- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

When East meets West, food fights often ensue. Nowhere is that more notable than in the current debate over genetically modified foods. It's an important fight: During the next 50 years, the Earth's population is expected to rise to approximately 9 billion people, all of whom will actually have to eat.

Genetically modified foods will almost certainly reduce that hunger especially in the developing world. Molecular techniques almost have to be used, since much of the world's best farmland is already being cultivated by modern methods. Scientists believe that modified foods could increase the yields of wheat, rice and other major cereals by up to 20 percent in Asia. They can also be designed to reduce vitamin deficiencies, grow in marginal soils and resist droughts. Such foods might even be engineered to immunize people against infectious diseases.

"The benefit of [genetically modified] technology to the poorest farmers is palpable," scientist Antony Trewavas explained in a review article published in the Food and the Future, supplement to an August issue of the journal Nature. "To a cotton farmer working on a farm of about a hectare in area, the use of 'Bt' cotton [containing a gene for an insecticide derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis] has raised income by a quarter, cut costs by a third and slashed pesticide use by three-quarters."

Little wonder that China, with a population expected to increase by 200 million over the next quarter-century, is investing heavily in genetically modified (GM) foods. As scientists Jikun Haung, Carl Pray and Scott Rozelle pointed out in another review paper also published in Food and the Future, "China's scientists … are working on [genetically modified] rice, potato and peanuts, crops that have been largely ignored in the developed world." They further noted that, between 1996 and 2000, "China's Office of Genetic Engineering Safety Administration approved 251 cases of GM plants, animals and recombined micro-organisms for field trials, environmental releases or commercialization."

In contrast, Europeans have almost been moving backwards, thanks to their vigorous application of the precautionary principle to environmental policy. Under that edict, any produce that might potentially harm the environment must be pulled out by its roots (literally). For instance, in Scotland earlier this month, a few fields were found to have been contaminated with "unauthorized" genetically material being used in a trial by Aventis CropScience Ltd. The company was reprimanded and the crops destroyed even though authorities admitted that the material posed no threat to humans or their habitat.

However, Europe's intransigence presents a problem for American farmers, who produce about two-thirds of the world's genetically modified crops. Those crops have been under an unofficial moratorium by the European Union (EU) for the last three years, and EU regulations demanding the labeling of all food products containing genetically modified material are set to come into effect in October. As Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, suggested in a just-released study, "The Looming Trade War over Plant Biotechnology," this could provoke a trade war between the United States and the European Union.

Yet there's no scientific reason for such a trans-Atlantic food fight. The results of decade-long study of several strains of GM crops published in Nature last year demonstrated that such crops were no more invasive in the environment than their conventional counterparts. Other studies have consistently supported the safety of GM foods.

Between their innocuous nature and still-unrealized potential, it's hard to believe GM foods won't eventually carry the day. After all, by 2050, something will have to satisfy the hunger of 9 billion people.

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