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"I think that first world environmental groups
July 12, 2001 10:50 AM   Subscribe

"I think that first world environmental groups (who oppose development of genetically modified crops) should put on the hat and shoes of farmers in Mali who are faced by repeated crop failure." -- Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, lead author of the U.N. Development Programme's annual Human Development Report. (Here's another report on the same issue which includes a great deal of background information about the problems which still need to be solved, and why genetic modification of food crops is an essential part of the solution.)
posted by Steven Den Beste (35 comments total)

 
Huh, last I heard we had more than enough food to feed the entire world's population many times over. Countries just don't want to share. As long as America pays its farmers to destroy crops, you won't convince me genetically tampered food is necessary.
posted by fleener at 10:53 AM on July 12, 2001


Fleener, everything you eat has already been "genetically tampered with". Didn't you know that? Do you realize just how much the world's food has been altered in the last 30 years?

Try comparing a domesticated potato against its wild relative, or strawberry, or wheat, or rice, or nearly anything at all. Compare maize to teosinte. (More calories in the world are grown as maize than any other crop.)

The only major food source which is unmodified is fish.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:01 AM on July 12, 2001


Not to mention broccoli. Wild mustard, indeed.
posted by iceberg273 at 11:13 AM on July 12, 2001


Guns, Germs and Steel is a good general-interest book to learn how the natural crops and food animals of various regions were transformed into the highly-productive descendants we use today. It also explains in a very lucid style why Eurasia and in particular Europe ended up having the best combination of available resources and opportunities to become the civilization that spread throughout the world.

In any case, we cannot allow hungry nations to descend into dependency again. It's not a long-term solution to the problem.
posted by dhartung at 11:24 AM on July 12, 2001


It is no true solution which merely defers the problem til tomorrow. Genetic engineering may allow us to feed more people, but the starvation problem will keep coming back - worse each time - until we stop making more people. Genetically modified food crops will not help us with that problem, so why should we waste resources and risk the planet's health by employing them?

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:44 AM on July 12, 2001


Mars, even if we start now, population is going to keep rising for a long time. Population control is a long term problem which can't be solved rapidly. It unquestionably has to be dealt with, and I think it's going to be.

In the mean time, we have to figure out how to feed all the people who are going to be born. We also have to deal with the fact that a lot of them have unbalanced diets, and we have to deal with local tragedies like insect attacks which destroy the crops of a dozen, or even only one, farmer. To him it's a disaster even if for you it's only a faint blip on the radar.

Is it OK for people to starve if you don't know them and don't have to watch?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:50 AM on July 12, 2001


SDB: Part of the outcry against GM foods are that they become too genetically similar, thus increasing the likelihood of a blight that wipes out a whole crop- the classic unintended consequence, you create an entire strain of your crop identical, impervious to a previous cause of blight, and then... well, then something you didn't even think of comes along, and your entire crop is completely vulnerable to that one thing! The genetic engineering that humans have been doing for thousands of years is of a slow and still guided-by-nature kind, where genetic diversity is maintained. Genetically diverse strains of your crop is a better method, it ensures that any one blight only takes out part of the crop.
posted by hincandenza at 12:03 PM on July 12, 2001


Hincandenza, I'm afraid that's nonsense. The crops we grow now are already vulnerable to exactly the kind of blight you describe, and they are already genetically concentrated. Go read up on the Irish potato crop collapse, for instance. That kind of thing won't be made any worse by genetic modification of our food crops, and indeed there's a chance it will become less of a risk.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:34 PM on July 12, 2001


The genetic engineering that humans have been doing for thousands of years is of a slow and still guided-by-nature kind, where genetic diversity is maintained.

Sure - but it doesn't feed enough people! And it's just as subject to blight and disease - more so, since the original diseases that the biotech addresses still affect the non-biotech. And you're buying into the "precautionary principle" fallacy - stop research and development now, because something may happen. That's Dark Ages thinking.

