In defence of Mark Lynas: Five Green Herrings and the Amish

Permaculture teacher and author Patrick Whitefield has just limked on Twitter to a blog by Chris Smaje in response to the widely discussed talk by Mark Lynas on genetic engineering.

Entitled Five Reasons Why Mark Lynas Is Wrong About GM Technology it is really five green herrings of the sort we have seen continually by GE detractors.

His first is that Lynas makes a false comparison between the “science” for climate change (AGW) and genetic engineering. Greens accept the science on the former but not the latter says Lynas, which Smaje challenges as a false comparison.

I agree that there is a false parallel here, but not for the reasons that Smaje gives. Greens don’t accept the “science of climate change” any more than they accept the science regarding the safety on GE: what they do generally is point to the agreed science that CO2 is having a warming effect, and translate this into the same pseudo-religious rhetoric that they use to discuss GE: humans are Bad, technology is not to be trusted, we are hurting Gaia and the Sky Gods will unleash retribution in the form of storms and famines.

Smaje is at least half-way correct on this issue- Science can show that AGW is real (although how much warming is actually anthropogenic is not so clear..) but “What it hasn’t shown – and what it can’t show – is what, if anything, we should do about it…” – exactly the point that climate skeptics have been making for years.

Smaje goes on to say “By contrast, nobody has ever questioned that GM is a viable, implementable technology – the question is whether we should in fact implement it, on which “the science” is equally as impotent in its ability to answer as in the case of climate change.”

This is not quite true. The anti-GE movement does indeed routinely make the argument that the actual implementation of the technology has been a complete failure. Smaje himself goes onto reference Vandemeer and the IAASTD report as examples of scientists who question the efficacy of GE.

Nonetheless, Smaje’s point is a valid one: science is good at testing specific hypotheses, such as the relative safety of a new technology, or temperature trends, but policy is not an issue for science alone. The inconsistency amongst the Greens is more that while scientists are used as authorities with regard to policy on climate change all the time, and we are told we should follow specific (or all-to-often unspecific) policy actions to deal with climate change because the science is settled, on the issue of genetic engineering- as also with nuclear power- scientist’s policy recommendations are ignored, because they are assumed to be industry shills directly or indirectly, and not to be trusted.

This is evident in Smaje’s later comment that “I accept that some people genuinely think GM does solve problems – though I suspect biotechnologists are heavily overrepresented in this particular category “- of course, biotech scientists have vested interests, in perpetuating their careers and finding and justifying their existence! Just like climate scientists, no? I mean, funny how most scientists warning about the dangers of climate change are, you know- *climate scientists* isn’t it? Even more odd, many of the most vocal proponents of small-scale organic farming are… small scale organic farmers!

Smaje accepts that GE is probably safe but links to a fine Green Herring on an activist site to sow the seed of doubt that “maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty”.

The “OMFG Viral Genes!!” story is just the latest anti-GMO meme to be doing the rounds. It is complete bunk, and the failure of Smaje to recognise this does rather bring into question his scientific understanding of the issue.

He also links to other Green Herrings, such as the super-weeds issue: but weed resistance is not an issue only of GE, and have been with us since the 1970s at least. As with so many objections to GE, the arguments apply to farming in general, including often organic farming, not just GE.

Smaje’s second point is Lynas’ comparison with GE as a technology and the invention of the wheel. “Turning a question of practical science (‘how can I solve this problem’) into a social ideology (‘the scientific solution of problems inherently constitutes social progress and is therefore a good thing’) is nothing more than an act of faith. If we adopt GM it should be because it solves a particular problem, not because it represents ‘progress’ ” he says, and I agree and I think most of the scientists who point to evidence that does support the usefulness of GE would also agree: support for a technology should be based on whether it does actually solve problems and make things better, not on some vague abstracted idea of “progress”. So this seems to be a straw-man argument, and Smaje seems pretty muddled about what point he is trying to make.

(As an interesting aside with regard to the invention of the wheel, Mann writes the Olmec Indians of South America apparently invented the wheel but never actually found a use for it except in children’s toys. And look what happened to them!)

It gets worse: “Maybe, just maybe,” says Smaje, “cultures that deliberate actively about the paths they wish to take (like the Amish, for example, an easy target for Lynas’s derision) have something to teach cultures like ours that obsess over every new toy in the store.”

But perhaps Lynas is also wrong here, because- irony of ironies- it turns out that although the Amish are in many ways stuck c.1850 with the horse and cart (well at least they adopted the wheel…) some Amish are sufficiently open-minded and progressive about technology to have embraced …Genetic Engineering.

Seriously. Amish farmers in Pennsylvania are growing GE nicotine-free tobacco, and BT corn. (They also feature in the excellent documentary Jimmy’s GM Food Fight.) Why? Because it helps improve yields that would otherwise be compromised by their eschewing of other technologies in farming such as tractors. This ties in with Professor Ronalds’ suggestion that Rachel Carson would embrace GE technology, precisely because it represents a biological rather than a chemical approach.

Point three is where Smaje’s real ideological colors shine through and where I start to get angry: with regard to Vitamin A -enhanced Golden Rice he uses to Green-colonialist “Let them eat broccoli” argument: Vitamin A deficiency is all a result of injustice and inequality, therefore Golden Rice is the wrong solution- by which he means of course, it is not the solution that suits his ideological view of the world.

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes some 670.000 deaths and another 350,000 to go blind every year, with tens of millions more suffering from other effects from VAD in developing countries. Golden Rice could really help this problem, but Smaje just wants to ask to same old tired leftish question:

” why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place? Could it be because their income or land access is so attenuated that they can’t afford to grow or buy the fresh vegetables that could otherwise provide the Vitamin A they need? And if so, whose interests are being served by promoting GM rice rather than, say, land reform? “

It is extraordinarily naive and ignorant to think that the scientists and researchers concerned about VAD, and those working on the Golden Rice project, are not fully aware of these issues. The implementation of a new technology such as Golden Rice is not instead of land reform or other political change, but in fact might be a pre-requisite for this change: populations where VAD or other conditions are prevalent are trapped in a situation where malnutrition makes any other kind of self-help extraordinarily difficult. For rich-world small-farm advocates like Smaje this is incomprehensible: he might as well say, why dont they just go to their local organic wholefood shop and buy some Vitamin A pills?

His near-paranoid emphasis on “who would benefit from Golden Rice” shows his concern is not for those who would benefit the most- the children who might otherwise die or go blind- but for his ideology, and ideology that rests firmly in a retro-romantic view of agararian life that takes no account of the need for industrial development in general. Asking why are these people suffering from VAD in the first place is only possible for someone who assumes that everything was great in the old days until evil capitalism came along and robbed the poor from their ability to nourish themselves.

I am not saying that new agricultural technology does not and has not lead to new problems, and the dislocation of rural communities, and in some cases the at least temporary destruction of subsistence-farmers’ livelihoods. I am sure this has and does happen. But the reality is that technology in farming has in general benefited the world’s poor and staved off hunger; in the old days, VAD, starvation, high infant mortality and many other diseases and nutrient deficiencies were very often the norm. It is not that Lynas ignores the political context of land access etc, but that Smaje ignores the context of political environmentalism, which Lynas targets with his comments on Greenpeace’s despicable and inhumane activism against this humanitarian project, something which Smaje revealingly has nothing to say about.

Smaje’s fourth point is addressed to the idea of “sustainable intensification”- using technology to improve yields, which could allow more land to be returned to wilderness, which Smaje dismisses out of hand: “The stupidity of this idea really needs a whole book to unpick.” While I agree that every aspect of this issue requires careful analysis and evidence, Smaje does not make the case for dismissing it: the obvious facts are that we cannot feed the world without industrial agriculture, and the hope is that genetic engineering may be one tool that will help this become more sustainable. For the milions of city dwellers to go back to the land and run small farms like Smaje’s would be a disaster for nature.

Again, Smaje misses the point by claiming that Lynas “imagines an ideal world in which per hectare crop yields can expand limitlessly in lockstep with increasing demand from populations untethered to any sense of local resource limitation.” The whole point about genetic engineering is that it should result in lower demands for fertilisers and other inputs, because it is a biological approach. For example, blight-resistant potatoes could add 20% to EU potato yields, with no other inputs at all, simply by saving con crop-losses. Flood-tolerant rice the same.

Smaje asks, will the urban populations care about increasing and preserving wilderness? I would point him to the ideas of the environmental transition, mentioned in my last post. The legions of supporters for Greenpeace are clearly not mainly culled from the tiny number of small farmers left in developing countries, but from highly educated and relatively affluent young urban dwellers, just the kind of young radical like myself in fact whose first act of rebellion was to become vegetarian.

