They're at it again: eco-terrorists in France, wielding scythes and sickles, waded into a research plot of genetically modified corn and hacked it to the ground. Then they took the plants and dumped them outside the city hall in the nearby village.

This demonstrated, their spokesman said, “the local feeling” about genetically modified crops. Destroying the plots, he said, “feels really good.”

Although France's coalition government has half-heartedly denounced the ongoing protests and destruction of GMO fields, it has had little impact, particularly since the agriculture department made public a list of areas where GMO plots are located.

Needless to say, it all received extensive coverage in the media.

At about the same time, the Greenpeace organization, never at a loss for ways to get media attention, was stirring the scare pot with claims that a newly-completed, more detailed analysis of the genetic code of Roundup Ready soybeans showed “junk” bits of DNA that, it said, represent unknown but potentially serious health and environmental hazards.

Which the non-profit Center for Global Food Issues labeled, in so many words, as outright bunk, noting that the soybean varieties and the DNA “have been fully scrutinized through an extensive battery of health and environmental safety tests and there is no evidence of human health or environmental problems.”

The center said the discovery of inactive or “junk” DNA fragments in biotechnology-improved soybeans is just another attempt by political activists “who seek to create public fear to promote alternative agendas.

The real mystery is why anyone continues to pay attention when these groups cry ‘wolf.’”

While the protesters in the extremely well-fed countries of Europe and the United Kingdom are opposing the scientific advances that hold the potential to produce more and better food on fewer acres with less environmental impact, a new report from the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute says more than 100 million of the world's children are expected to live with hunger over the next 20 years.

The problem is predicted to be particularly acute in developing nations and sub-Saharan Africa, where lack of adequate land, water, and other resources limit crop production.

A recent article by Dr. Florence Wambugu in the Washington Post addresses the GMO tempest in a teapot from a less Olympian perspective than that of the protesters:

“As one in a family of nine children growing up on a small farm in Kenya's highlands, I learned firsthand about the enormous challenge of breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger in rural Africa,” she writes. “The reason I became a plant scientist was to help farmers like my mother, who sold the only cow our family owned to pay for my secondary education — a sacrifice in more ways than one because I, like most children in Kenya, was needed on the farm.”

Ms. Wambugu, who is now director of the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications-AfriCenter, has made it her mission to alert others to the urgent need for new technology in Africa to help counter hunger, environmental devastation, and poverty.

“African growers desperately need access to best management practices, fertilizer, better seeds, and biotechnology to help improve crop production — currently the lowest in the world per unit area of land. Traditional agricultural practices… will not be sufficient to feed the additional millions… who will inhabit the continent 50 years from now.”

Thanks to assistance from U.S. biotech scientists, she notes, new sweet potato varieties are being developed that are resistant to the virus that previously decimated yield.

Soon African farmers may realize a 90 percent improvement in yield of this key crop.

Why aren't these types of biotechnology applications more readily available to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere, Ms Wambugu asks. “I believe blame lies with the critics who claim that Africa has no chance to benefit from biotechnology…(and)… who have never experienced hunger and death on the scale we sadly witness in Africa…

“The people of Africa cannot wait for others to debate the merits of biotechnology,” she says, urging President Bush and other world leaders to “make it a priority” to bring the benefits of biotechnology to developing countries.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com