The fact is, the world needs these foods. We already eat them, they have never shown any ill-effects, and there are a lot of hungry people in crappy parts of the world that need this stuff.
posted by UncleFes at 12:36 PM on July 12, 2001


but it doesn't feed enough people!

but it would, if we would give it to the people instead of destroying it or wasting it...

there are lots of legitimate arguments for both sides (potential health benefits in things like golden rice; potential ecosystem collapse or health threats to people with sensitivities) but I don't quite see how this is one of them. we really don't need more food, we just need to distribute it more effectively. but apparently that won't happen as long as it isn't cost-effective for the wealthy people/nations?

as for unmodified food sources, there are plenty of them if you grow them or make them yourself.
posted by rabi at 1:28 PM on July 12, 2001


Of course it won't happen unless it's cost effective, because otherwise it can't be sustainable. Eventually the money funding that kind of philanthropy will run out.

The "we just have to distribute it" argument is always brought up, but perhaps you'd like to tell us what the cost of distributing it is?
posted by wenham at 1:45 PM on July 12, 2001


The fact is, the world needs these foods. We already eat them, they have never shown any ill-effects, and there are a lot of hungry people in crappy parts of the world that need this stuff.

You may eat them; in other parts of the world, you have the choice not to.

But that's by the by; Monsanto should not have the opportunity to wield the same intellectual property rights over the world's food supply that the RIAA and MPAA do over CDs and DVDs.
posted by holgate at 1:50 PM on July 12, 2001


Steven:

Mars, even if we start now, population is going to keep rising for a long time. Population control is a long term problem which can't be solved rapidly. It unquestionably has to be dealt with, and I think it's going to be.

Of course it will be dealt with. The question is, how? Are we going to reduce our numbers, or are resource constraints going to do it for us? Right now, there's nothing like the political ability to reduce population via birth control, which means Mother Nature is going to do the job for us with drought, famine, and disease.

Maybe it's harsh, but I don't see what we stand to gain by getting in the way. Fine, so genetic engineering may increase food production - but it does nothing to stop reduction of freshwater supplies, overfishing, climate change and its attendant deforestation and sea level rise (rather a big deal in Bangladesh), epidemic disease... can we really do anything more than postpone and thereby worsen the inevitable?

But it doesn't matter, anyway. From the second linked article I get the idea that gene splicing is already out of the industrial world and into the places where more efficient crop production is desired. They're not going to hold back, and I can't blame them. So the inevitable famine, drought, epidemic, and population crash are already on the way to being worsened, and there's little we can do to stop it now.

Is it OK for people to starve if you don't know them and don't have to watch?

I don't see what my personal circumstances have to do with the discussion. Overpopulation is already here, and people are going to starve and die. The question is simply when and how many.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:00 PM on July 12, 2001


I'd think the price of developing safe crops that will grow in non-arable lands and aren't suspectile to locusts, etc is much more than stopping the system of deliberate price fixing by non-growing or all out destruction of food by wealthier nations.

The "miracle crop" looks too much like the blunder of building glass and steel office buildings in the middle east. Yeah, they're nice and western but the air conditioning bill for a glass structure in that climate is ridiculous.
posted by skallas at 2:01 PM on July 12, 2001


The only major food source which is unmodified is fish

Fish too.

Huh, last I heard we had more than enough food to feed the entire world's population many times over.

Actually, even in areas of famine, there is often enough food available to prevent starvation. Famine isn't a problem of not enough food (or too many people for available foodstuffs), but a lack of ability of segments of a population to procure food. To expand upon SDB's example, during the Irish potato famine, enough food was grown in Ireland to feed its entire population. Unfortunately, most of it was sent to England because the English could afford to pay for it.

Sorry, sbd - though I'm actually on your side on this topic, the economic arguments that posit genetically engineered foods as essential to eradicating famine are fairly specious. Genetically engineered food is not a bad thing in and of itself, and it provides many benefits to farmers - but it's not a silver bullet for fighting hunger.

