Sunday, May 19, 2013

starving for science?

Last week i reported about a pretty critical movie on the genetically modified rice named golden rice. Europeans have sometimes a bit hypocritical vision of GMOs, as they use this technology daily almost without knowing it in medicine but refuse the technology in agriculture (also most European consumer ignore that genetically modified soya is imported to Europe and fed to animals that end up in our plates). Some years ago i read the book starving for science, a book that made me think about GMOs in a more differentiated way than  black and white.

If you are interested into the GMO debate, then this book is defintily a good entry point.

Here the book description
"Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.
Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science—including biotechnology—has recently been kept out of Africa.
In Starved for Science Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.
In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.


  1. Catherine
    I have to take issue with you on this. The key to boosting the productivity, incomes and nutritional status of small holder farmers, whether in Africa or elsewhere, is by helping them increase the productivity of their autonomous resource base. This requires a nuanced, locally adapted, approach to solving agricultural problems / promoting rural development, not an off the shelf, one-size-will-fit-all approach. Selling poor farmers GM or hybrid seeds, fertilisers or other resources is of course attractive to western agrochemical/seed companies (not the same as science surely) but is creates dependency and often bankrupts resource poor farmers. Going into debt is a high risk strategy for resource poor farmers (who are risk averse). It’s estimated that almost 200,000 Indian farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2008 (often horribly painfully by drinking the last of their pesticide). This is partly / largely (according to who you read) the result of the failure of GM cotton crops. Interestingly in response to this issue ‘technical experts appointed by the India Supreme Court have recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM food, as well as the termination of all current trials of transgenic crops’ ('_suicides_in_India).
    Science comes in different forms and is promoted by different interest groups, some very powerful. I did a quick search on Robert Paarlberg. Apparently there is a long standing and acrimonious dispute between him (as an advocate of the GM and high tech solutions) and the agroecology movement - which doesn’t actually come as much surprise!

    Oh by the way – I take issue with one more thing – there is a basic and fundamental difference between using GM technologies in a controlled environment – such as a lab – and releasing them into the wild where their effects are far from known or understood.

    These differences aside I shall continue to read your blog with interest and curiosity  Nick

    1. Hi Nick, i really like debate, and the GMO debate is in my opinion not loud enough. Things are happening behind our backs, where as we would in my opinion need a public debate about it (also what was shown in my previous post and the movie about the golden rice). And if you are interested in the topic, you should really read this book, it is amazing how much miss information we have (for example GMOs need to be developped for each agro-ecologies, there would not be one seed for all, many issues why GMOs do not work are institutional, which should be adressed and probably this is the bigger challenge than developing the crops themselves), and how much information we are yet missing to take real decisions (i.e it is time for science).
      Where i probably agree with you is, it is not the time for introducing widely GMO, not yet, but on the contrary of you, i aknowledge that one day it might be.
      And next to all our differences, i am so happy to have such a regular and critical reader of my blog like you!

  2. Hi catherine

    You might be interested by this blog - which is on a very related point and stemmed from me thinking more reflectively/critically about one of my editing tasks from recent weeks.