Monday, November 25, 2002

NZPundit has been talking about the efforts of extreme environmental groups to prevent the spread of genetically modified food in Africa, and that a consequence of this action is that without doubt it means that people will die unnecessarily.

As a related aside, I have always found the "organic food" movement to be unbelievably dumb. I have long thought that the invention of artificial nitrogen and phosphorus based fertilizers was one of the greatest scientific developments of all time. (Without this development, we cannot feed the world's population. With it we can. This sounds good to me). Therefore, the idea that there is something better or morally virtuous about eating food grown without fertilizer strikes me as perverse. The extension of the argument that there is something morally wrong with modern agricultural practices is that either you are saying that a large portion of the world's population to starve, or your thinking is extremely muddled. (Some people say that they eat organic food because it "tastes better" rather than for ideological reasons. This argument does avoid the implications above, as it is not that morally terrible to condemn the people of the poor world to eat food that tastes slightly worse. However, I haven't seen any convincing evidence that organically food actually does taste better. If people do want to eat food that tastes better, then there is something to be said for making a scientific effort to grow food that tastes better, rather than using an idealogical aversion to fertilizer and pesticides to achieve this ).

This business with opposing genetically modified crops as a matter of course seems to me to be an extension of the same ideological position. There is something morally wrong with using the best technology we have to increase crop yields. (The proponents of this view will argue that genetically modified crops present potentially unknown dangers blah blah blah. If you do look at the actual science, these claims aren't especially convincing, however. I think it is mostly the simple Luddism that we see also in the organic food movement).

The most cynical suggestion is that what we are seeing is simple protectionism on the part of the Europeans, using the general unease with GM crops as a way of keeping American (and conceivably African) agricultural products out of their markets. If so, this is reprehensible almost beyond words.

The clear fallacy of the thinking of most lefty environmentalists, as Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg have pointed out at length, is the failure to take technological progress into account. Our economy is growing exponentially, so we are using an an exponentially increasing amount of resources, so our resources must be running out. However, if technological progress changes the nature of the way in which resources are used, and allows us to use resources more efficiently and/or substitute less scarce resources for more scarce resources, then this doesn't have to happen. The evidence is overwhelmingly that this is not happening.

If you look at the opposition to using modern technology in agriculture, and think clearly about it, you inevitably seem to get to the conclusion that "Yes, technology can help us overcome the apparent limits to the amount of food that can be produced in the world. However, this technology is morally bad, and therefore we should not use the technology". It is as if the perceived limits to growth are so important to their proponents that we should tie our hands behind our backs if necessary to make sure they are still there. This is of course ludicrous.

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