The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday December 5th

U.S. to World: `Let Them Eat Cake!'

Shiva spends much of her time jet-setting around the world, preaching against those who would help the poor of her native India. When 10,000 of her countryfolk were killed and 10 to 15 million left homeless in the October 1999 cyclone, she protested against the food aid Americans distributed to the starving victims because, like 60 percent of U.S. food, it had been genetically improved.

Shiva also campaigns against "Golden Rice," named after the golden color genetically-inserted beta-carotene gives to a new strain of rice. Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus invented the rice to help address the severe problem of micronutrient deficiencies in developing country diets. Even the tiny amount of beta-carotene in the early forms of Golden Rice might suffice to prevent more than 500,000 children from going blind every year.

Iron deficiency, afflicting more than half the women in poor countries, is responsible for nearly 20 percent of all maternal deaths. So a strain of rice has been engineered with double the usual iron content. Agronomists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines plan to cross breed this and Golden Rice with well-adapted local varieties and distribute the resulting plants to farmers all over the developing world. Shiva objects to this charity. Some Western groups agree.

One of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, is outraged: "If Greenpeace et al. had any moral standards they would be offering millions to solve any outstanding problem with Golden Rice. ... Instead they sit on the sidelines of human misery and take pot shots at a brilliant invention, threatening to prevent the possible solution to a tragedy that makes Chernobyl pale by comparison."

Moore is especially offended by dozens of nighttime raids on farmers executed weekly in Europe by Greenpeace and other so-called "environmental" groups against biotech crops.

What is the environmental rationale for destroying a plot of poplar trees developed to reduce the use of chlorine and energy during the paper-making process? Or for destroying corn plants designed to reduce erosion? Or for destroying varieties of cotton and potatoes that can reduce the U.S. environmental pesticide load by 5 million pounds?

Misguided protesters would discard some extraordinarily earth-friendly technologies. For instance, by incorporating genes for proteins from viruses and bacteria, crops can be immunized against infectious diseases. Papaya farmers in Hawaii, almost destroyed by the papaya mosaic virus, were rescued by a new biotech variety of papaya that is immune. Here in North Carolina, scientists are searching for an an immunization that can save our state flower, the dogwood, from the deadly blight imported with the Japanese dogwood.

Other biotech crops under development will thrive in acidic soils, helping poor farmers throughout the tropics. Soon crops will have genes for drought resistance and salinity tolerance, while others will reduce the need for fertilizer. Biotechnology promises to improve biodiversity by developing strains especially suited to the temperature, rainfall, soil type and pest threats of any region anywhere.

But doesn't bioengineering threaten native species? Despite early worries that pollen from Bt-corn might threaten the monarch butterfly, follow-up studies reveal that the B.t. cornfields harbor higher numbers of beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs who benefit by the reduction in sprayed pesticides. So do the butterflies.

Thus the weakness of the "precautionary principle," which attempts to codify an extremely conservative bias into standard risk-assessment. "Look before you leap" might be good advice at times. The starving and blind might prefer "She who hesitates is lost."

A precautionary stance that anything new is guilty until proven innocent ignores the reality of science, where all conclusions are subject to revision, and none is ever "fully established." The luxury of ultimate precaution sounds great to well-fed Westerners, but what about the millions of malnourished people in the Third World whose lives have yet to be transformed by the green revolution?

Besides, where were the precautionary protesters during the decades last century when researchers used radiation and chemical mutagens on seeds just to see what would happen? There was no Food and Drug Administration regulation of food created this way -- you've eaten plenty of it. Modern methods that select specific genes with known properties and functions make some accepted older methods seem unsafe and barbaric.

The overly cautious would not only delay feeding the hungry, they'd delay healing the sick. Dr. Charles Arntzen could save millions with an edible hepatitis vaccine in bananas. This cheap savior can be eaten raw and grown cheaply around the world without expensive refrigeration and sterilization equipment usually needed for vaccines.

Similar vaccines are being developed in potatoes. One protects against Norwalk virus, which causes diarrhea, and another against cholera, while others contain antibodies against bacterial tooth decay, lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis and sexually transmitted diseases. Potential dangers exist. Examples are new allergies, leftover antibiotic resistance markers and the possibility of gene spread to native species. So far new technologies have solved each new problem in short order.

To stifle bioengineering research and implementation on account of minor dangers seems a better idea to middle-class Americans and Europeans than it does to the poor and blind in India. What must they think of us when, among our plenty, our response to their needs translates as, "Let them eat cake!"

Russ Helms is a Ph.D. candidate in

biostatistics from Chapel Hill. E-mail

Russ at rhelms@bios.unc.edu.

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