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Organic food, genetically engineered food, world hunger, science and me – a mini mission statement.

November 11th, 2009 Posted in Blog | 3 Comments
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Now that I have spoken about "Denialism"  on a few radio and television broadcasts, it has become clear that certain questions and comments arise with regularity. Nothing seems to enflame people more than my assertion – conviction really – that we need to use the tools of biotechnology to address the problem of world hunger; more than that, I believe those same tools can help us cope with the rapidly growing population of the earth -  within 40 years this planet will have to feed 9 billion people, half again as many as we have today. 

I address these issues at length in the book, but for those who see a snippet on television or catch a summary in a review let me just be categorical:  I am not opposed to organic food, nor do I see genetically engineered food as a panacea for the problems of the developing world. I buy organic food myself – because I think it tastes good and I live in the part in the rich West where cost is not an issue. I prefer local to organic and while they are often confused, they are not always the same thing. I do not think animals should be raised on hormones and antibiotics and certainly don't think we should eat them if they have been.  To be honest, though, I am not as preoccupied with the culinary obsessions of America as I am with the growing hunger that persists in the developing world.

That a billion people go to bed hungry every night – a number that is growing -is one of the abiding scandals of our time. Can genetically altered food make that problem disappear? Of course not. We need good government, less corruption, training, roads, and above all, ample clean water. But I do believe that biotechnology is one of the tools we must employ. Next Monday, the world leaders will come together in Rome for a World Summit on Food Security. As they have before, they will talk about the best way to eliminate hunger. There will be plenty of people screaming that genetically engineered food will kill us all. And plenty will scream back that without that food the developing world won't survive.

Isn't it time to stop shouting into the wind and work together to create a sustainable world that can feed its inhabitants? Let us rely on data and experience to help figure out the best way to do that. Any other approach is bound to fail.

3 Comments to “Organic food, genetically engineered food, world hunger, science and me – a mini mission statement.”

  • Ellen Dadisman says:

    I wonder if anyone has studied what the cost and availability of food here in the US would be without biotech?

  • brian says:

    I’ve been listening to some of your interviews – a good one in particular on Skeptic’s Guide and the one on Science Friday.

    With this issue I am always wanting to bring up the fact that there’s already enough food to feed the world, yet because of economic policy we have a food distribution system makes some obese and starves others (who are often 3rd world farmers ironically enough) and tosses out millions of tons of food every year. Even Normal Borlaug criticized this system. Also we have the seed companies patenting seeds so these starving people in the third world couldn’t save them without getting sued (as the Canadian canola farmer did after Monsanto canola seed infested his crop). So some social science needs to come into play if we’re going to even pretend like this is all about feeding people.

    Of course you had to have seen the studies that have shown organic yields to rival that of conventional (but I don’t know if that’s the prevailing evidence or if enough studies have yet been done for it to be conclusive). However I believe that both methods should be explored, not that one is a threat to the other.

    Having said all that I like the premise of your arguments. I have to deal with people all the time who want me to raise chickens on grass alone, who tell me matter-of-factly they can’t pick up their CSA box because their children have whooping cough, and people who ask if I give my chickens homeopathic rememdies (to which I reply – yes, I give them water every day).

  • Aaron says:

    I just saw your talk at ted online. I appreciate the sentiments and the argument. I agree that as a community, we need to get beyond our knee jerk reactions and get better at looking at all problems in an open minded, pragmatic and rational way. On the other hand, I’m one of those who don’t have a lot of faith in our institutions. The hope that science doesn’t have any agenda and that it’s methods are above the failings of human psychology is certainly an ideal but maybe not exactly how it operates in our current capitalistic society. Many studies are funded by those who stand to make a profit from their outcomes and scientific solutions that fit into a profit model are the solutions that get attention. Because of this, there are many solutions to the worlds problems that don’t get enough serious thought and those that do may not be the best solutions. Now, this isn’t to say that profit model solutions should be off the table when looking at important human issues but rather that a very healthy dose of skepticism should be used in it’s evaluation by us and the press. Please continue to look into the who and the why of issues like GMO’s and help us all look into solutions that may not have corporate sponsors. For one example, why not work to better harness the power of ‘big placebo’? We know that placebos have measurable effects, have little or no side effects, and we even know how to make them stronger. They are hard to patent but promising none the less.

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