May was March-on-Monsanto month. An array of celebrities, ranging from Danny DeVito to Dave Matthews, called for protests against the St. Louis-based agriculture giant — not for anything like the killer Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange it once produced, but for food technology that is saving millions of lives in poverty-stricken countries.
It’s fast becoming fashionable inside America’s hard left to loudly condemn genetically modified (GM) crops — and those evil corporations that produce them. The rebellion that first flourished on European soil — despite a dearth of evidence showing GM’s dangers — has been imported to U.S. shores by groups like Greenpeace. California’s ballot initiative to require labeling failed last November, but similar proposals are cropping up in other states and Congress. Whole Foods has opted to protect its hard-core foodie flank with a five-year plan to label products containing GM ingredients (which don’t qualify as “organic”).
What’s cast as a fight against GM crops looks more like an elitist war on the world’s poor. Monsanto-produced Golden Rice, fortified with vitamin A, will save the lives of millions of children, especially in South and Southeast Asia. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within a year of losing their sight, according to the World Health Organization.
Poor farmers in India, China, and West Africa have been pulled out of poverty because of their ability to grow pest-resistant GM cotton. Water-efficient maize grown in East Africa is protecting the livelihood of farmers — and the lives of people — during the onslaught of drought.
“We know that technological improvement in food production has defined large-scale human economic progress since the 1700s,” notes U.S. AID director Rajiv Shah. And, yes, he puts GM crops in that category, as do others, like the Gates Foundation, that are serious about feeding the poor. Technology such as GM seeds save lives, especially as climate change “eats into crop yields,” notes Shah.
Activist websites brim with unfounded scare tactics, linking GM foods to “organ damage, insulin and immunity dysfunction, and death” (as one put it). But here’s what the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has to say: “GM crops pose no greater risk than the same foods modified by conventional plant breeding techniques.” Even the European Union, ground zero for the anti-GM movement, has examined 130 studies and come to the same conclusion. Others have gone further, noting that pest-resistant GM crops reduce the need for toxic chemical sprays.
Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant’s repeated assertion that GM foods “are the most tested ever” is actually backed by the AAAS, which notes that each new crop requires U.S. government testing and approval.
So what’s the problem with labeling genetically modified food so that consumers know what they’re getting? The AAAS believes labels on foods with GM ingredients will falsely and unnecessarily alarm consumers, in part because the pro-label lobby has been pushing the notion that the foods are unsafe, untested, and unnatural. (The AAAS also suggests some anti-GM forces may be undermining modified foods to “gain competitive advantages” for their own products.)
The public relations fallout from Western anti-GM campaigns hurts efforts globally to feed the poor because it stirs up local opposition. China, which hosts the world’s most extensive food research facilities and is already the world’s largest buyer of GM soybeans, is delaying the introduction of modified rice and corn to address public fears. Some argue that the decade-long delay in introducing Golden Rice to the Philippines, driven by opponents, has cost millions of lives among a poor population deficient in vitamin A.
U.S. AID’s Shah diplomatically notes that he operates under a “different calculus” from the anti-GM crowd. “We are trying to end hunger and extreme poverty,” he says. It’s not just a different calculus. It is the right one.
This story is from the June 10, 2013 issue of Fortune.