In 1952, a young American researcher named Norman Borlaug literally bred a revolutionary idea that would come to transform agriculture, save many millions of the world’s poorest people from starvation, and energize struggling Third World economies.
Working on a project jointly sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Mexican government, Borlaug began crossing samples of a fungi-resistant variety of wheat he had developed with a sturdy dwarf variety of wheat called “Norin 10.” Cecil Salmon, a scientist accompanying the American occupational postwar forces, returned samples of the Norin 10 variety from Japan. The result of that fortunate genetic merger was a new rust-resistant hybrid strain with thinner but straighter and stronger stalks that could bear a three-times heavier load of grain without breaking than previous wheat types.
The impact of that experiment was truly astounding. Applying the “invention,” Mexico’s wheat harvest, comprised about 95% of Borlaug’s hardy rust-resistant dwarf hybrids, had a six-fold increase by 1963 over what it had been in 1944. All of this became possible by taking advantage of a single mutant gene, “Rht1,” which caused the Norin 10 dwarfism. And for that wonderful discovery, Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1970. The “green revolution” had begun…but not without lots of opposition.
Several years of struggle with protectionist and bureaucratic obstacles ensued before Borlaug’s wheat finally arrived in India and Pakistan. But those battles paid big dividends. By 1971, India became a self-sufficient grain producer, and by 1974 when production tripled, the nation became a significant grain exporter.
Green Revolution Collision with the German Green Party Movement
As discussed in Robert Zubrin’s excellent book Merchants of Despair, the new bio-engineering science encountered hostile resistance from a “Green movement” that had its ideological roots in pre-WWII Germany. Zubrin traces its origins to a peculiar form of food fetishism based upon the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian mystic who created a popular cult that promoted Aryan superiority.
Steiner’s “anthroposophy” philosophy melded the ideas of a “pure race” and “pure soil.” This initiated a movement which extoled great virtues of “biodynamic” (organic) farming, vegetarianism, and natural foods. That racial and land purity dogma ultimately led to a plan to depopulate Eastern Europe of impure Slavs and Jews. In fact, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess, a practicing anthroposophist, arranged for the creation of biodynamic gardens at Auschwitz and Dachu so that SS exterminators could enjoy organically grown vegetables. Anthroposophic dietary ideas were taught to all boys and girls of the Hitler Youth and League of Maidens, many of whom later became Green Party members.
The German Green Party was founded in in 1980 under leadership of August Haussleiter, a former Nazi SS officer with a long history standing beside Hitler since the early 1920s. After the war he joined the “Brauderschaft” (brotherhood) off his former SS colleagues, an organization that recruited and radicalized students around ecological and anti-nuclear causes during the late 1960s. Haussleiter then founded an organization called the “Action Committee of Independent Germans,” enlisting other environmental groups in anti-nuclear protests during the 1970s.
Haussleiter leveraged his growing anti-nuclear coalition to establish the Green Party and established himself as its first chairman. He later transferred leadership to Petra Kelly, an attractive and charismatic anti-nuclear woman who grew the Greens into a major political party. (Kelly was later pushed out of leadership, and was murdered by a former lover 1n 1992.)
When the new technology of genetically modified (GM) crops entered the picture in the early 1990s, the Green Party, with great experience and success garnering funds, recruits, and votes for anti-nuclear fear-mongering propaganda campaigns, led the opposition. The Greens were joined in their efforts to block GM crops by other environmental organizations throughout Europe.
Prohibition of GM foods was not simply offered as a subject for study and debate, but was firmly demanded as a strict guideline for state policy. Responding to Green Party strength, European politicians passed measures no only to ban planting of such crops within Europe but even to prohibit importation of the products of such agriculture for sale.
Genetically Modified Food Ban Impacts Upon the U.S. and Third World
Since in recent years about 70% of all processed food in the U.S. has been safely derived from genetically modified species, these prohibitory regulations have reason to be perceived as a form of protectionism against competition from American farmers. This view led the George W. Bush administration to bring litigation against such actions before the World Trade Organization in 2003. Charges were also brought forth that the European ban against most GM food technology undermined efforts to end hunger in Africa. (Although the European Commission had permitted use of some GM foods like soybeans, the ban placed a moratorium on new products.)
The Bush administration argued that those hurt the most by the embargo are the hungry and impoverished citizens of Third World countries. Speaking at a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation event in May 2003, the President insisted that widened use of “high-yield bio-crops” would greatly increase agricultural productivity in some of the poorest nations: “Yet our partners in Europe [referring obviously to Germany and France] are impeding this effort. They have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded , unscientific fears.”
Writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick accused the European Union of disregarding scientific evidence and sending “a devastating signal to developing countries that stand to benefit most from innovative agricultural technologies.” Zoellick charged that some African countries were refusing American food aid “because of fabricated fears stoked by irresponsible rhetoric about food safety.”