The final point seems self-contradictory: first he makes it clear(er) that his main issue is with corporate control of the seed supply; then he attacks Lynas’ support for a more open-source environment for GE seeds, while at the same time acknowledging that this is not an issue for GE alone but for seeds and plant breeding in general.

“One good reason for concentrating control of seeds – in fact, the only good reason I can think of – is that without it the world of seed sales fills with hucksters, con men and snake oil merchants.”

This misses the point that one of the main arguments against the anti-GE movement is that it has raised the bar for licences way beyond the reach of anyone other than giant corporations like Monsanto- who then become the principle focus of the campaign, a self-reinforcing feedback if ever there was one. So Smaje moves the goalposts from “we can’t trust these eveil capitalists and their scientist shills” to “we need regulations to keep us from snake-oil salesmen”. Snake-oil like homeopathy for animals perhaps, such as is still promoted by his beloved Soil Association, or magic-beans such as those promised by Biodynamics perhaps, also promoted by the S.A.

Smaje concludes “I could go on – I could mention Lynas’s embarrassingly ignorant attack on organic farming, his selective uses of statistics that are every bit as unscientific as those of the anti-GM zealots he excoriates,..”
Well he will actually have to write that post if he wants to be taken seriously, but for now yes this muddle of green herrings and straw men is more than enough. The problem with this kind of analysis of GE – and there is nothing here we have not seen dozens of times before- is that there is an inherent assumption that underlies the whole subject that GE is something we should be uniquely suspicious of, that GE is guilty in every which way until proven innocent. Smaje fails to give us any insight into what GE is really for, or any examples of how it is being used and what other traits might be coming down the line.

Most of all, he fails to show why GE is not just another technology that can be used for plant breeding, which is fundamental to all successful farming, whether small-scale or large scale, organic or otherwise. And he falls into the trap of the false dichotomy, that these things can be reduced to “big-scale industrial/GE” and “small local organic” when in reality we need both. At the same time, at then end of the article he undermines everything he has been saying by admitting ” I suspect in the future the whole hoo-hah about GM will be seen as a diversion from the real political issues about the food system, and GM technologies will be seen at best as just another tool in the box, not some kind of global saviour.” Noone that I am aware of who advocates for GE would see it as anything else, although it clearly is a technology that has real potential to address issues other methods cannot, and we cannot do without it.

For a more nuanced and useful look at global food issues and technology I would point to this fascinating talk by Professor Louise Fresco.

Smaje is an advocate of small farming and I support that also for those who choose it. The movement underpinning small farms, organics and permaculture is underpinned by an ideology rooted more in nostalgia for a non-existent past where everyone lived on Happy Farms that provided nothing but abundance and joy, rather than in anything resembling reason and science. There is a world of difference for those in the rich world to choose this, when they have industrial farms as a back-up and are never likely to go hungry and have access to other technologies to help make their farms more efficient such as anything from polytunnels to tractors and pumps- not to mention computers to write about it on- compared to the poor who have no choice, no supermarket back-up and who struggle to meet basic nutritional needs from lack of development. Nor has he attempted to explain why GE would not be as useful to the small farmer as other plant breeding methods which he presumably is happy to use himself.

Maybe, just maybe, advocates of small farming like Smaje would have something to learn from the more forward-thinking Amish.

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50 Comments

  1. Seriously–when you are being techno-lapped by the “forward-thinking Amish” you really need to step back and think about the issue again.

    And the ‘let them eat broccoli” argument pisses me off to no end. What if farmers want to grow culturally and regionally appropriate foods and not what others think they should eat? And if broccoli was so easy why isn’t it already happening? It’s fine if farmers want to make changes, but this recent item explained why it’s not always desired by farmers. http://www.ifmr.co.in/blog/2013/01/30/why-dont-indian-farmers-grow-more-fruits-and-vegetables/

    This is the case for that GMO bean in Brazil (developed by a public project) that I hope will help the farmers who want to grow this culturally important crop. I can’t believe there are some well-fed NGO reps who would withhold that from them.

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  2. Once again, I’m in agreement.

    “Greens don’t accept the ‘science of climate change’ any more than they accept the science regarding the safety on GE: what they do generally is point to the agreed science that CO2 is having a warming effect, and translate this into the same pseudo-religious rhetoric that they use to discuss GE: humans are Bad, technology is not to be trusted, we are hurting Gaia and the Sky Gods will unleash retribution in the form of storms and famines.”

    Sturm und Drang/Romanticism are the hallmarks of the green movement. It is, at its very core, a counter-Enlightenment reactionary movement.

    Crichton commented on their actions and beliefs a decade ago, “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

    “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday—these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know…These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

    “And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly it seems facts aren’t necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It’s about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them.”

    “Smaje’s fourth point is addressed to the idea of “sustainable intensification”- using technology to improve yields, which could allow more land to be returned to wilderness, which Smaje dismisses out of hand: “The stupidity of this idea really needs a whole book to unpick.”

    Where has Smaje been for the past forty years? Jesse Ausubel has reported, “For centuries, farmers expanded cropland faster than population grew, and thus cropland per person rose. When we needed more food, we ploughed more land, and fears about running out of arable land grew. But fifty years ago, farmers stopped plowing up more nature per capita. Meanwhile, growth in calories in the world’s food supply has continued to outpace population, especially in poor countries. Per hectare, farmers lifted world grain yields about 2 percent annually since 1960. Two percent sounds small but compounds to large effects: it doubles in 35 years and quadruples in 70.

    He notes that much of the rest of the world needs to catch up with the U.S. “On the same area, the average world farmer grows only about 20% of the corn or beans of the top Iowa farmer, and the average Iowa farmer lags more than 30 years behind the yields of his most productive neighbor. Top producers now grow more than 20 tons of corn per hectare compared with a world average for all crops of about 2. From one hectare, an American farmer in 1900 could provide calories or protein for a year for 3 people. In 1999 the top farmers can feed 80 people for a year from the same area. So farmland again abounds, disappointing sellers who get cheap prices per hectare almost everywhere.” (Ausubel 1999)

    “The worst thing for the environment is farming,” says Dr. Pamela Ronald, “It doesn’t matter if it is organic [or conventional]…You have to go in and destroy everything.” (Voosen, 2010) We currently use nearly 40% of Earth’s ice-free land for our food and fiber needs. According to one source, that’s an “area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs.” (Wilcox 2011) If the area figure cited is even close to true, then it is more beneficial to allow farms and ranches to revert to wildland, especially if they are not economically viable.

    Obviously, if one farmer can grow on one acre what used used to take ten, nine acres are now free to do other things (such as being forest) and one farmer will then displace nine other farmers who will need to find less grueling work to feed themselves. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador’s forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming. As we know, having to make everything for yourself, i.e., subsistence, is poverty.

    “Smaje asks, will the urban populations care about increasing and preserving wilderness?” Boy, he is rather clueless, isn’t he? It is only urban populations that care about increasing and preserving wilderness. Rural subsistence farmers are too fucking busy trying to feed their families to give a rat’s arse for “increasing and preserving wilderness.”

    “Smaje is an advocate of small farming and I support that also for those who choose it. The movement underpinning small farms, organics and permaculture is underpinned by an ideology rooted more in nostalgia for a non-existent past where everyone lived on Happy Farms that provided nothing but abundance and joy…”

    I am reminded of what Anthony Bourdain wrote in Medium Raw, “Let it be said that, on balance, I would like the world to look someday, much like Alice [Waters] probably wanted to look. A city on a hill—or many cities on hills—surrounded by unbroken vistas of beautiful countryside; seasonal, and sustainable fruits and vegetables specific to the region. Healthy, happy, antibiotic-free animals would graze freely over the land, depositing their perfectly odorless, organic shit back into the food chain so other wonderful things might grow… The schoolchildren of the inner cities would sit down each day to healthy, balanced, and entirely organic meals cooked—by happy, self actualized, and enlightened workers—to crispy perfection. Evil lawyers and stockbrokers and Vice Presidents of Development for Bruckheimer Productions would leave their professions and return in great numbers to work the fields of this new agrarian wonderland, becoming better people in the process. In this New Age of Enlightenment the Dark Forces of Fast Food would wither and die—as the working poor abandoned them to rush home between jobs and cook wild-nettle risotto for their kids. It would all be clean and safe and nobody would get hurt. And it would all look…Kind of like Berkeley.”

    * * *

    I will let political satirist P.J. O’Rourke have the last word. “Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago…(I)f you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.’”

