts of additional land. And at some point the only way to put more cropland into use requires the twin cardinal sins of clear-cutting rainforests and overdeveloping America’s already growing suburbia.

More ironically, abandoning synthetic fertilizer in favor of its organic alternative would have disastrous consequences, according to University of Manitoba agronomist Vaclav Smil. It would require an additional 1 billion head of domestic cattle to produce manure, plus 2 billion acres of new farm land to feed them. That’s an area of land equal to the lower 48 states.

If that’s not enough to turn you off of an all-Whole-Foods agronomy, the genetic modification has the potential to fight starvation in the Third World. One Harvard study found that applying biotechnology in Africa—where it’s still largely untested—could wipe out hunger there in a single generation.

The late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, who inspired the Green Revolution, noted that organic farming could only sustain about 4 billion people worldwide. (There will soon be 7 million of us.) And one of Greenpeace’s founders now laments his own creation, calling the group’s regressive views “anti-science,” “anti-technology,” and ultimately “antihuman.”

A 2010 analysis published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” found that the Green Revolution massively slowed the global emission of greenhouse gases. That’s because more efficient farming makes mass deforestation unnecessary. (When old-growth forestland is plowed, centuries of carbon deposits are suddenly released into the atmosphere.) So if you believe in man-made climate change, tilling “virgin” land is a quick way to accelerate it.The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that food prices were the highest they’ve been in 20 years. The jump in food prices between October and January drove an estimated 44 million people around the world into poverty.

Yet self-anointed “green” experts want us to go back to nineteenth-century agriculture. (Everyone who would want to be treated with nineteenth-century medical technology, raise your hands.)

This Earth Day, let’s do something new. Let’s actually consider how our choices impact the rest of the planet. Scare tactics that nudge America away from new technologies may make the First World feel self-satisfied, but that smugness ultimately has a real cost for the less privileged.

The world can’t be as pristine as in our fantasies. There are concrete ways to support both the planet and its people. Just don’t expect well-fed environmentalists to tell you about them.