Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The first Earth Day celebration was conceived by then U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson and held in 1970 as a “symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship.” In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising experience. Most activities were organized at the grass roots.

Earth Day is now more about dire prediction than sober reflection and provides an opportunity for environmental extremists to hog the spotlight, dish anti-technology dirt and proselytize. A favorite target this year is biotechnology, which one activist has characterized as threatening “a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust.”

Greenpeace demands biotech products’ “complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment.” They and similar groups advocate and have committed vandalism of field trials at universities and on private farms.

Who could tell from such apocalyptic language and extreme acts that at issue are products like papayas, corn and cotton plants genetically improved to resist pests and boost yields in adverse climate conditions, and use less agriculture chemicals?

The extremists’ eco-babble ignores the scientific consensus that gene-splicing, the newest manifestation of biotechnology, is a refinement of less precise methods of genetic modification that have been applied for more than a century.

The U.S. National Research Council put the new biotechnology in perspective in a 1989 analysis: “With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the [characteristics] that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the [characteristics].”

In other words, the newer techniques are more precise and more predictable and often yield a safer product.

Farmers and the health of the environment have been the major beneficiaries of the dozens of gene-spliced plants now on the market. According to a report on gene-spliced crops from the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans was associated with “increases in yields” and “significant decreases in herbicide use,” and “increases in adoption of [gene-spliced] cotton resistant to insects in the Southeastern United States were associated with significant increases in yields and profits and decreased insecticide use.”

An innovation that decreases agricultural “inputs” — all the factors that contribute to the costs of food production — benefits everyone involved in the pathway from the dirt to the dinner plate. Increased yields are environmentally important because they obviate the need to put additional land such as forests under cultivation. In addition, they permit more efficient use of water, and encourage wider use of no-till cultivation, which decreases soil erosion.

Despite these achievements and an extraordinary safety record, the row has been tough to hoe. In Europe, there is widespread public and political opposition to importing grains grown from gene-spliced seeds. Gene-spliced foods have been banished by major supermarket chains. Vandalization of field trials by environmental activists is commonplace — and goes largely unprosecuted. Governments have imposed moratoria on commercial-scale cultivation of plants, and regulatory approvals have ground to a halt. In the United States as well, regulators have imposed overly strict, unscientific rules on agricultural and food research that hinder new product development.

The coup de grace may have been administered to agricultural biotechnology by the United Nations’ forays into biotechnology regulation. The U.N.’s self-designated role as the world’s bio-police has led to regulatory requirements for both field testing of new plant varieties and for foods that no conventionally-modified product could — or should — meet.

Unscientific, unreasonable regulations and standards harm the environment and public health, stifling development of environmentally friendly innovations that can increase agricultural productivity, help clean up toxic wastes, conserve water and supplant agricultural chemicals. U.N. experts themselves warn the greatest single threat to the planet’s environment comes from the world’s burgeoning population and its demand that ever more land be devoted to food production.

Earth Day provides an opportunity for reflection about our planet — including the well-being of its population. Science and technology must play vital roles, and anyone who mindlessly rejects and disparages them is out of step with the occasion.

Henry I. Miller is a physician and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was a 1979-94 official of the Food and Drug Administration. His next book, “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution,” will be published later this year.

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