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  3. Another excellent post. This passage got me going too:

    ” why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place? Could it be because their income or land access is so attenuated that they can’t afford to grow or buy the fresh vegetables that could otherwise provide the Vitamin A they need? And if so, whose interests are being served by promoting GM rice rather than, say, land reform? “

    It’s the kind of thing I was thinking in my late teens and early twenties – when the world was divided into fools and the righteous – but once one looks at the practical necessities of feeding huge numbers of people (regardless of and in spite of any colonial calamities that might have befallen them or not) one sees that with or without Land Reform people need to eat. It’s revolting to think that those pushing for Land Reform instead of improved agriculture would sacrifice millions on the basis of idealized politics. It reminds me of those who, when I was collecting money all those years ago for ‘Live Aid’ refused to donate on the grounds that ‘proper investment’ and ‘political reform’ was needed not aid. As I also was in favour of reform and investment, this straw polarisation of issues drove me nuts.

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    • Yes and I dont think that those who are so concerned with stopping GMOs including humanitarian projects like Golden rice, giving up their weekends to demonstrate and sign petitions, are putting in any particular effort to help with land reform in any case. If it was not GM, but some other method of fortification, noone would be paying any attention.

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  4. I’m a first-time commenter here.

    I agree with the bulk of your argument, but I am not sure about your position on climate change.

    While it’s obvious that the greens display a vast hypocrisy when it comes to opposing GMO but accepting the science on climate change, this doesn’t mean that climate change is not real or that we should ignore it. And while I accept your point that it is not clear HOW MUCH
    GW is caused by humans, my understanding is that in the scientific consensus a link has been established, and that we should therefore vastly reduce CO2 emissions. Yet you seem to give implicit agreement to the idea that ‘what science can’t show is what to do about GW’.

    May I ask what your position is? What, if anything, do you think people or goverments should do about climate change?

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    • You can get a feel for Graham’s position on two of his posts:

      Shill for Monsanto, Shill for Big Oil
      “It’s entirely possible to be convinced by the case about climate change” writes Tim Worstall in Forbes “and yet still believe that what we’re doing about it is even worse than the original problem. It must be possible for that’s the situation I find myself in.”

      Skeptics, Alarmists- it all comes back to the Left and the Right
      For myself, I am glad to remain agnostic on these issues; this is a luxury we can afford, because the policy demands of the “alarmist” camp- those on the Left who routinely exaggerate and fear-monger about CAGW as shown in my last post is routine for the likes of MJ and Grist- are not in any case achievable. There really is no simple, crisp, no-brainer solution to either energy policy or climate change. Removing from the discourse the weasel words “skeptic” and “denier” might be a first step for bringing this awkward truth into clearer view.

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    • Good question! I am kind of agnostic about climate change because yes although there is a link, I am skeptical about just how sure we are about a)how much of a link b)how serious the consequences will be c)and especially I am hugely skeptical about the proposed mainstream green policy responses like Kyoto, wind and renewables etc which seem doomed to failure and the default option is to burn more coal, since most of the activists making the most noise about climate change are also anti-nuclear. So while it appears that greens are calling for “action on climate change” because of the science, this is obviously not the case very often, since they oppose science on so many other issues. “Action on climate” with a policy of just cutting CO2 any way that is possible suits the green anti-technology/growth agenda; it is not really a scientific view but a political one.
      I think that a modest carbon tax that slowly increases makes sense, but not if they are at the expense of the poor; I take Lomborg’s view that we will not and cannot get off fossil fuels until a cheaper cleaner alternative is available; I think the calls for alarm and panic and urgent action regardless of cost or other priorities such as poverty or more local environmental issues are very detrimental. I think we can afford to be agnostic and cautious in our response partly because there really is not consensus on what to do and this is not a scientific issue alone; and partly because there are quite compelling arguments that long-term we are on a decarbonisation pathway anyway, which goes with increasing energy density from wood-coal-oil-gas-nuclear-?? Hydrogen maybe?

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  5. Have you read Brendan O’Neill’s at University College Cork Journalism Society’s annual conference? “Green journalism is the most annoying kind of journalism today, employing a very childlike, almost Biblical language to describe the nastiness and destructiveness of modern industry and the modern world.”

    It’s worth a look.

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  6. Thanks for commenting on my thoughts, Graham – I’m flattered that you’ve expended around 1,000 more words than I used myself to write so voluminously on a post that you claim you can’t take seriously!

    I wish that I had the time to respond at greater length, but I really need to be doing some farming so I’ll have to be fairly brief.

    On my Point 1, you make a few interesting observations, but my initial impression is that you tie yourself in knots trying to disprove my basic contention that Lynas’s comparison between climate and GM science is a false one, but without much success.

    You may well be right that some of the research I linked to is questionable – a peril of trying to dash off a weekly blog in my limited spare time – but you’re silent on IAASTD, Denison and Vandermeer, which I find interesting. However, if we’re going to talk about red herrings, Lynas attempted to discredit organic farming on the basis that some people died eating organic bean sprouts – so I hope I can assume you’re equally sceptical about his own scientific credibility.

    On my second point, the argument in favour of GM because it represents generic ‘progress’ is ubiquitous. It’s implicit in Lynas’s speech – or take a look at Berezow and Campbell in the ‘New Scientist’ of 02.02.13 on “embracing technological progress such as GM crops”. For me, this is not a straw man argument at all, and I think my position is pretty clear – people can say we should do things because they represent ‘progress’ if they like, but they shouldn’t pretend that this view is ‘scientific’. Your comment about the Olmecs (of North America, not South America) is a fine example of the kind of spurious reasoning about the nature of ‘progress’ that disfigures debates in this field. And take another look at what Lynas said about the Amish, and what I said about them. If it’s true that they’re using GM crops, then that supports my position a whole lot better than it does Lynas’s.

    On my Point 3, what I see in your post is a lot of bluster with little substance and, as with Lynas, the unedifying sight of a wealthy well fed westerner professing anger at another wealthy well fed westerner out of a posturing concern for the global poor. First of all, if Lynas had said that golden rice may be useful as a palliative measure to reduce VAD until the underlying problems were tackled systemically by land reform and income redistribution then I wouldn’t have had much of a problem. But he didn’t, and so I stand by my comments. Second, I defy you to find anything I’ve said that claims everything was great in the old days before capitalism came along. I can’t see your ‘let them eat broccoli’ and ‘why don’t they go to their local wholefood shop’ comments as anything other than a wilful misinterpretation of my argument. For all that, like many people you seem so entrenched in the ideology of progress that you find it unimaginable there’s anything to be learned from other ways of doing things, including ways that were used in the past. But you don’t offer any rational arguments for this view – you just jeer. And your dismissal of land reform and income redistribution as ‘tired leftist ideology’, suggests that your concern for global poverty doesn’t run too deep.

    On my Point 4 it’s not an obvious fact that the world cannot be fed without industrial agriculture, but an unsubstantiated assertion. Likewise with your point about ruralisation (of course it would be a disaster if all city dwellers started small rural farms as of now, just as it would be a disaster if we immediately turned all agricultural production over to the existing GM crops – but is anyone seriously arguing that we should do either?) Bear in mind that Lynas says it’s ‘simplistic nonsense’ to argue for less livestock production and redistribution. So effectively he seems to be expecting technology to deliver EU or US levels of prosperity to an expanded future global population without an expansion of the agricultural frontier. That will require a lot more than your 20% EU potato yield increase – a figure that I wasn’t previously aware of, but if it’s anything like Lynas’s 30% wheat yield increase based on a small greenhouse study, I’m not holding my breath. On your transition point – what proportion of the urban population of, say, the UK or the US are Greenpeace members? And taking just those engaged eco-citizens who are members, how does their per capita ecological footprint or carbon emissions compare with those of, say, a peasant farmer in sub-Saharan Africa?

    My Point 5 really shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. In an ideal world, I think it would be preferable if there were no restrictions on seed exchange – existing controls are dangerously limiting to biodiversity and grower innovation. However, I can see that in practice this would lead to some problems, so – as with many things in life – there’s a need for a compromise which will always be difficult to get exactly right. But the general trend in the seed business has been towards more corporate control, and I don’t see much evidence for the open source approach Lynas champions. I think your claim that GM technology is only in the hands of large corporations because anti-GM campaigners have raised the licensing bar beyond others’ capabilities is spurious, but I’d be interested to see your evidence.

    You’re right that I fail to show GM isn’t just another technology that can be used for plant breeding, because I suspect that’s exactly what it is – in other words, it’s not some kind of magic technology which will save global agriculture and feed the poor, as the likes of Mark Lynas would have us believe. Ultimately this debate isn’t about science vs ideology, which is always a false opposition. It’s about choosing what kind of agricultural systems will best underpin a just, sustainable and attractive world in the long-term. For all the efforts of GM apologists such as yourself to position yourselves as victimised champions of the poor, the truth is that you’re in the driving seat, you have the ear of the decision-makers who matter and in all probability you will have the chance to test your vision of the future long before people like me do. I’m open to the idea that I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that you will create a more divided and less sustainable world, and that ultimately it will be small-scale, low input producers who will have to pick up the pieces.

