Food Security Depends on the Truth of Science
Jul 07, 2011
By V.K.V. Ravichandran: Tamil Nadu, India
Investigators are still trying to determine the root cause of the E. coli outbreak in Germany, but they already know the grim death toll: 50 lives gone as of last weekend, due to the consumption of bean sprouts contaminated by a new strain of the bacteria.
The source of fatalities may be an organic farm in Germany or possibly seeds grown in Egypt. What we know for certain right now is that the solution to the problem of food-borne illness is technology—and that’s true whether we’re talking about advanced nations in Europe or developing countries, such as my own, in Asia and Africa.
Yet many influential advocacy groups seem to think otherwise. These self-appointed guardians of our food supply fight modern farming practices like biotechnology and irradiation—approaches to agriculture that might have stopped the spread of the deadly German affliction. They would have jumped all over a health crisis that implicates genetically modified crops, for example. When the potential culprit is the primitive techniques of the organic food industry, however, they hush up and hope the unpleasantness simply will go away.
Here in India, we may pay dearly for their silence because we desperately need access to the best agricultural methods in order to produce safe food as well as enough of it.
By some estimates, India must double its food output by 2020 just to keep up with a booming population. At the same time, we’re seeing reliable farm hands flee from rural areas for improved economic opportunities in cities. So when our nation needs its farmers to produce more, we’re forced to make do with less help.
Biotechnology offers one way out of this dilemma. As an Indian farmer who grows Bt cotton, I’ve seen its potential firsthand. I’ve grown biotech cotton since it was first approved for commercial cultivation in 2002. It’s nothing less than a miracle crop that requires fewer resources and produces greater yields than old-fashioned cotton. Most cotton farmers agree with me: I suspect that more than 90 percent of India’s cotton famers take advantage of biotechnology.
Yet our government has refused to approve biotechnology in food crops such as brinjal (eggplant), in large part because political activists have created a phony controversy fueled by scientific ignorance.
The enemies of biotechnology are always touting the "precautionary principle," which is the European idea that innovations must be shown to be completely risk-free before the public can take advantage of them. This is a virtually impossible test to meet and it stands in the way of Indian progress in agriculture.
Applying this same standard to organic agriculture probably would wipe out the whole industry. Many Indian farmers, including a lot of organic farmers, use a traditional crop-protection tool called panchagavya. Its ingredients include cow dung and cow urine. Indian farmers have used panchagavya for generations and I’m personally convinced that it’s safe. But there’s also little doubt in my mind that if European farmers were to seek permission to use panchagavya, they would have a hard time winning approval from regulators who rely on the precautionary principle.
The double-standard is maddening. Biotech crops are built to resist the pests and infections that create pathways to disease, including E. coli infections—and yet they’re treated with insurmountable levels of suspicion by activist groups that claim to care about our food supply. The same is true with irradiation, a treatment that might very well have destroyed the E. coli in those German bean sprouts. In a terrible irony, the German government once blocked a European Commission proposal to make more use of irradiation, possibly even turning it into what some have called "the fourth pillar of public health," alongside the chlorination of water, the vaccination of children, and the pasteurization of milk and other liquids.
We won’t ever completely eliminate diseases from our food—but we can contain them, if we’re willing to embrace biotechnology and irradiation.
I’m hopeful that India will live up to its national motto: "sathyameva jayate." In Sanskrit, that means "truth alone triumphs." When it comes to food security, our obligation is to listen to the truth of science rather than the lies of scaremongers.
Mr. V.K.V. Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains). Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade and Technology Global Farmer Network.