For anyone interested in the economics of development, I highly recommend almost anything by Amartya Sen.
posted by dchase at 2:04 PM on July 12, 2001


we really don't need more food, we just need to distribute it more effectively.

Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish... or in this case, to grow rice that can stand up to the predators and weather of where the man lives, and not only will he eat for a lifetime, but his kids will get valuable vitamins that will keep them from getting beri-beri and going blind.

The "miracle crop" looks too much like the blunder of building glass and steel office buildings in the middle east. Yeah, they're nice and western but the air conditioning bill for a glass structure in that climate is ridiculous.

Either it is desirable to them or it isn't. If it isn't, Monsanto isn't going to hold a gun to their head and force them to grow golden rice. But they should be aware of the consequences if they don't.

Monsanto isn't the only biotech firm in the world, either.

Overpopulation is already here, and people are going to starve and die.

Well, if there's plenty of food, plenty of land, and plenty of everything else, is it really overpopulation?
posted by UncleFes at 2:24 PM on July 12, 2001


And much of this research isn't going to be done by corporations in any case. That's another hobgoblin that the greens always hold up here, that it's exclusively going to be done by companies like Monsanto who won't be giving it to the poor.

If that were so, how the heck did the poor nations of the world already have a green revolution? The answer is that these kinds of crops reproduce themselves (surprise) and that a lot of the research is going to be government funded. The new capabilities have become cheap and easy and we're on the edge of being able to perform miracles. It may be possible to create grains which can fix their own nitrogen, and which don't require insecticides, and which can tolerate salt, and which are nutritionally complete.

It's nearly certain that at least some of this will happen, as long as it isn't blocked by "I'm alright, Jack" ass attitudes from European environmentalists.

Holgate, you don't have a choice now about eating genetically modified food. Every grain and nearly every fruit and vegetable you eat is already genetically modified. Unless you subsist entirely on a diet of fish and nuts and mushrooms, you're eating genetically modified food now.

Mars, I'm horrified. I simply don't believe that you'd have that attitude if it was your country and your family which was facing imminent starvation.

I am not trying to claim that we should ignore population control. That's a strawman you dragged into the conversation. I never mentioned population control one way or the other. We definitely should work on population control. The two are not mutually exclusive. But even if we do we're still going to face food shortages, and malnutrition from diets which have plenty of calories but are low in protein and are unbalanced. And we have the ability to prevent that. (Or we would, if the greens would shut the fuck up.)

I think I know what's going on. It's a question of risk-versus-reward. For the third world, the reward (enough food to prevent starvation) is huge and outweighs the risk (a small chance that one particular food crop might become contaminated and unusable).

But to a European the balance is different. In Europe, there's going to be plenty of food regardless; starvation is someone else's problem. But the risk is still there, so a small risk outweighs the negligible benefit.

I can't accept that logic. I consider it fundamentally selfish. Third world starvation is my problem. I am willing to take the risk that the US might lose a food crop in order to prevent the greater evil of mass starvation in the Third World.

And genetically modified foods are the gift that keeps giving. Once they're created, the third world can recreate them for themselves without further assistance from us. We know because they already are doing so with the genetically modified crops which were developed over the last fifty years, which have saved countless lives already.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:38 PM on July 12, 2001


Monsanto isn't going to hold a gun to their head and force them to grow golden rice.

It's more complex and insidious than that, UncleFes, with the big corp's ownership of patents and PVP's. That article is long, but well worth the read.

The Mexican challenge over its own enola bean is a good example.

I find it especially distasteful that Richard Manning (2nd article in the original post above) mentions "talk of suicides," after what happened to the Indian farmers in '99. Actually that link answers a question I had after reading the original article as to who's likely paying for the GM research in India.