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    • This debate is double-posted on Smaje’s blog also.

      Thanks for your response Chris:
      Point 1) Yes, I think Lynas is also partly wrong on this, but as said in my post, but not for the reasons you think: there is no real contradiction between the Green’s apparently pro-science stance on AGW and anti-science stance on GE, they are merely promiscuous with the science and are happy to use it when it serves their ideology: alarmism about impending doom due to AGW (on which the science is not settled btw- yes, warming, but not catastrophic) feeds into exactly the same ideology that fuels the anti-GE movement: human technology and the hubris of “progress” will be our undoing. We need to power-down and revert to simpler and more localised ways of living.- a very dangerous belief.

      You are correct that in neither case is there a straight line between the actual science and policy. However, you are wrong in the same way that Lynas is wrong imo- this is because from a scientific point of view, the issues are quite different, with climate change being orders of magnitude more complex and multi-layered in its policy implications than GE; the latter is after all just a technology- this is the core of my point: your argument against GE amounts to nothing more than the arbitrary application of the precautionary principle, which is really no argument at all. To test this, replace “GE” with “Polytunnel” or “Tractors” or some other technology used in farming.

      I respond to the IAASTD report in my podcast on GE here.
      All they really say is that they dont see GE as playing a very big role; but there really is lots of evidence to show otherwise- I point to some of this via my links, here is another article by Prof. Ronald: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/08/11/genetically-engineered-crops/. I think one problem is though that you distrust this evidence, you have already decided that evidence from biotech scientists is biased!

      Point 2) I have made it clear that I agree that we need evidence -which I have pointed to above, and space precludes me going more into, for the benefits of GE, not just vague concepts and promises of “progress”, but you have not made any case that I can see against it. Clearly, GE can do things other forms of plant breeding are unable to do, and much quicker. Eg a new GE var. of blight-resistant potato can be developed in a few months with GE, when it takes 10-15yrs with conventional methods. In what way is this not “progress” ? How is reducing the use of pesticides and using less toxic herbicides, increasing farmer income and boosting yields not progress? How could drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant crops not be seen as progress ? You seem ignorant of the history of plant breeding, without which there is not farming of any kind. Another example is GE Papaya in Hawaii which not only saved the Papaya industry there but also saved the organic non-GE Papaya.

      Lynas has just confirmed to me on Twitter that he was not aware that the Amish grow GE tobacco and corn. But how that supports your position- that Lynas is wrong about GMOs- when you also explicitly use the Amish as a group who “cultures that deliberate actively about the paths they wish to take” is a mystery.

      Point 3)- you ignore my point. It is not either/or. The suggestion that ” if Lynas had said that golden rice may be useful as a palliative measure to reduce VAD until the underlying problems were tackled systemically by land reform and income redistribution then I wouldn’t have had much of a problem.” is ridiculous. If you want to make a political point about land reform, then go ahead- I dont really see that you are, other than as a stick to beat the humanitarian Golden Rice project with. They are separate issues. Apparently you justify Greenpeace’s despicable actions on the grounds that people who work on Golden Rice are not also, at the same time, campaigning for “land reform”. It seems inescapable to me that if the vitamin A enhanced rice had been developed by any other method than GE there would be no campaign against it. But instead of campaigning themselves for “land reform”- a ambitious large political ideal I think you would agree- Greenpeace and the rest of the anti-GE movement spend large amounts of time energy and money purposefully trying to block the development of a technology that could help thousands right here, right now. And they have so far succeeded, at the likely cost of thousands of lives. I hope they are proud of themselves.

      You may have missed this link in the comments above.

      Point 4: I dont get your point here at all. We will have to disagree if you think industrial agriculture can be replaced by small farms. (Should I be suspicious of you taking ths stance, since you are a small farmer?) That seems naive and unrealistic given that nearly all the food we eat in the rich world is from industrial ag, and the developing world is moving in that way as well. Your position does seem to be about keeping the poor poor, in line with Vandana Shiva’s ideology. New plant breeding, GE or otherwise, is essential to improving yields and sustainability- but you want to block this. Well done. You seem to be making my point for me re environmental transition- of course Greenpeace membership as a % of the population as a whole is tiny, but the % of Greenpeace members from the educated urban majority likely very high; and of course they have much higher carbon footprints and much higher standards of living than the poor in SSA. What is your point?

      Point 5) Clearly the giant biotech companies have benefited hugely in some ways from the punitive regulations which are legal restrictions that cost millions and many years to overcome- this does not apply to other forms of plant breeding, only GE – independent biotechs, universities etc have no hope of bringing a trait to market without support of multinationals . The inevitable result has been to increase monopolies, and many useful traits have been left on the shelf. The same tactic has worked very well in opposing nuclear power. Costs increase rapidly due to regulations and delays; the opposition then cries “Look! Failure!”

      You claim that GE proponents “are in the driving seat”. Would that this were true. The truth is, GE has been effectively banned in Europe, by extension (threat of trade embargoes) in most of Africa (who really need it) and severely restricted in N. America. Your attack on Golden Rice- a humanitarian project in which seeds will be donated free to farmers who will be free to save their own seeds- shows that corporate control is not your concern at all, but that you have an ideological opposition to a technology that will obviously make far more difference in the developing world than in the well-fed west.

      You repeat that Lynas or others see GE as a “magic bullet”; none thinks that. But all of farming- everything you do on your small farm- is technology. To support blanket bans on GE technology is as nonsensical as blanket bans on polytunnels or drip irrigation or tractors. These are every bit as necessary for big industrial ag as GE might be.

      Conversely, you fail to understand what GE actually is: not a “system of farming” but a method of plant breeding. I debate these issue constantly with small-scale ag proponents, they seem to equate GE with RR and Monsanto -I have already explained most GE seeds are from a few big players; but there is no reason at all why they would not also play an important role to improve the sustainability and yield of small organic farms as well. This would be the view of Ronald and Adamchuk, the authors of “Tomorrow’s Table”.

      You are clearly aligned with the ideological woo of the permaculture movement and the Soil Association. The small organic Happy Farm is important, but you are deluded if you think this is what is going to play a major part in feeding the 9billion we will have in a few decades. The back-to-nature lifestyle is only appealing in wealthy countries where we have to luxury of industrial ag to stave off famine and support from all kinds of technology.

      Reply
  7. Graham, my self-imposed rule with these blogosphere arguments is to continue with them only if I feel I’m learning anything useful or if there seems to be some potential to reach an illuminating point of compromise with my interlocutor. I don’t see much potential here on either front, and I find your position unconvincing. However, I will very briefly attempt to clarify four points.

    1. Lynas uses the Amish as an example of a people who froze their technology in 1850. I use them as an example of a people who choose which technologies to adopt on the basis of how those technologies serve their wider goals. So if the Amish are using GM crops but continuing to eschew other modern technologies, I take that to be exemplifying my view of them rather than Lynas’s.

    2. I think ‘progress’ in this area can only usefully be understood in the somewhat technical sense of ‘does this technology enable me to achieve my goals more easily than other available technologies?’ On that score, some of the things you list as progress in relation to GM crops would clearly count if they prove themselves long term – and that’s fine by me. Others inhabit the realm of historical/economic speculation. Consider the conceptual gulf between your point about the speed with which plant varieties can be bred using GM techniques and your point about the Olmecs.

    3. You’re right that GM is a method of plant breeding and not a system of farming. But it’s a method of plant breeding with an elective affinity to a system of farming and to social ideologies that I consider problematic. That’s why I’m not necessarily opposed to the use of GM crops, but I’m opposed to the way that you and Mark Lynas construct the issues.

    4. Clearly you want to read some kind of Arcadian back to nature ideology into my position regardless of what I actually write. It’s a pity you won’t read what I say rather than what you think I say. In my view your preferred approach is much more likely to keep the poor poor than mine, but I think this debate would generate considerably less heat and more light if wealthy westerners stopped using it to grandstand their credentials as self-appointed defenders of the poor.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting on my blog.

