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An Earth Day No-Brainer: Use Science To Conquer Famine

April 21, 2017
Since 1970, we’ve recognized Earth Day every April 22.  The idea came from former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson.  After witnessing the massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, he became inspired to bring environmental protection to the forefront in Washington and arranged for a national teach-in on the environment as the Vietnam War raged on.

One determined public servant helped transform anti-war energy into a larger conversation about protecting Mother Earth.

Senator Nelson was a Democrat; I served in Congress for 12 years as a Republican.  We all share one planet, and embracing environmental sustainability should transcend politics and unite us as human beings.

As a policymaker, I tried to model myself after leaders like former Senator Nelson Rockefeller, who understood that being pro-business didn’t mean being anti-environment. For me, being an environmentalist is part of a deeper respect for the scientific method as humanity’s most effective tool to compel progress and understanding. That means respecting the solid scientific consensus that human activity is impacting our climate and our planet, and that we need to act  decisively and responsibly to avoid irreversible damage. It also means respecting the equally unequivocal science that the genetically-modified food debate is over. Foods from genetically engineered (GE) crops are just as safe to eat as food from non-GE crops, as the National Academies of Science reaffirmed last year.

Those who trust the scientific method to inform their opinions on climate change while ignoring it when it comes to genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) aren’t merely illogically self-conflicted. They’re doing a disservice to starving people around the world who could be fed and nourished if there were less baseless skepticism and more investment in GMO agricultural products that enable farmers to reap bountiful harvests in drought-plagued lands.

This Earth Day, Americans are marching for science here in the nation’s capital. That’s encouraging, because harnessing the science of biotechnology makes it possible to solve intractable problems such as the famine, starvation and malnutrition plaguing many African nations.

The United Nations estimates 20 million people in Africa are living with the effects of a severe drought and the famine it brings. Tragically and unacceptably, this includes 1.4 million children who are at imminent risk of death. According to the World Bank, 96 percent of African cropland is rain fed. The U.N. has already declared famine in parts of South Sudan and is putting Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen on high alert.

United Nations Security Chief Stephen O’Brien described the African hunger crisis as the largest since 1945. He has estimated $4.4 billion is needed to avoid catastrophic consequences in countries like Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen.

At the center of this desperate humanitarian crisis is drought. The Horn of Africa is in the middle of its third consecutive year of drought. The livestock is dying off, livelihoods are being destroyed, and large population movements are under way in search of food and water.

Some countries like Ethiopia are struggling with barren lands produced by El Nino. Sadly, this is a repeat of last year when over 10 million people were left without food and water, also due to climate change events that affected countries from Zimbabwe to Malawi.

The reliance on rain-fed agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as corn and millet harvests, are displacing farmers and rendering many African leaders unable to feed their people. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Committee estimates 223 million people are suffering from malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Science offers an elegant solution: safe, genetically modified (GM) crops that can withstand drought. The technology exists but needs to be deployed on a much broader scale. According to the Genetic Literacy Project, South Africa, Egypt, Sudan, and Burkina Faso are the only countries allowing the cultivation of GM crops. And of these countries, only South Africa grows GM food.

In Uganda, bananas are a life staple; 75 percent of farmers grow them. Uganda’s Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) created a GM banana that is wilt-resistant by inserting a green pepper gene into the banana’s genome. NARO wants to give away the banana seeds for free, but it can’t until GMO regulation is established.  A law that would allow for introduction of GM plants is under consideration in Uganda.

Ethiopia has amended its biosafety laws to allow tests on GM cotton, while Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria, and Ghana have all been testing different GM crops. Trials of GM cotton, sugar cane, tomatoes, and bananas are occurring in places like Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique. The international community should unite in its resolve to encourage more African nations to follow suit.

The first step for African countries to deploy GM crops is to set their own biotechnology regulatory guidelines. According to the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, only 20 countries in Africa have biosafety laws. Greater investments in biosafety would help clear the way for cutting-edge technology to arrest the death and suffering caused by drought.

The U.N. warns that our food supply must double by 2050 to meet the world’s expected population growth to 9 billion people. GM crops can produce bigger yields in drought-plagued lands. Now more than ever we must work to establish the necessary frameworks for food security and climate adaptation that biotechnology can provide.

Forty-seven years ago, a Wisconsin Senator challenged a war-torn country to come together to trust science and cherish the Earth. Today, his charge remains no less poignant. It makes no sense to believe scientists on climate change and reject their overwhelming consensus on GMO foods. On this Earth Day, let’s embrace science and all of the miracles it can bring.