(btw dchase, I'm just tucking into Sen's "Development as Freedom.")
posted by spandex at 3:45 PM on July 12, 2001


Seems to me that we're already seeing some of the consequences of frankenfood. Genetically modified foods have already turned into these badass super weeds. Of course, for every article like this, ADM will likely sponsor 37 different PBS specials on how GM foods will feed poor starving kids.
posted by snakey at 4:05 PM on July 12, 2001


Steven:

Mars, I'm horrified. I simply don't believe that you'd have that attitude if it was your country and your family which was facing imminent starvation.

Maybe you're right, and I'm heartless and hypocritical - but that doesn't make my argument invalid.

Overpopulation is already a problem. A correction is already inevitable. Lack of food is one of the things holding back population growth. Add better food technology and the rate of population growth will increase, thereby accelerating pressure on other resources. Genetically modified food provides more food without solving the problem that made more food necessary. Genetically modified food will not solve the hunger problem any more than the green revolution did.

It may seem heartless to do nothing to stop the current disaster - but isn't it more heartless to shove it off into the future, let it get worse, and thereby cause even more misery and death for the next generation?

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:24 PM on July 12, 2001


Holgate, you don't have a choice now about eating genetically modified food.

I have a choice not to eat food of which the genetic structure is listed as a corporate asset on an annual report. But if the biosphere's DNA is to be divvied up between corporations, we have a duty to ensure that local producers are the ones who benefit.

You're missing a big issue, though, Steven: that the foreign debt burden on the developing world forces poorer countries to give over disproportionate amounts of agricultural land to cash crops for export, rather than devote them to feeding the populace. That problem will only be resolved by a comprehensive settlement of debt repayments, and will only be exacerbated by the emergence of an import market of GM crops. After all, if a biotech firm is selling GM rice, where do governments find the hard currency to pay for it? By growing more coffee, or cocoa, or bananas (or coca and opium); and by selling off interests in natural resources.

And as someone who's spent time in India and Nepal, I can promise you that my head is not stuck in the sand.
posted by holgate at 4:33 PM on July 12, 2001


Mars, clearly hunger doesn't stop people from reproducing. (I don't think...I mean, those babies in the Sally Struthers commercials come from somewhere) Education will.
So, let's feed the hungry people in whatever way we can. If we use genetically modified foods, that's fine....as long as the benefits outweigh the risks. Then, we can try to impliment programs in developing nations to teach them about birth and population control.
It seems immoral to let a hungry person starve, under pretty much any circumstances.
posted by Doug at 4:37 PM on July 12, 2001


If it isn't, Monsanto isn't going to hold a gun to their head and force them to grow golden rice.

You're not getting it. Its the economics of the situation, like the giant air conditioners I mentioned. Who will pay for GM seeds when you don't even have an economy to begin with. As Holgate pointed out these countries could sell their few resources for the "miracle cure" which no one is giving a 100% guarantee to produce more than ordinary crops. If it happens its going to be a handout anyway or worse a big loan (think World Bank and IMF) they can't afford to pay back.

On the World Game level it makes a lot more sense to stop playing the economics of false scarcity and give it away.

As far as Mars' neo-Darwinism I don't see any truth to that at all. Starvation (to death) is the exception its malnutrition and sickness that keeps potentially healthy people from working and being productive. Productive people equals real and tangible progress not some Malthusian suicide fantasy.
posted by skallas at 5:37 PM on July 12, 2001


SDB: that these kinds of crops reproduce themselves (surprise)

Um, I'm afraid that's not exactly the whole truth:
Seeds for many high yielding crop varieties are patented and farmers are legally obliged not to save and use seed from the crop that they grow, but rather to buy more seed from the company. A technique has been developed to prevent farmers from saving or re-using patented seed. This technology results in the F2 seed (offspring of the plants grown by farmers) being inviable. This technology is called the trait protection system and is covered under US patent No. 5,723,765 (Oliver et al., 1998).