    Reply
    • 1)You are deceiving yourself- this issue is about use of genetic engineering. Your post is entitled “Five Reasons Why Mark Lynas Is Wrong About GM Technology”.
      That the Amish have after careful consideration chosen to use GE clearly does not support your position!
      2)seems like you at least half-way agree with the potential for GE
      3)” it’s a method of plant breeding with an elective affinity to a system of farming and to social ideologies that I consider problematic.”- no more so than Big tractors. Clearly this is not your concern, otherwise you would not have attacked Golden Rice (which other things being equal qould not change the farming system one iota.)
      4.) Traits like Golden Rice are humanitarian projects developed purely for the poor. There is no way out of poverty that does not include technological innovation. You have the benefit of such innovation; the millions of poor farmers in the developing world do not. Please encourage your organic/soil association pals to step out of the way and let them at least get improved nutrition where it is available to them.

      Reply
  8. It is you retro-romantic reactionary guys who are in the driving seat: http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Genetic-engineering-It-s-a-technology-not-an-ideology
    GE is just a tool like any other, like your computer, it can be used for good or bad. What we are talking about here is the difference between a complete ban, which extends in effect to most of Africa, with a case-by-case process of regulation on the same level playing field that applies to other breeding methods; it the anti-GE movement that is fueled by ideology of blocking progress, not the other way around.

    Reply
  9. Re Denison: the paper he mentions above questions the ability of GE to create true drought resistance, which could be true, but drought resistance seems to have been achieved to some extent with Monsanto’s Droughtguard corn: http://www.biofortified.org/2012/08/monsantos-gm-drought-tolerant-corn/

    His book looks interesting but Im not sure how what he says ties in with what you say or showing Lynas to be wrong in any way. GE is plant breeding- it can be used for a vast range of different traits for any system of farming.

    and Vandermeer: the site linked to begins “Neoliberal environmentalist Mark Lynas…” which suggests this is about politics not science;

    Vandemeer’s piece is an astonishing mush of sneering and patronizing remarks about Lynas’ failure to comprehend science, but provides very little science itself: his only substantive point is about the surficant in Roundup which can be hazardous to amphibian life; so it has to be used carefully and correctly; but this is an issue of an ingredient of a herbicide which is otherwise one of the safest herbicides. Campaign against the surficant, or even the use of RR technology if you must; this is a far cry from a complete ban on the technology of GE orshowing it to be useless. Farmers are not stupid- they want to grow GE because of the benefits it provides, just like they want hybrids.

    Vandemeer is just scare-mongering for political gain here. He worries about unintended consequences but provides no evidence of environmental harm caused by use of GE, it’s just vague waffling. He references the UCS who say there is little evidence for increased yields. I have provided some via Prof Ronald’s articles above; for Bt cotton see http://gmopundit.blogspot.ie/search?q=increased+yields

    The UCS also wrote a response to Lynas here: http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-dogma-and-mark-lynas/ They reference the IAASTD; and Benbrook- debunked here: http://appliedmythology.blogspot.ie/2013/01/the-muddled-debate-about-pesticide-use.html
    They talk about “debating points” and claim Lynas is trying to close the debate down- but really Lynas is saying there is no scientific reason to ban or delay unnecessarily the use of this technology, nor do the UCS provide any. The scientific issues will continue, but this is obviously made much harder in an over-regulated environment- much more severe than for other breeding methods whatever they claim about the costs of getting through regs (still millions).

    Lynas responds to the rest here: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/response-to-ucs-science-dogma-and-mark-lynas/

    You say Lynas’ point about the deaths from organic bean sprouts is spurious, but the point is this does happen and it is a higher risk with organics for obvious reasons: but there is no scaremongering campaign against organics; if there was, that one incident would probably be the end of it. Noone has died or got ill or suffered any health effects from eating GMOs; the industry would likely be finished if there was even a single case, given that the opposition is so vocal and powerful.

    These issues need to be considered in the context of a well-funded campaign (eg Greenpeace: $100m/annum just for propaganda) of misinformation; Vanadana Shiva is the most prominent leader and demonstrably spouts misinformation for years; the organics movement and the alternative medicine industry are also behind this http://skepteco.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/the-truth-about-the-terminator/ So there is clearly a powerful ideological movement, and I think you are much more influenced by this than you are admitting.

    It would be great if you were to distance yourself from this, perhaps with a follow-up post on “5 Reasons why Greenpeace are wrong about Golden Rice” ?

    Reply
  10. Aaaargh, OK Graham against my better judgment I’ll reply to you this time, but I’d find it much easier to engage with you if you could overcome your self-righteous anger – I dislike the way that blogs so readily turn into these male ego parades.

    I agree with you that Vandermeer’s response to Lynas is a little sneering and patronising – it reminds me somewhat of your responses to me, though it’s rather more delicately put! I suppose if I’d spent my career doing empirical scientific research only to find someone like Lynas appropriating the mantle of ‘science’ in order to legitimate a particular political stance on agriculture (as per my points one and two in my original post) I’d probably find it hard not to sneer. I think what matters isn’t Vandermeer’s response to Lynas but his research on agroecology. As Ford Denison sensibly says, the science doesn’t speak with one voice on the land sparing issue, and ain’t that true of most things.

    I don’t think Steve Savage debunks the Benbrook study, but I’ve had some interesting conversations with him about GM – I find him a more nuanced and open-minded advocate of GM and industrial farming than many other bloggers out there, and therefore a more persuasive one.

    On glyphosate, yes the surfactants are an issue but the bigger issue is herbicide resistance – not specifically a GM problem, but specifically a conventional agriculture problem. It seems to me that agriculture of every description is essentially a battle to keep one step ahead of the weeds and the pests, which humanity is unlikely to win long-term. I happen to think that we’ll lose the battle more quickly and with more drastic consequences the more we put our eggs in the industrial farming basket. I could be wrong, but nothing you’ve so far said convinces me otherwise.

    On organic farming, I’m not sure why you think it’s obviously higher risk – conventional farmers spread muck like there’s no tomorrow, if that’s what you’re thinking. But if you can cite some convincing evidence that the relative risk of food poisoning or other poor health outcomes is higher in organic than conventional food on a like for like basis, I’d be interested. Dominic Dyer tried that line in a New Scientist piece a while back, but his evidence didn’t stack up. Not that I hold any particular brief for the Soil Association or the organic movement.

    Clearly you think GM and agro-industry is a scared little minnow in the face of the massively funded and systematic onslaught of the organic or anti-GM movement. I see it the exact opposite. Perhaps both of us need to get out more. But at least you’ve got Owen Paterson on your side.

    On the issue of poverty, since you claim income redistribution is ‘tired leftist ideology’ I can’t take your claim to be concerned about the poor very seriously – and likewise if you’d devoted any space in your posts to the socioeconomic context of poverty rather than the potential yield increases associated with GM crops. You simply aren’t a spokesperson for the global poor any more than I am. It would be nice to be able to ask historical and contemporary peasantries whether they’d rather have 20% higher seed yields or freedom from seigneurial dues. I think I know what the majority opinion would be, though of course I might be wrong. And once again, if Mark Lynas is advocating golden rice as a pragmatic palliative measure prior to longer term systemic remedies such as income redistribution and/or land access then I wouldn’t have a problem with that and I would happily withdraw my remark that he doesn’t address the politics of the food system. But that’s not what he did in his speech, and I find your comments on this point mere bluster. Not either/or? How much golden rice do you eat? You yourself seem to be advocating for golden rice and against ‘leftist’ income redistribution – see how that works politically? A child can get all the Vitamin A it needs from eating half a carrot a day – golden rice is only a long-term solution if you think it’s OK for people to eat nothing but rice. Let them eat broccoli? Damn right.

    What I think I’ve learned most from debating with you is how deep a hold the ideology of progress has on the public imagination, so that it becomes almost impossible to question any emerging techno/social aspects of production without inviting jeering charges of being a ‘retro-romantic reactionary’ or whatever. The fact that I don’t support contemporary industrial farming doesn’t mean that I think there was some Arcadian past to which we have to return. Guess I’ll have to think about how better to circumvent that false opposition, but since you have a degree in sociology I’m surprised that you don’t have a more nuanced understanding of how ideologies work historically.

    Reply
    • Re Vandemeer: GE is a plant breeding method, not a farming system; it could naturally have as much to offer agroforestry- and organics- as any other farming system.
      You ignore again the point that GE is effectively banned in the EU and by extension (threat of Greenpeace trade embargoes) in most of Africa. I linked yesterday to the news that BASF has given up on Europe despite having spent millions developing blight-resistant potatoes. Without resistance, conventional farmers spray fungicide 10-20 times per season. Well done you minnow activists bravely fighting off the might of Evil Global Capitalism! Dont forget also that Greenpeace and FoE have seats in the UN, which is more than many smaller African countries have. The power of the Greens is not just limited to GE- you can see it also the roll-back on nuclear in Germany and many absurd climate policies favouring Big Wind for example.

