If the environmentalist movement is to stay relevant, it must embrace world-changing technologies like GM

The enhanced grain would help alleviate nutritional problems affecting millions for whom rice is the staple diet

Thursday 30 January 2014 20:06

When Patrick Moore takes to the streets outside Greenpeace’s London headquarters today to rail against the group’s opposition to genetic engineering, his demonstration is one that should be welcomed by all right-thinking environmentalists. As a founder member of Greenpeace, in the early 1970s, Mr Moore is no ordinary protester. And his charge that the movement’s campaign against the development of an enhanced rice strain leaves it with “blood on its hands” cannot easily be gainsaid.

Contrary to the scaremongering of the anti-GM lobby, genetic engineering is less science-run-mad than a much-needed means to better health in some of the poorest parts of the world. So-called golden rice – Mr Moore’s focus today – is a case in point. Thanks to added genes that produce beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, the enhanced grain would help alleviate nutritional problems affecting millions for whom rice is the staple diet. With 250 million youngsters affected by vitamin-A deficiency, and more than two million annual child deaths, Mr Moore’s vehemence is understandable. Yet the orthodoxy of environmentalism is that GM is an evil to be opposed in all its forms.

Such resistance used to make more sense. In its early years, GM was used by the likes of Monsanto to develop crops that could withstand own-brand pesticides that laid waste to other plants. With its harsh chemicals and binding commercial relationships with farmers, there was much here to view askance. Two decades later, though, the technology has moved on. The emphasis now is on enhancement rather than resistance. Equally, with the global population set to top 9.5 billion by 2050, and food production needing to double to sustain it, there is no room for purism, least of all one based on a constructed notion of a “natural” past.

Mr Moore is by no means the only leading environmentalist to recognise the change and recalibrate his views accordingly. Mark Lynas, another high-profile figure, has made a similar shift in recent years, as, indeed, has The Independent. Too much of the mainstream green movement has been left behind, however, with activists sabotaging the development of any number of GM crops, including golden rice, that could make a real difference.

Nor is the dispute between progressives and reactionaries restricted to genetic engineering. Nuclear energy causes similar ructions. While Greenpeace et al continue to campaign against new atomic power stations, no small number of environmentalists accept that, between rising demands for energy and concerns about climate change, the opportunity for near-ubiquitous, carbon-free power must be pursued.

Such splits are evidence of a movement at a crossroads. What began as a forward-thinking campaign for a better future, is becoming a narrow-minded crusade against progress. Rather than considering each issue on its merits, the green movement is becoming increasingly ideological and misanthropic. Yet scientific advance is no Frankenstein’s monster; it is how human beings have improved their lives since the dawn of history. With care, both GM and nuclear power can change the world for the better. If environmentalism is to remain relevant, it must grow up.

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