And, again, the premise that a a shortage of foodstuffs (and, equally, the assumption of others that an overabundance of people) is the cause of starvation in the third world is also demonstrably incorrect. You're taking a fact - there are people without food to eat - jumping to a simplistic conclusion - there must not be enough food (or there are too many people). But, there is enough food or resources to acquire food within most regions experiencing or at risk of experiencing famine. If there is enough food now, then what benefit does genetically modified food really provide? Shouldn't we be focusing on the reasons why food is not getting to people than on how to create more food?
posted by dchase at 5:48 PM on July 12, 2001


Another aspect of the complex equation that skallas and dchase have mentioned is that overproduction of cash crops has, in the long run, done more to impoverish the developed world than bring economic benefits: modern cash-crop plantations, for instance, are renowned for monocropping, which quickly strips the soil of its nutrients, especially if the land is claimed through deforestation. That's how much of Ethiopia, through its dependence upon coffee exports, was transformed from a viable temperate climate into the wasteland we know so well.

So again, you have to break the cycle of reliance upon cash-cropping, which literally prepares the ground for famine. And that's why sustainable, bottom-up schemes such as the use of velvet bean in Mexico are so much more promising than the top-down GM project, which perpetuates the dependence upon foreign exchange.
posted by holgate at 6:32 PM on July 12, 2001


gah, "impoverish the developing world".
posted by holgate at 6:44 PM on July 12, 2001


dchase, I'm not assuming there isn't enough food to eat now. I'm assuming there won't be enough food to eat in fifteen years. If we want to prevent that we better start working on it now.

And you're making the mistake of assuming that all the crops in question will be developed by commercial corporations and sold under license. A lot of them are going to be developed by the governments of the countries where they'll be used, and will be given away.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:14 PM on July 12, 2001


Steven, on what factual basis are you making the assumption that there won't be enough food to eat in fifteen years without the use of genetically modified foods? While the reports I've seen may reveal genuine reason for concern, I haven't seen any serious analyses pointing to situations that require genetically modified food as a solution, or even where genetically modified food would provide a long-term solution. Again - I don't think genetically modified food is bad, but I don't know of any evidence to support the conclusion that genetically modified food will be anything more than simply helpful. It will even be very helpful to some. But it still doesn't address the fundamental problem of hunger, which is the distribution, not the manufacture, of food.

And you're making the mistake of assuming that all the crops in question will be developed by commercial corporations and sold under license. A lot of them are going to be developed by the governments of the countries where they'll be used, and will be given away.

Wow. That one's a stunner. Correct me if I am wrong, but are you saying:

A) I'm making a bad assumption by positing that the crops in question will most likely be developed by commercial corporations and sold under license based purely on the flimsy empirical facts of 1) that's the way it's being done today, 2) that's the way agribusiness is actively and explicitly lobbying for it to be done in the future, and 3) that's the way it's been done with high-yield hybrid seed for the past few decades.

while

B) Your assumption that all of the governments of the developing world will develop genetically modified foods on their own and give it away is based on pretty solid evidence; like the present situation where the governments of African countries are pumping billions of dollars into developing and giving away drugs to their people to fight AIDS while American and European drug companies are cheering them on, or the historical practices in all countries which faced famine where it was ok for food that could have fed the starving to be provided to the highest bidder rather than the most hungry.
?
posted by dchase at 8:25 PM on July 12, 2001


I'm not as familiar with Sen's work as I would like to be -- as, really, I need to be to take part in this debate -- so I can only post an excerpt from an article in the popular press, and I can't really make any judgments about the quality of Sen's research on this problem:

Sen has also studied the world population "problem," a consideration of certain economists since the time of Malthus. His findings here (consistent with others in the field) are an extension of his work on famines; he is certain there is no overall world food shortage today, and there will not be one for the foreseeable future. More than ever, Sen's findings should force us to recognize that the "population explosion" alarmists (who just got another chance to shudder as the world's total passed 6 billion) are motivated by a combination of fear, guilt and old-fashioned Western elitism, disguised as scientific concern.