      You say in your OP “If we adopt GM it should be because it solves a particular problem, not because it represents ‘progress’.” Golden Rice is as clear a case of solving a particular problem with GE as you are likely to get, yet you oppose it unless those developing it also have a comprehensive political program that meets your personal standards. This is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.

      Calls for land-reform of income redistribution are fairly vacuous IMO without some theory of how wealth is created in the first place. You are many many times richer than the poor Bangladeshi farmers, not because you live in a socialist paradise but because you have access to technology- this is not sufficient to help development, but it is a necessary pre-requisite.

      In your OP you say “The relevant political question Lynas doesn’t ask is why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place?” This betrays a naive ideology that everything was fine in the old days. Not true. Nutritional deficiencies were historically normal, as were famines, high infant mortality and short lives. You dont seem to have read the link given in the first comment here on why dont Indians farmers grow more fruit and veg . How is Greenpeace’s program on land reform progressing btw? Saving lives? Preventing thousands of childhood blindness? Think about it Chris: you and your Greenpeace pals do not suffer from any of these problems because you are rich; if something like VAD was common in your community or affecting you and your family, you would not have the luxury of sitting at your computer campaigning against Golden Rice.

      As I have said before (you ignore the point) the only reason there is a campaign against Golden Rice is because it happens to be GE. Noone would be paying any attention had it been bred through any other method. I dont believe Chris that you would be out there campaigning against any kind of non-GE fortification, even thought the political issue would be exactly the same. (Note for example that the USDA have now permitted cell fusion under organic standards.)

      the bigger issue is herbicide resistance – not specifically a GM problem, but specifically a conventional agriculture problem. It seems to me that agriculture of every description is essentially a battle to keep one step ahead of the weeds and the pests, which humanity is unlikely to win long-term. I happen to think that we’ll lose the battle more quickly and with more drastic consequences the more we put our eggs in the industrial farming basket

      There is your ideology right there, clear as day: you are right that all ag, all tech perhaps is a treadmill, one we have been treading ever since we became recognizably human. You share the same pessimistic view of humanity and the future that underpins all environmentalism and you want to freeze it at a point that suits you- exactly as Lynas suggests, although it turns out the Amish who you admire so much are actually more forward-thinking than this. But there is no reason to think the future will be any worse than the past, that we will suddenly falter on the treadmill: on the contrary. The danger is these reactionary ideologies, fueled by misanthropy, will just end up banning innovation that we badly need to help repair some of the damage from the past. We will always need to innovate new approaches and new solutions; there is a real danger of catastrophe being brought about by green policies that hold onto illusions of a “sustainable” past. To find out more where these ideologies come from and what is behind them I encourage you to read this. But these beliefs are products of the success of technology and industrialisation, not a reaction to them; they are only possible to be held by wealthy well-fed people who do not have to worry much about nutritional deficiencies in their children. They are inherently elitist ideologies.

      To repeat once again: if you want me to take seriously your claims of not being part of these reactionary ideologies, you will have to distance yourself from them, so I am still waiting for your post on 5 Reasons Greenpeace are Wrong about Golden Rice.

      Reply
  11. Regarding China and income redistribution. It is already happening in China. Tim Worstall makes some good comments at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/feb/04/apple-playwright-chinese-worker-abuse?commentpage=all#start-of-comments:

    “In 1978 the average GDP per capita in China was about that $950 a year level. It’s now a shade over $6,000 (which is where UK GDP was in 1948). The place is 6 times richer than it was only 35 years ago. That’s what the industrial revolution is doing for them. Those Foxconn workers are on about $6,000 a year as it happens: that’s what the industrial revolution has done for manufacturing workers.

    “We do not know of any other way of improving the living standards of the average guy in the street. It’s possibe that there are, this is true, but we’ve not found it yet.

    “So that’s what an industrial revolution actually does: makes the average person, by pre-industrial revolution standards, howlingly rich.

    “You might think that’s not worth it: but everyone who likes living on more than $3 a day will probably disagree with you.”

    Worstall’s full comment (and others he makes) are worth reading.

    Perhaps, they will be able to buy broccoli, eventually. Those going blind now from only being able to afford rice to eat might agree they would like more money (though I seem to recall that if people have some extra cash they will use it for protein) but absent more money, what are their choices?

    Reply
  12. Norm, be careful of the slippage between ‘average GDP per capita’ and the living standards of the ‘average person’. Your view that industrial revolutions are the only way we know to improve living standards needs a lot of unpicking, but if you’re saying that in the contemporary world we generally haven’t found ways of sustaining our economies other than through rather indiscriminate industrial growth, then I’d be inclined to agree. I would have thought that that ought to present itself as a problem to anybody but the most Panglossian of techno-fixers.

    On your last point, you identify precisely the political vacuum at the heart of Lynas’s case for golden rice. Do you want me to agree that in the absence of having more money (or land access) there are few choices available to the poor other than golden rice and suchlike? OK, agreed.

    Reply
    • Chris, we agree that averages conceal a lot and that life is in a factory is not fun. But if you’re saying that life on a non-mechanized farm is idyllic, I would have to disagree. I would say that trade and innovation that comes from trade–the idea of comparative advantage–is what drives wealth. In China’s case their comparative advantage is trading cheaper labor(compared to the OECD countries) for goods and services. Wealth is not like pizza, if I eat too many slices your not left with an empty delivery box.

      The laborers are leaving the farms for factories because their labor is worth more in a factory than on a farm.They now can get more goods and services with the hours they work in a factory than the hours that they would put in on the farm. This is what wealth/prosperity is, the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work.

      China’s factories are far from idyllic. But, the laborers have voted with their feet.

      Reply
    • Chris,

      This from the World Resources Institute (Cities And The Environment):

      “Historically, cities have been driving forces in economic and social development. As centers of industry and commerce, cities have long been centers of wealth and political power. They also account for a disproportionate share of national income. The World Bank estimates that in the developing world, as much as 80 percent of future economic growth will occur in towns and cities. Nor are the benefits of urbanization solely economic. Urbanization is associated with higher incomes, improved health, higher literacy, and improved quality of life. Other benefits of urban life are less tangible but no less real: access to information, diversity, creativity, and innovation.”

      You may rightly point out that income disparity is high in the cities.

      Yet, DeRoy Kwesi Andrew, who, as a teenager, moved to Ghana’s capital of Accra and earns $4 a day as a teacher says, “I am better off in all facets of life compared to my peers left behind in the village.” As Robert Harris points out, “This is not to say that the urban areas of developing countries are paved in gold – far from it. The shanty towns to which many migrants move can be wretched places filled with poverty, but they offer something the countryside contains very little of – hope.”

      Reply
    • “Panglossian techno fixer.” Hmm, perhaps. But, on what principle is it that when we see 100,000+ years of increased standards of living behind us that we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us? Technology has, on the whole, allowed humans to use less land and make use of materials other species do not want.

      Reply
  13. Graham, we’re talking past each other and frankly I’m not too bothered whether you take my claims seriously, not least because as the amount of mouth-foaming grows with each of your posts I find it increasingly hard to take you seriously. Good luck with your ‘ecopragmatism’ – do try to enjoy it a bit, though, lest it consumes you.

    Reply
    • As you wish Chris, thanks for engaging. It is a shame though that you are unwilling to distance yourself from the antics of Greenpeace and give some balance to your original post- it would resolve a lot of things if you would.

      Reply
  14. Graham, I wanted to respond to your invitation privately but can’t see how to from your blog so this, as amicably as possible, is going to be my last comment on this debate. If your question is do I think that people at risk of VAD shouldn’t have access to golden rice because of some high flown ethical principle about GM crops, then my answer is no and I’ve already said as much on your blog. If your question is do I think that golden rice and similar programmes are optimal policy approaches for tackling diseases of poverty then my answer is also no. If Greenpeace’s answer to the first question is yes, then I would agree with you that that is wrong. I’m not sure that that indeed is their stance, but maybe I’m mistaken. Even if it is their stance, I won’t be posting anything that singles out Greenpeace for criticism because if I were to draw up an indictment sheet of organisations that are culpable for inflicting global misery Greenpeace would still come pretty low down on my list.

    More generally, if I understand your position correctly, you take the view that the world’s problems can best be solved by greater capitalist development and biotech-intensive conventional agriculture. It’s not a view I share. I’m genuinely interested in debating the issues and learning from other people, time allowing, but I dislike slanging matches and cheap put downs so I do my best to avoid them – not always successfully, I regret to say. We all tend to think that our own views are based in incontrovertible reason while those of people we disagree with are motivated by some kind of twisted ideology. In my opinion there is scarcely such a thing as a non-ideological position, and your own views are no less and no more ideological than mine. Actually, one positive outcome of our debate for me is that it’s made me resolve to try never to criticise anybody for adopting an ‘ideological’ position. I think it’s a bad habit and it’s best to attack the argument and not the presumed intent.

    I’ve started looking at some of the articles you linked in your responses, which so far I’ve found interesting but not in my opinion especially relevant to our debate. But I’ll aim to engage with some of the issues they raise in my future blog posts at http://www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk, probably starting with the one about Vandana Shiva.

    Regards

    Chris

    Reply
    • Chris, once again you avoid the issues and explicitly state a political ideology which you feel justifies your position.

      This is what Lynas said in Oxford re Golden Rice:

      The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.

      What happened was that the three Chinese scientists named in the Greenpeace press release were publicly hounded and have since lost their jobs, and in an autocratic country like China they are at serious personal risk. Internationally because of over-regulation golden rice has already been on the shelf for over a decade, and thanks to the activities of groups like Greenpeace it may never become available to vitamin-deficient poor people.

      This to my mind is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from Vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.

      I have emphasised two phrases: the first, Golden Rice has been kept from people for over a decade because of their actions- including putting scientists’ careers at risk through media manipulation (=lying for political reasons);
      the second, because Greenpeace is a Big Powerful Multinational acting like a bully, quite undemocratically.
      A technology exists that has been withheld- leading to thousands, countless unnecessary preventable deaths, purely for ideological reasons.
      That is all. It is no different from witholding medicines, wheelchairs, any technology that could improve the lives of the poor.

      You say Lynas is wrong:

      The relevant political question Lynas doesn’t ask is why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place? Could it be because their income or land access is so attenuated that they can’t afford to grow or buy the fresh vegetables that could otherwise provide the Vitamin A they need? And if so, whose interests are being served by promoting GM rice rather than, say, land reform? As Evan Eisenberg sagely wrote, it’s not the fiascos of biotechnology that we should fear, but its successes.

      In what way does this show that he is wrong in the passage quoted above with his remarks on Golden Rice? What does Eisenberg mean with regard to Golden Rice- what “fiascos” and why should we fear – FEAR- its successes when self-evidently the main beneficiaries of Golden Rice will be children who dont die or go blind? Of course Lynas has asked those questions, but even if he had not it is irrelevant. Nutritional deficiencies are the norm in undeveloped countries, the historical norm: this naivety really does seem to be as Lynas says a version of the Naturalistic Fallacy: people are fine so long as they dont have development, cos that’s capitalism. “Nature is abundant and does not leave people without the nutrition they need.”

      You are welcome to make your case for land reform or any other political program; these are different issues to whether Golden Rice should be campaigned against or not. You are trying to deny it, but clearly you are positing one against the other, Golden Rice against wider political changes. You see Golden Rice as a capitalist plot to prevent the kind of political changes you prefer. This is clearly your concern. But Golden Rice is a humanitarian project. The seed will be given away free to farmers who will be free to save the seed for themselves. Let me ask you this: do you think a population with less of a problem of childhood death and blindness, and better nutrition in general, will be in a stronger or weaker position to campaign for land reform or other political changes if they so wish? Because it is obvious to me what I said in my post: people like you are opposed to GM in cases like this, not because you don’t think it is the “most cost-effective way”- you have no clue about this and it is irrelevant anyway- but because it is not your preferred political solution.

      Meanwhile, neither you nor Greenpeace, nor anyone else on the anti-GMO bandwagon that I am aware of, is doing a damn thing about land reform or any other “cost-effective” way to deal with VAD. The only reason we are discussing it- the ONLY reason- is because Golden Rice is GM. If it was anything else- from mutagenesis, cell fusion, whatever, it would already have been available years ago. There would have been no campaign.

      You say:

      If Greenpeace’s answer to the first question is yes, then I would agree with you that that is wrong. I’m not sure that that indeed is their stance, but maybe I’m mistaken. Even if it is their stance, I won’t be posting anything that singles out Greenpeace for criticism because if I were to draw up an indictment sheet of organisations that are culpable for inflicting global misery Greenpeace would still come pretty low down on my list.

      Chris, of course Greenpeace oppose Golden Rice because it is GMO: not for any other reason. Not because in their estimation it isn’t “cost effective”, but just because it is GMO, because that is where their political capital rests. They are a committed anti-GMO organisation. That is what they do. They dont do land-refrom Chris, they do protests and banning stuff that children need to be healthy. This is what we are talking about. This is their raison d’etre. To block GMOs. The fact that Golden Rice is not Monsanto, does not require licenses, makes no difference: if they let Golden Rice go ahead, they would not be able to get away with lying about GE being unsafe (the fake “guinea-pig” story) or part of a capitalist conspiracy for other, commercial crops. The anti-GMO movement- an undemocratic yet very powerful movement- cannot permit a single success story, especially not a humanitarian one, because then the dam would burst.

      How much time and effort do these campaigns take? Should you not be writing a post that says “Why Greenpeace was wrong about Golden Rice” and explaining your ideas about land reform and how they should be working for that instead of wasting money trying to stop Golden Rice? Or maybe if you wrote such a post you would just say, if Greenpeace had also stated their support for my politics, my ideology, I wouldn’t have a problem with their tactics? Isn’t that in essence what you are saying?

      And you wont “single them out for criticism” because you think there are other groups who are much worse. Yet you single out Lynas for special treatment and say he is wrong to attack Greenpeace because he doesnt pay lip-service to your political/ideological beliefs. This is morally repugnant. In a discussion that you started with your response to Lynas, you wont, even now, distance yourself from Greenpeace enough to condemn their tactics as Lynas does, instead criticizing Lynas. Wake up Chris- the whole issue is entirely political, and you are explicitly defending them.

      Reply
      • Graham and Chris,

        Bjorn Lomborg posted this yesterday on Project Syndicate, after 12 years of working to make “so-called ‘golden rice’ with vitamin A” available, it “will be grown in the Philippines.” This is good news for the three billion people who depend on rice as their staple food.

        The delay cannot be undone. “Over those 12 years, about eight million children worldwide died from vitamin A deficiency…according to the World Health Organization [vitamin A deficiency] causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind each year. Of these, half die within a year. A study from the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that, in total, vitamin A deficiency kills 668,000 children under the age of five each year.”

        Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-costs-of-opposing-gm-foods-by-bj-rn-lomborg#Gsx7yTPfAlwm7McX.99

        Reply
  15. OK Graham, I will come back to you on this briefly since there are some specific points here worth addressing.

    Some specific points from your last comment which are NOT worth addressing are (1) what I’m doing personally to address land reform, about which you know nothing, (2) how the politics of GM has affected individual scientists’ careers, which on balance I’d say has fallen harder on those contesting GM but is basically irrelevant either way to the issues we’re contesting, and (3) the ideological field of the cases for and against GM. On the latter, you argue that the case against golden rice is the last ditch attempt of activists to prevent a beneficial technology and that golden rice might help poor people contest their poverty, whereas others might argue that golden rice is a diversionary technology that erases attention to systemic poverty and is in keeping with defectively piecemeal, productivist and monocultural biotech models. I think this is ultimately the most important debate, but you and I are going to get nowhere discussing it, so let’s not.

    The points worth addressing: Since you’re against poverty and don’t need to eat golden rice yourself, presumably we can agree that in the long term it’s best if people can buy or grow the range of fresh foods that constitute a healthy balanced diet, despite your ‘let them eat broccoli’ remarks. So essentially what’s at issue is whether golden rice commends itself as a stopgap measure. What also seems to matter to you is to allocate blame to people who have argued that it doesn’t. Personally I think it’s strange for someone so concerned about poverty to focus so much attention on Greenpeace and so little on, say, the WTO, IMF, EU etc, but perhaps that takes us back into the ideology, so let’s just go with the blame game.

    On that score, you say that golden rice has been kept from people for over a decade. I think that’s questionable. As far as I can see there wasn’t much promise of seriously treating VAD with golden rice until the GR2 variety was introduced in 2005, and at that stage it still needed to go through all the usual additional breeding to make it usable. I’ve come across a couple of articles by Ingo Potrykus – hardly an unbiased source – moaning about the regulatory burden, but I haven’t yet been able to locate any specific evidence that explains in exactly what way and for exactly how long anti golden rice campaigning has delayed its journey from concept to viable agricultural seed. If you could point me to the evidence on this, I’d be grateful.

