Should the poor pay for the anxieties of the rich?

In the last several weeks, I gave talks on sustainable development and technology in China as well as in several forums in the US. I stated my strong belief that the use of molecular and cell technologies in agriculture (one of their main applications is in genetically modified [GM] products) is crucial because it allows us to develop a much faster capacity to adapt climatic changes. There is also evidence that GMOs have already expanded our food supply, which benefitted the poor. The question is why all of these heavy regulations on GMOs? If the National Academies of Science in most leading countries find no negative effects associated with its use and its growth on millions of acres in the US has not caused discernible problems, why not use it more? After all, prices of major commodities have gotten cheaper and farmers are exposed to less risk.

I wrote several papers on the political economy of agricultural biotechnology that analyzes the opposition and support of GM.  The opposition to GM may include those that benefit from GMO regulation. Some are companies that produce chemical alternatives to GM products, mostly European companies competing with Monsanto. Others are producers of non-GM products. Some environmental groups honestly believe that GM manipulation is detrimental to human health and the environment, but other environmental groups may see this is a way to capture donations and support. In the same way that big corporations look at the bottom line, “Big Environment” also considers their financial well being in taking positions. But in my heart, I feel that there is a very simple explanation for the popular opposition towards GMO. People are often anxious about new technologies, and others may benefit from this anxiety and resist change, sometimes not realizing that the unintended consequences could result in the misery of the silent majority.

I recently started to study Golden Rice. It fortifies existing varieties of rice with Vitamin A and can thus provide poor people protection against Vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency is estimated to cause blindness to 500,000 people in the developing world annually and damages the health of many more.  I admire Vince Resh and other colleagues that were able to develop techniques to conquer river blindness. For a while, Ingo Potrykus (the father of Golden Rice) was also hailed as a hero and his picture was on the cover of TIME Magazine. As I understand it from Potyrkus, the technology was not perfect in its earlier stages but it was ready for commercialization in 2002. But the regulatory bodies in India, Bangladesh and other places have not approved it thus far, even though there is a large body of evidence that suggests Golden Rice and other GM varieties do not produce greater health or environmental risks than non-GM varieties. Clearly the primary reason for the delayed decision has been objection from environmental groups.

In the case of life-threatening diseases or epidemics, societies should streamline the regulatory process to usher in a new technology that can potentially save lives (see Dallas Buyers Club). Golden Rice could have been a life-saving medicine for people that have already become blind, and if it was up to them I’m sure that they would have appreciated giving it a chance. In my view, erecting unneeded regulatory barriers is a terrible policy mistake. Even if we had 20% adoption, we could have prevented 1 million cases of blindness. The economic cost is also important, but what really matters is human misery that could have been alleviated.

Obviously the people who oppose GM do not always recognize the implications, but Golden Rice is a striking example where the practical ban of GM in food is costly in human-health terms. But there many other examples. Traditionally grown corn in developing countries is infested with aflatoxins, which are carcinogenic. Use of Bt corn can eliminate it significantly and thus save lives. Fortunately, Bt corn has been adopted by many smallholder farms in South Africa.

I heard a story from a distinguished South African scientist that once, on a radio show on GM corn in South Africa, the host asked a black farmer “why do you adopt GM Corn?”, and he replied “because it increases my profits by 34%”. Then the host asked a white farmer, “why don’t you adopt GM corn?”, and he responded “because it’s immoral.”

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