Speaking in 2000, the Nigerian Minister of Agricultural and Rural Development, Hassan Adamu, argued that the European policies were not only damaging, but were patronizing as well: “To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic, but morally wrong…. We want to have the opportunity to save lives of millions of people and change the course of history in many nations…. The harsh reality is that, without the help of agricultural biotechnology, many will not live.”
Still, as Paul Driessen notes in his book, Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, several African governments have capitulated against authorizing processed food, even refusing to distribute American food under famine conditions rather than displease European Greens.
The Natural Nature and Benefits of Responsible Biotechnology
It’s important to remember that virtually all of the domestic plant foods the world depends upon for survival are products of deliberate genetic alteration. Included are hardier grains, larger fruits, and pest-resistant vegetables enjoyed everywhere. For example, about 90% of wheat now grown in the world called “hexaploid” is not a naturally occurring variety. Rather, it is the result of selective cross-breeding of many varieties developed over the millennia.
In early times wheat cultivated in the Levant around 10000 B.C. was merged with a grass (Aegilops tauschii, or goatgrass) developed near the Caspian Sea around 2000 B.C., ultimately leading what we now refer to as “bread wheat.” That modern form which contains three pairs of chromosomes from three plant genera is truly a human invention. So whether or not you choose to think of wheat for a staple that feeds the world as un-natural Frankengrain, at least be grateful for it.
And just what is “unnatural” anyway? Does “artificially” watering a plant qualify, rather than waiting for nature to rain? How about fertilizing plants with nitrates to enable higher yields and use of lands not otherwise suited for agriculture? What about crop-rotation? That is hardly something that nature naturally does.
As Zubrin points out, all evolution, whether accomplished by Nature, Bronze Age farmers, or 21st Century bioengineers, involves essentially the same process. New genetic traits “evolve” through mutations caused by a variety of mechanisms. Such transformations can be triggered by cosmic radiation, chemical effects, bacteria or virus-induced interspecies genetic transfer, or cellular accidents.
In Nature, mutations are caused by random accidents. Through bioengineering these changes can be controlled and accelerated, whereby organisms containing modified genes can be selectively bred with existing stock to produce offspring which manifest most desirable combined traits that are more nutritious … and sometimes safer as well.
More than 2,250 artificially mutated plant varieties have been grown and bred in more than fifty countries, including the U.S. and Europe, since the 1950s. It is appropriate to note that not all are of highest quality, having sometimes been bred by people with inadequate nutritional expertise or proper techniques. Accordingly, there is no question that proper controls are needed to avoid such instances.
Safeguards must be put in place to ensure that GM processes don’t insert genes or a combination of genes that can cause allergies in some people. They must also ensure that removing a particular food pest harmful to one crop doesn’t remove a vital food source for other plants and bio-systems; and that GM crops aren’t toxic to other beneficial organisms, potentially even leading to new diseases.
Recognizing the need for such essential protections, breakthroughs are occurring rapidly. For example, a new strain of “golden rice” rich in vitamin A has been created by placing beta carotene-producing genes from daffodils into rice. An estimated 259 million children around the world suffer from vitamin A deficiency, resulting in as many as 2.5 million deaths and 500,000 instances of blindness. Another modified rice variety rich in iron affords potential to ameliorate anemia that impairs more than half a billion women worldwide, mostly in poor countries.
In reality, we humans have successfully experimented with bioengineering, albeit doing it the “old way,” for a very long time. Over centuries our ancestors have taken great liberty in converting wolf ancestry into a remarkable range of canine shapes, sizes and temperaments. Some were been bred to be faster, stronger, and braver than their original kin to protect ancient and modern farmers and livestock from predators. Others were bioengineered to pull heavy sleds across frigid polar expanses, and to rescue lost skiers and mountain climbers on snow-drifted slopes. The purposes and varieties are endless … and while by original noble wolf standards many recent designer varieties witnessed at dog shows and random combinations seen everywhere else may seem ridiculous, we love and value them all.
Yeah, sure. Cats are nice too.
Human inventions from other “natural” (or “wild”) species have also been dramatic. Examples include chickens and cattle for food; oxen, donkeys, and mules for power; and new “specialized” breeds of horses for transportation…and even for war.
Biotechnology now offers opportunities to apply this age-old invention in new ways as a weapon in the greatest war of our time … of any time. The battle front is world hunger, poverty, and the disease, despair and hopelessness they breed.
Does advancement and application of this technology constitute “playing God”? I think not, because we cannot invent and have not invented Nature. Yet we can take advantage of our natural God-given intelligence and creativity to safely and humanely increase Nature’s bounty. Doing so is a very Green purpose than no responsible group or individual should challenge.