More from Mark's Cornell speech:
(…) And real-world evidence so far gives grounds for optimism. The use of Bt cotton in China has been shown to dramatically improve biodiversity, unlike broad-spectrum insecticides which kill everything, pests and predators alike. The Bt protein only affects the insects which bore into the crop, is entirely safe for us, and has led to insecticide reductions of 60% in China and 40% in India on cotton.
The introduction of Bt brinjal in India, a project which I know people here in Cornell were closely involved in leading, would have dramatically reduced insecticide poisonings associated with that crop too, had the anti-GMO activists in India not succeeded in preventing its use.
India today seems to be perched on a scientific knife-edge, with a vociferous lobby pushing dark-age traditionalism on the brink of permanently capturing the entire political and legal agenda. If they succeed, hundreds of millions of food-insecure Indians will be the losers.
In Africa too there are a multitude of western-funded NGOs who all claim to be mysteriously protecting biodiversity by keeping cultivated plant genetic improvements permanently out of the continent. In many African countries GMOs are subject to the same kind of de-facto ban as is the case in Europe, leaving poorer farmers at the mercy of a changing climate and exhausted soils.
However, a showdown is looming, because some of the most exciting biotechnology initiatives are now based in African countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is putting substantial funding into these efforts – such as improved maize for poorer African soils, a project which is looking to get yield increases of 50% even where fertiliser is not available or the farmer cannot afford to buy it.
There’s also the public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, using biotech to produce drought tolerant corn specifically for African smallholders facing the challenges of a changing climate. There’s C4 rice, aiming to improve the photosynthetic capacity of rice and thereby dramatically increase yields.
Another Gates-funded project is based at the John Innes Centre in the UK and aims by 2017 to have cereal crops which fix their own nitrogen available for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The list goes on: there’s biofortified cooking bananas in East Africa, and cassava fortified with iron, protein and vitamin A in Nigeria and elsewhere.
I haven’t finished! There’s resistance to cassava brown streak disease, which is currently spreading rapidly and threatens the staple crop for two out of every five people in sub-Saharan Africa.
And of course transgenic technology focused on conferring wheat rust resistance at the molecular level to head off the threat of a global pandemic which could otherwise threaten one of humanity’s most important staple foods.
But if the activists have their way, none of these improved seeds will ever leave the laboratory. And this brings me, by way of conclusion, to the essentially authoritarian nature of the anti-GMO project.
All these activists, strikingly few of whom are themselves smallholder farmers in Africa or India, claim to know exactly which seeds developing country farmers should be allowed to plant. Those which are not ideologically approved by self-appointed campaigners should be banned forever.
The irony here is that predominantly left-wing activists, who are supposedly so concerned about corporate power, are determined to deny the right to choose to the most powerless people in the world – subsistence farmers in developing countries. In fact, this is more than an irony – it is a cruelty. And it is a cruelty which must stop, and stop now.
HG Wells is often quoted as saying that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. The New Yorker writer Michael Specter, who wrote a great book about anti-science movements called ‘Denialism’, updates this, writing that civilisation is a race between innovation and catastrophe.