Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What the World Needs Now...

Is really not more of this. Seriously. Please, people.

About a week ago, the NYT's opinion pages again trotted out some of the same old industry-driven doublespeak, straw man arguments, and flat out untruths around genetically modified crops that pop up at least monthly in the mainstream media. This time they came packaged as a soberly written, compassionately motivated op-ed by State Department advisor and Penn State biology professor Nina V. Fedoroff. Her argument: We need GMOs in order to feed a ballooning world population. Anti-GMO sentiment amounts to little more than myth and fear-mongering. Government regulation of GMOs stifles innovation and stops us from getting on with the good work of getting people fed. Eminently reasonable, right? I mean, we're feeding the hungry here!

Federoff's precise framing is as familiar as the argument itself: populist compassion, clear-eyed critique, exposé of unexamined assumption, exploder of sacred cows. This rhetorical strategy -- especially when applied to just about any aspect of what might be termed the good food movement -- has become so ubiquitous and tiresome that I considered titling this post "Fill in the Blank: Good/Local/Organic/Sustainable Food is NOT Elitist/Impractical/Unhealthy/Going to Make People Starve." But then I decided that was a bit wordy, even for me.

The problem, of course, is that this strain of argument is pure (and excellent) propaganda. Even when the speaker isn't directly associated with the biotech industry -- as is usually the case, in some form -- they are propagating a message forged and fed by its PR machine. Others have eviscerated the NYT piece and Federoff herself quite eloquently, most notably here and here. I'm chiming in now because I can't help myself, because the brazenness of it all leaves me almost speechless... but not quite.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, otherwise known as the IAASTD. Published in 2008, the IAASTD was modeled after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it represented the work of the world's best minds in agricultural science and policy. The study had over 900 contributors from 110 countries and took three years to complete. Its conclusions were sweeping, nuanced yet decisive, and really, really good science. They were also promptly maligned by the big biotech firms and then almost entirely forgotten. Last week I gave a brown bag lunch talk to a bunch of Berkeley foodies, and not a one had ever heard of it.

Leaving aside the naming/branding issue of the IAASTD (yes, both the full name and the acronym seem ill advised), it continues to astonish me that the world's most comprehensive attempt to determine exactly what mix of technologies, policies, and strategies have the best hope of feeding a planet with 9 billion inhabitants, almost never gets mentioned in discussions of precisely that question. I suppose it makes sense in the end. The answer is inconvenient, unprofitable, and politically daunting.

That answer? No, we don't need unregulated, full-steam-ahead development of GM crops to feed the world. That is really, really unlikely to do the trick. I'm not personally opposed to GM crop development (in principle and depending on application, implementation, etc.), but as an international agricultural development strategy it has proven entirely unsound. What we need is bottom-up, small scale, distributed, locally-based, and culturally appropriate solutions -- thousands and thousands of them, all over the world. What the world needs is agroecology in all it's myriad forms.

This back and forth that we're having now reminds me strongly of, say, 2004, when the science was well and truly decided about this thing called anthropogenic climate change, yet the public discourse on the issue seemed to reflect an entirely separate reality. There was a lot of well, no one really knows, and a can we really be sure, and for goodness sake, don't be so political about it. It was at the time rather uncool as a layperson to just stand on a rooftop and yell "My god people, why are we even having this conversation? Real scientists who actually know what they're talking about figured this shit out already."

I feel like that person sometimes, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

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