The right to agricultural technology

Stanford University academic Henry I Miller argues that access to agricultural technology such as herbicides, pesticides, and genetically modified crops is a fundamental right for farmers, and can help feed the world’s hungry billions.

GM Corn
Genetic modification technology can produce drought-resistant and high yield crops that can help provide food security to a rapidly growing global population. But concerns about food safety and environmental protection remain. Marcin Balcerzak /

In the 1960s, when biologist Paul Ehrlich was predicting mass starvation due to rapid population growth, plant breeder Norman Borlaug was developing the new crops and approaches to agriculture that would become mainstays of the Green Revolution.

Those advances, along with other innovations in agricultural technology, are credited with preventing more than a billion deaths from starvation and improving the nutrition of the billions more people alive today. Yet some seem eager to roll back these gains.

Beyond saving lives, the Green Revolution saved the environment from massive despoliation. According to a Stanford University study, since 1961, modern agricultural technology has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions significantly, even as it has led to increases in net crop yields.

It has also spared the equivalent of three Amazon rainforests – or double the area of the 48 contiguous US states – from having to be cleared of trees and plowed up for farmland. Genetically engineered crops, for their part, have reduced the use of environmentally damaging pesticides by 581 million kilograms (1.28 billion pounds), or 18.5 per cent, cumulatively since 1996.

Surprisingly, many environmentalists are more likely to condemn these developments than they are to embrace them, promoting instead a return to inefficient, low-yield approaches. Included in the so-called agroecology that they advocate is primitive “peasant agriculture,” which, by lowering the yields and resilience of crops, undermines food security and leads to higher rates of starvation and malnutrition.

Promoting that lunacy, the United Nations Human Rights Council recently published a report by Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Hilal Elver that called for a global agroecology regime, including a new global treaty to regulate and reduce the use of pesticides and genetic engineering, which it labeled human-rights violations.

The UNHRC – a body that includes such stalwart defenders of human rights as China, Cuba, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela – usually satisfies itself by bashing Israel. But in 2000, at the Cuban government’s urging, it created the post of special rapporteur on the right to food.

Befitting the UNHRC’s absurd composition, the first person to fill the position, the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler, was the co-founder and a recipient of the Muammar al-Qaddafi International Human Rights Prize.

Depriving developing countries of more efficient and sustainable approaches to agriculture relegates them to poverty and denies them food security.

For her part, Elver has, according to UN Watch, cited works that claim the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the United States government to justify its war on Muslims. Elver’s position on food reflects the same paranoid mindset. She opposes “industrial food production” and trade liberalization, and frequently collaborates with Greenpeace and other radical environmentalists.

Much of Elver’s new UNHRC report parrots the delusional musings of organic-industry-funded nongovernmental organizations. It blames agricultural innovations like pesticides for “destabilizing the ecosystem” and claims that they are unnecessary to increase crop yields.

This all might be dismissed as simply more misguided UN activism. But it is just one element of a broader and more consequential effort by global NGOs, together with allies in the European Union, to advance an agroecology model, in which critical farm inputs, including pesticides and genetically engineered crop plants, are prohibited.

That agenda is now being promoted through a vast network of UN agencies and programs, as well as international treaties and agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and the International Agency on Research on Cancer.

The potential damage of this effort is difficult to overstate. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (which hasn’t yet completely succumbed to radical activists) estimates that, without pesticides, farmers would lose up to 80% of their harvests to insects, disease, and weeds. (Consider, for example, the impact of the fall armyworm, which, in the last 18 months alone, has devastated maize crops across much of Sub-Saharan Africa.)

Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to radical regulatory regimes, because foreign aid is often contingent on compliance with them, though they can also reshape agriculture in the developed world, not least in the EU.

Millions of smallholder farmers in the developing world need crop protection. When they lack access to herbicides, for example, they must weed their plots by hand. This is literally backbreaking labor: to weed a one-hectare plot, farmers – usually women and children – have to walk ten kilometers (6.2 miles) in a stooped position.

Over time, this produces painful and permanent spinal injuries. Indeed, that is why the state of California outlawed hand-weeding by agricultural workers in 2004, though an exception was made for organic farms, precisely because they refuse to use herbicides.

Depriving developing countries of more efficient and sustainable approaches to agriculture relegates them to poverty and denies them food security. That is the real human-rights violation.

Henry I. Miller is Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the US Food and Drug Administration.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →