Commentary

When ‘Green’ Policies Harm Humans

By Thomas R. DeGregori
October 3, 2002

“We are 6 billion” is the slogan of many environmental and anti-globalization groups, most of which are run by wealthy, white, male Northern Europeans and North Americans who claim they are defending the poor and Mother Earth against the evils of globalization, multi-national corporations and modern technology. But are they really doing that much good?

The media seem to have bought into the agenda and terminology of the anti-globalization groups. For instance, a “hunger activist” for the media is someone who promotes a particular anti-technology ideology and is not someone who has actually helped people in need gain access to food in the most effective way possible: by growing more of it themselves.

Organizations with “food” or “rural advancement” in their name have raised and spent hundreds of millions for dollars in advocacy. Yet they have spent virtually nothing to directly help those in need. They also savagely attack people like Norman Borlaug and international agricultural research institutions that are responsible for the world being able to feed six billion people — and feed them better than ever before by bringing about an agricultural revolution that close to tripled food production while population was doubling. That was done with only a slight increase in land-under-cultivation from 3.5 billion acres to 3.7 billion acres.

The “Green Revolution,” which many of the activists have opposed, is regularly deemed to have been a “failure” by those who have no feasible alternative strategy to feed a globe of six billion people and which is expected to grow to nine billion before leveling off.

Since May I have made three trips to Asia and one to Africa, with stopovers in London, and I have seen the other side of “civil society.” I have lived, traveled, and been involved in development more times and in more areas of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere in the Third World than I can count. In several African countries that I have visited recently, the anti-globalization NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) have thus far blocked funding for the construction of dams for hydropower and irrigation. Those in affluent countries — for whom electricity is flipping a switch, paying an electric bill, and a cold beer in the fridge — are making it very difficult for poor countries to increase their electric supply for hospitals, to preserve vaccines and to keep food from spoiling.

Across Asia, I have worked in tightly packed villages surrounded by rice paddies where rice provided the calories (sometimes as much as 70 percent or more), with a few fruit trees and maybe a kitchen garden next to the house to provide vital nutrients and a modicum of dietary variety. In some of these countries, vitamin deficiency, particularly vitamin A deficiency, causes children to go blind and/or makes them more likely to die from diseases such as diarrhea or measles. Yet the NGOs vigorously oppose the development of a transgenic Vitamin A enhanced rice.

In an Asian country that I visited this summer, papaya ring spot virus was killing the villagers’ trees. The superb scientists with whom I was meeting all knew about the successful genetically engineered papaya trees with a viral gene that expresses an enzyme that stimulates the trees’ natural immune system to protect it against the virus. But the constant, massive NGO anti-genetic modification campaign had effectively intimidated those scientists. And that happened even though senior government officials with whom I discussed the matter made it clear that there was no government policy against genetic modification. The NGO scare campaign had brought about a paralysis. Meanwhile, the poor peasant families were suffering a critical loss in the basic nutrition to maintain their meager existence.

One distinguished scientist said that he was preparing an op-ed article supporting genetically modified food. But he added that it would be hopeless because he would have to get back to doing science while the NGO counterattack — however irrational and misinformed — would go on indefinitely. It seems that the NGOs had nothing else to do but carry out propaganda campaigns that all admit is an art they have mastered. Ironically, one of the most vocal “local” NGOs in the country where villagers are losing the papaya trees to the ring spot virus, receives its funding from the U.S. government via a foundation set up to support local initiatives.

Like the multi-nationals they criticize, the Green, anti-globalization and environmental NGOs are revenue-maximizing organizations. They obtain their revenue by successfully marketing fear no matter the human cost. Fear and fundraising are their full-time jobs. It’s time that we judge them by their actions and not by what they falsely claim to be.

Thomas R. DeGregori is professor of Economics at the University of Houston and author of the recently released books “Bountiful Harvest” (Cato Institute), upon which this article is based, and “The Environment, Our Natural Resources and Modern Technology” (Iowa State Press).