World food production, Sen shows, has more than surpassed the amount needed for a population whose rate of growth is declining dramatically just about everywhere. Many people (1.3 billion by one count) are hungry because they do not command enough economic power to obtain food, either by growing or buying it. In fact, Sen makes an extraordinary but persuasive assertion: World food production would increase even more if those more than 1 billion poor had more purchasing power, because they would bid up prices and stimulate even greater supply.

Are you familiar with Sen's conclusions about the causes Bangladesh famine of 1974, Steven? These are very real and complex problems you're talking about, but economists seem to take Sen's arguments that increased food supplies won't solve famine quite seriously.
posted by snarkout at 8:29 PM on July 12, 2001


Malthusian suicide fantasies make the baby jesus cry.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:08 PM on July 12, 2001


dchase: Yes, you are wrong. No, that is not what I am saying.

I seem to be sitting in a vehicle surrounded by strawmen. Every time I look around, another one appears. I don't know where they're coming from. Each of them seems to be expressing an opinion I don't hold, and I sure wish they'd go away and leave me alone.

I don't think that all the nations of the world will invest in genetic engineering. I think some of them will because some of them are doing so now. The second article I linked to gave examples of that. As the technology required becomes cheaper and the knowledge becomes more widespread and the need becomes greater, I think more and more governments will invest greater amounts into it, but I doubt that it will ever become universal, done by every single government on Earth. (Lichtenstein is a good candidate for a hold-out, for instance, not to mention Vatican City.)

I don't think that every single genetically modified seed will come from a corporation, and I don't think that every single one will be given away by a government lab. I think that some will come from each. (And if you think that RIAA is having trouble controlling digital distribution of music, and MPAA controlling piracy of DVDs, wait until you see the futility of corporations trying to track every seed which contains genes they developed. That, ultimately, is a problem which will solve itself. Irrespective of the law, this is not something which ultimately can be owned.)

I don't think that continued development of genetically modified foods will prevent all future famines. There are too many ways in which a famine can occur, and in some cases they happen because someone wants them to (such as in southern Somalia or Biafra) as a weapon of war. However, there's a difference between that and widespread famine that happens even despite the best efforts of the governments in question to prevent them, and that latter is indeed something which genetically modified foods have the ability to significantly lessen, though not to entirely prevent. But that's enough to justify doing it; the fact that it's not a perfect solution doesn't mean it is perfectly useless. It's in between, and it is still worth doing.

Part of the reason there is plenty of food now is because of the genetic modifications which have already been done to food crops, starting about fifty years ago. I'd like that process to continue. I want people to stop thinking that we're about to embark on something new here, when what's about to happen will only be a continuation of something which has been happening as long as most of the participants here have been alive.

The factual basis for the prediction of future problems is the UN committee which is about to release a report on that issue, whose main author I quoted in the original link of this thread. She says that genetically modified foods are needed and she says that the greens don't understand the situation. She knows more about it than I do but what I do know about it suggests that she's telling the truth. (I'm also about to order this book on the subject.)

Sen's study evaluates the current situation. It doesn't evaluate what the situation would be like today if there had been a movement similar to today's greens opposing genetic modification of food starting fifty years ago which prevented all the miracle crops we're growing now. Sen's study affirms the wisdom of genetically modifying food by confirming that it has already succeeding in preventing starvation except when caused deliberately for political purposes (such as in Biafra) or by economic dislocations of various kinds or by local ecological catastrophes such as droughts. Sen's study is not a counterexample, it's a proof of concept.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:13 PM on July 12, 2001


Even accepting your premise, Steven, that gene-splicing is simply an extension of the Green Revolution's hybridisation projects, what guarantee is there that GM variants won't lead to the same problems of unsustainability that came out of the 1960s: monoculture, reliance upon chemical agents, and the pursuit of exports rather than domestic use? After all, it currently takes massive subsidies and market manipulation to ensure the survival of intensive agriculture in the EU.

