Environmentalism for the 21st Century

During a recent visit to Southeast Asia I took part in a seminar on biotechnology in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I met five farmers from South Sulawesi who had just completed a trial of Bt cotton on their farms. They reported that yields had risen from the normal 600 kilos per hectare to an average of 2500 kilos per hectare, a four times increase in yield. At the same time they had reduced pesticide applications from eight sprayings to one spraying, and the single spraying was for a secondary insect pest, not the bollworm that the cotton was now protected against. And yet, environmental NGOs, supported by the Indonesian Minister of the Environment, are trying hard to thwart the efforts of these farmers. Indonesia imports over $1 billion in cotton each year, mainly from Australia. Bt cotton could help Indonesia to be more self-sufficient in cotton production. It could also improve the lot of farmers, reduce chemical use, and result in reduced clearance of natural forestland for agriculture.

There is a tendency to treat medicine and nutrition as separate subjects when in fact food is simply our most important medicine. This is brought home by considering one of the recent advances in genetic modification, the golden rice. Whereas normal rice contains no carotene, by splicing a gene from daffodils into rice plants, it has been possible to produce rice that contains carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is necessary for eyesight and every year about 500,000 people, mainly children in India and Africa, go blind due to vitamin A deficiency. The golden rice has the potential to eliminate this human tragedy when it is introduced in a few years. At a recent conference on biotechnology in Bangkok, a Greenpeace spokesperson claimed that there was “zero benefit from GMOs”. How can anyone suggest that 500,000 children saved form blindness is a “zero benefit”.

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