Archived news articles - 2003

The Straits Times, 9 June 2003
By Franklin L. Lavin

Don't slam the door on bio-engineered food

'I have absolutely no anxiety. I am worried about a lot of things, but not about modified food.' - Dr James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the double helix DNA structure

SOME countries - and most farmers - have grasped that we are on the threshold of an agricultural revolution that holds great promise, thanks to the science of biotechnology.

The same research techniques that helped identify the Sars virus are being used to make new varieties of agricultural crops, so that today, more than 40 million ha globally are planted with transgenic crops.

Farmers in the United States, Canada, China, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, to name a few, have eagerly embraced this new green revolution.

Singapore may have few farmers, but it is as concerned about food safety and health issues as any other country. Witness the rapid response to the suspected outbreak of Sars at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.

Not surprisingly, officials have taken a forthright approach to biotech food, one that is grounded firmly in sound science and rigorous food safety standards. This policy has boosted Singapore's food security as well as the country's stature as a centre for research in the life sciences and biotechnology, an approach that will continue to serve Singapore well as it seeks to further encourage innovative research-based industries.

You would think a technology that has demonstrated the potential to raise productivity, reduce losses from disease, deliver improved nutrition, minimise pesticide use and boost the incomes of poor farmers around the world would be widely and enthusiastically embraced. But that is not the case.

Unfortunately, Europe has seen a noisy movement that is attempting to slam the door on biotechnology. Some observers attribute this to a lack of confidence in national food safety authorities (augmented by the 'mad cow disease' fiasco), or a Luddite fear of a complicated food aid because of ill-informed health and environmental concerns, as well as fears that the countries' exports to Europe would be jeopardised by 'contamination' of local crops. So, bowls are left empty.

As 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug comments: 'The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for the food produced by so-called natural methods; the one billion chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot.'

Among the ironies in this debate is the fact that some of the fiercest opponents of biotechnology are self-proclaimed 'environmentalists'. Yet, biotechnology offers substantial environmental benefits over the existing crops these 'environmentalists' seem to prefer.

For example, farmers utilising biotech crops can reduce soil erosion and pesticide use. Biotech crops also create more hospitable environments for wildlife, including streams and rivers spared from chemical pesticides. Farmers who are able to increase crop yields on existing land will be less tempted to encroach upon tropical rainforests and other fragile natural habitats.

Finally, those who claim that the US is trying to force biotech foods on consumers have actually got the argument backwards. It is the EU's unilateral, illegal and unjustified actions, taken without any scientific, health or environmental basis, which constrain choice and opportunity worldwide.

The US and others seek regulations that maximise consumer choice while at the same time protecting consumer health and safety. Dr Ariel Alvarez-Morales, of Mexico's Centre for Research and Advanced Studies, says 'excessive and unnecessary regulations' that are 'based on fear' are just disguised trade barriers, adding: 'If we really want to use technology to reduce hunger, we don't need more regulations.' Precisely.

The writer is the US Ambassador to Singapore.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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