That's why I think GM remains, at very best, a cosmetic treatment, foregrounded by an efficient publicity machine. The problem is structural: even if GM development goes on within domestic markets, that's not going to break the cycle that leads countries such as India to export or hoard their grain surpluses, and to invest in monocropping that quickly depletes the land. (More green propaganda here, anyway, though with lots of case studies.)
posted by holgate at 4:47 AM on July 13, 2001


I don't think that continued development of genetically modified foods will prevent all future famines

Ah, there's the difference. I don't think that the continued development of genetically modified foods will prevent any future famines. There is no causal link between the ability to produce food and hunger and famine. If there is no causal link, then nothing that improves food production production could be reasonably considered essential to solving the problem.

But that's beside the point, and I apologize. You are correct, your post, and the links pointed to in the post are not about bioengineered food being essential to solving problems of hunger and famine. Rather they talk about the benefits the foods provide to farmers - allowing them to be more productive (and thus improve their standard of living). While I did read your links, I'm afraid I responded to the first post, rather than the topic you presented. Again, I apologize for moving this discussion on this tangent.

You may like to know, though that the U.N. report is already out. (And - indeed - it includes no discussion of solving world hunger).

Also, I may be misreading you, but I'm under the impression that you're not familiar with the work of Amartya Sen. If you are interested in the topic of global development he is a must read. He's done a bit more than a "study" or two on the issue of development, and his work doesn't just "address the current situation". He's widely accepted as one of, if not the leading authority on development today (probably why those Swedes gave him that funky award a few years ago.)
posted by dchase at 6:13 AM on July 13, 2001


Holgate, there is no guarantee. Nothing in engineering is guaranteed. Engineering isn't about finding perfect solutions; it's about finding solutions which are probably going to be better than what we have now. When we build a bridge there's no guarantee that it won't someday get congested by carrying more traffic than we design it to handle. If that happens, we build another bridge.

What's that got to do with anything? I'll accept "better than we have now". Engineering isn't about perfect, it's about good-enough.

WRT specifically to insecticides and fertilizer, those are two of the top issues they intend to directly address. There is research going on now into grafting genes from peanuts into chick peas which will make them less vulnerable to insects. That one is likely to succeed. There is also research going on into figuring out how to make grain do the trick legumes do about fixing their own nitrogen. That's a longer shot but it may succeed. I think it's likely to happen in the long run, but it may take a while. (It's a tough problem.)

But they're also going to work on making these crops more nutritionally complete. It's not that these new versions of food crops will be perfect, but rather that they'll be better than what's being grown now. I think that is a safe bet. They won't solve all the problems, but they'll solve some of them.

It's also inevitable that they'll create new problems. That's how it goes with engineering. When that happens, those problems will be addressed, too. Engineering is an incremental process.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:02 AM on July 13, 2001


When we build a bridge there's no guarantee that it won't someday get congested by carrying more traffic than we design it to handle. If that happens, we build another bridge.

And when the big bad wolf blows down your house of straw, you realise you should have gone to the brickyard. I wish that didn't sound so flippant, and I apologise, but the analogy holds. Famine is not a biological problem, it's a political one. You're thinking in terms of yield and nutrition, and that's something that needs work, but the problem is, at heart, one of supply. India produces more than enough rice and grain to feed its population; and yet surpluses are exported, or held by the state. You could come up with varieties of staple crops that cure cancer, but they wouldn't make a bit of difference if it makes greater economic sense to grow another hundred acres of coffee than to support subsistence agriculture for another hundred people.

When I think of the amount invested in biotech, simply because it is "the science of tomorrow", I can't help but wonder what might have come of funding engineers and scientists to investigate sustainable development: I could quite happily support all manner of tinkering with green manures and crop rotations, because they don't offer jam today and desert tomorrow. And I wish it were a problem that engineers could solve, rather than politicians and economists, because I have more faith in engineers. But until steps are taken to address the structural failings of the developing world, including the problems of debt interest repayments, any technological advance is going to be a sticking plaster on a melanoma.
posted by holgate at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2001


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