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The 'Pure' and Starving Poor

Environmentalists stifle modern agriculture in the Third World.

September 03, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The apartheid system is gone, but many here at the World Summit on Sustainable Development seem to want to bring back a form of "separate and unequal"--for South Africa and for the rest of the Third World--in the form of environmental regulation that would stifle economic development.

Politically correct greens, of course, recoil at the thought of any kind of racism, but actions speak louder than words. So if ecological activists from the developed countries of the north push policies that would retard agriculture in the developing south, consigning billions to permanent poverty, maybe they deserve to be labeled "neo-apartheidists."

This came clear to me as I stood inside the plush offices of Nedcor, a major South African bank, serving as the temporary home for the World Conservation Union. It may seem odd that a green group would headquarter itself in the offices of a transnational company that grew huge under apartheid, but after a while, it didn't seem so strange. Throughout the building were special exhibits extolling indigenous folkways, all making the point that maybe those darker-skinned folks should keep doing what they've been doing all these thousands of years. That is, don't bother to modernize.

I couldn't help but think of the writings of 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who praised the "noble savage," born "good and free" before he was corrupted by civilization.

And so today, greens still seem intent on keeping Third Worlders innocent of advanced civilization--even if that means keeping them poor. One flashpoint issue is genetically engineered food. In the last two decades, this food has become a part of our lives. Indeed, genetically engineered-derived vaccines and medicines--targeted on diabetes, meningitis, hepatitis, cancer--are lifesaving. Maybe that's why I never hear about American environmentalists protesting the advance of genetically engineered techniques; the greens of the U.S. don't dare block American health therapies, which they themselves may depend on.

And while genetic engineering is common in foods grown in America, it has provoked much opposition among global greens. So I happened upon the premiere of a film on the evils of genetic engineering, "Seeds of Dispute," produced by Biowatch, a green group. The show had me going for a while--"Frankenfoods" and all that. I've seen enough mad-scientist movies to know the risk of experiments run amok.

But I also know that if an experiment proves itself, the greater risk lies in not making use of the discovery. In fact, one of the experts featured in the film was downright scary in his breezy dismissiveness--or ignorance--of human history.

I'm referring to Dominique de Bruin of a group called Gardens for Africa, who noted on screen that humans have been farming for about 15,000 years. So far, so good. But then he continued with words that gave his elitist game away: "We have managed to feed ourselves quite nicely for 14,950 years." That is, things were fine until the introduction of genetic engineering.

One might ask: Is this a true statement? The answer: Only if the words "hunger" and "starvation" entered the dictionary but recently.

From the "seven lean years" to the Irish potato famine, hunger has been a tragic constant in human history.

Yet others are echoing the same back-to-the-good-old-days theme: Skip Spitzer, based in San Francisco, writing in the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, extolled "ecological farming" because it "offers a viable model of a locally based, socially just, environmentally and economically sustainable food system."

Maybe. But maybe those are simply code words for keeping Third Worlders in their familiar place--which may be noble but is definitely poor.

One who has had enough of poverty is Edwin Paraluman of General Santos City, the Philippines. He's here too, to talk about doubled yields he's reaped from genetically engineered crops on his 1 1/2-acre farm. He's been able to buy his first refrigerator, TV and a motorcycle. And statistics bolster the anecdotes: According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, hunger around the world has fallen by about 95% in the last five decades.

The greens of the north want pure food, and they also want the people of the south to stay pure. For their part, poor southerners want more food, period, and if they think genetic engineering will help them, they will fight for it.

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