    The second set of issues are the existing alternatives to golden rice. The WHO emphasises breast feeding (another arena for a good old argument about ‘natural’ vs biotech approaches), supporting community gardening, dietary diversification and direct vitamin A supplements. You say that I have no clue about how ‘cost-effective’ golden rice is and that it’s irrelevant anyway. First, nobody has much of a clue because unlike the other interventions golden rice has no track record – you can blame that on Greenpeace if you like, but the fact remains that the economics of the intervention, and virtually everything else about it, are untested on the ground. Second, why is its cost effectiveness irrelevant? Can you give any good reasons as to why policymakers should opt for golden rice rather than the interventions that return the best DALYs saved per $ invested? I’ve seen some papers suggesting that golden rice may come out well in such an analysis, though I haven’t yet had a chance to read them thoroughly. But they’re based on theoretical modelling, so are somewhat suspect – and the evidence doesn’t all point one way. Your point about golden rice being given ‘free’ to the user is obviously irrelevant from an economic opportunity cost or public policy point of view. And all the studies seem to compare golden rice with supplementation, which obviously is also a bit suspect by the logic of my critique. It would be interesting to see a comparison between returns from public investment in golden rice with, say, community gardening programmes. Obviously, whatever programmes are adopted on the ground aren’t going to comprehensively eliminate all cases of VAD, so I think golden rice advocates would do well to stop bandying around the total number of deaths from it as if to imply that golden rice would save them all.

    Finally, I don’t think we have any idea about how self-saved golden rice seeds will pan out over time – will the varieties that are released to farmers prove enduringly robust to local conditions, will levels of Vitamin A remain stable, what will the total long-term costs to farmers or to governments be? And so on. From a public health point of view, surely the best that can be said for golden rice is that it’s potentially useful but is currently an unknown quantity.

    To conclude, on the question of moral repugnance my feeling is that you’re using the emotive issue of children’s deaths to spin your own particular line on GM. But if you could point me to further evidence addressing the points above then naturally I’ll try to find the time to look at it. When I’ve had a chance to look at the literature in more depth and consider any evidence you can furnish then I’ll post something on my blog about it, and if I’m persuaded by the evidence to agree with you that Greenpeace’s stance is wrong I’ll say so. But I’m not persuaded yet.

    Reply
  16. This press release from the IRRI is worth looking at: http://irri.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=12483:clarifying-recent-news-about-golden-rice&lang=en

    It suggests to me that the people actually doing the work on golden rice are rather less extravagant in their claims about it than some of the commenters on this site.

    More at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=307

    Reply
    • This is double-posted at Chris’ own blog here

      Chris: Greenpeace pulled a stunt playing on irrational fears of the dangers of eating GE by releasing a scare-mongering press release: “24 children used as guinea pigs in genetically engineered ‘Golden Rice’ trial.”
      This lead to the scientists involved losing their jobs, although they had done nothing wrong. It is this that Lynas referred to in his Oxford talk; it is Greenpeace who are using emotive histrionics- about using innocent children as “Guinea Pigs” to push a political campaign against Golden Rice.

      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/greenpeaces-golden-rice-stand-should-appall-us-all/article4541042/

      “Greenpeace has long been an implacable opponent of genetically modified foods, especially Golden Rice. And it had an especially good reason to be alarmed by this trial: It was a complete success.”

      I went to great trouble to get you to respond to this several times on my blog; your last comment once again ignored the issue.
      At this stage to claim you know Golden Rice is not “cost-effective” is simply false. The balance of probability is that it can indeed do what it says on the tin: the IRRI press release merely emphasizes that we wont know for sure until the community-scale trials have been conducted.
      The point is that Greenpeace- who you explicitly say you will not “single out for criticism” (while going out of your way to criticize Lynas) do not want any trials at all to ever take place, and are willing and able to stoop to disgraceful manipulative tactics in order to stop them.
      The same is true of anti-GE activism in general- you dont want scientific trials to take place, and destroy crops to stop them. This allows you to then say, “ah, but look they dont work anyway; it is all over-hyped; it takes so long to develop it cant be cost-effective.”

      You deride the science you want to destroy as “scientism” and then bring your own “alternative” High Priests – a tiny minority of activist-scientists and Big Organic Shills- to defend your political position. Just as is the habit of homeopaths, you want it both ways: accusing “Science” as resting on false authority, and then in the same breath invoking your own.

      Reply
  17. Here is what Dr. Ingo Potrykus said to Greenpeace, February 2001, “If you plan to destroy test fields to prevent responsible testing and development of Golden Rice for humanitarian purposes, you will be accused of contributing to a crime against humanity. Your actions will be carefully registered and you will, hopefully, have the opportunity to defend your illegal and immoral actions in front of an international court.”

    Reply
  18. You’re (wilfully?) misreading what I’ve actually said through your own highly ‘ideological’ lens, while failing to answer quite a number of questions yourself that I went to some trouble to pose. One example of your misreading is your suggestion that I claim to know that golden rice is not cost effective, something I simply didn’t say. For your part, you stated that its cost-effectiveness is irrelevant, which suggests pretty much the mirror image of what you’re accusing me of: you apparently think GM crops are just intrinsically good regardless of their efficacy. Thanks for the debate anyway.

    Reply
    • No, I said the balance of probability is that Golden Rice is cost-effective and will do what it says; you provide no convincing reason to doubt this- what you are doing Chris is playing around with epistemology like a homeopath: there is no such things as Absolute Truth, so the effectiveness of Golden Rice will never be proved effective to your standards. The goal-posts will move, the bar will be raised- you and your Greenpeace pals- who apparently are beyond criticism because they are not as bad as the WTO in your opinion- will always and forever be able to play this game, because you know it cannot be refuted in an absolute sense. You are using lack of certainty to persuade people that this is a good reason to oppose it, regardless of the tactics used.

      You repeatedly say, such technology should never be used unless it has reached your high standards of proof of efficacy, which will never happen. Unless we stop and ask deep questions noone else is asking (Duh!) about “who benefits”. The same argument exactly could be used to ban the computer you are using. I dont know whether you know this is what you are doing or not but either way it sucks. Please dont take my comments personally- this is what everyone in the anti-GE camp do. All the time. For decades. While children die.

      Reply
  19. @Timberati – no I’m not saying that life on non-mechanized farms is idyllic, and I agree with you that wealth isn’t zero sum, cities can be the motor of economic development, and that life in the countryside often lacks hope. On the other hand, I don’t think the evidence can sustain your view that we’ve had 100,000+ years of increased standards of living behind us, and an open minded look at agricultural futures suggest that we’re facing some pretty big problems. Humans are incapable of not using technologies to solve problems just as predators are incapable of not hunting – in both cases it’s who we are, and I see it as neither bad nor good. But I think it’s worth distinguishing between using technologies to solve problems and using “Technology” to solve problems, if you see what I mean. On town vs country, though what you say is largely true it isn’t some fact of nature – as people like David Satterthwaite have suggested, the main advantage of living in a slum is that it’s easier to organise politically, whereas rural peasants tend to get screwed by landholders. But though wealth isn’t zero sum, nor does it expand limitlessly and equitably, so notwithstanding the romanticisation of slum life by the likes of Stewart Brand the hopes of many slum dwellers are destined to go unfulfilled (and I think we’ll see a zero-sum element to China’s success playing out over time). Can we sustain a thoroughly urbanised world at US/EU standards of living long-term? Personally I doubt it, so I think we need to look at alternatives.

    Reply
    • 1. (a)”I don’t think the evidence can sustain your view that we’ve had 100,000+ years of increased standards of living behind us, (b) and an open minded look at agricultural futures suggest that we’re facing some pretty big problems.”

      2. “But I think it’s worth distinguishing between using technologies to solve problems and using “Technology” to solve problems, if you see what I mean.”

      3. “Can we sustain a thoroughly urbanised world at US/EU standards of living long-term? Personally I doubt it, so I think we need to look at alternatives.”

      Hi Chris, I have numbered/lettered three of your comments that interested me. My questions and comments will follow that system.

      1a. I’d love to read your view that evidence indicates otherwise. The availability of our needs, and even wants, have been increasing: lifespan, food, privacy, cleaner air, cleaner water, artificial light, central heat, ways of communicating, etc. Is that not an increase in our standard of living?

      1b. Quite right. We are facing big agricultural problems. Large, but not insurmountable.

      2. Sorry, I do miss your point. Could you elaborate?

      3. The reason to why you doubt that everyone can live at OECD standards probably requires a full blog post.

      Cheers,
      Norm

      Reply
  20. @Skepteco: “You’re (wilfully?) misreading what I’ve actually said through your own highly ‘ideological’ lens”: I rest my case!

    Reply
  21. @Timberati: (1a) the things you mention have been improving in, say, the UK over some time period that we could debate…maybe a century or two. But they haven’t improved everywhere continuously over 100,000 years. In that time period we’ve had ice ages, supervolcanoes, the rise and fall of countless civilisations, and within each of those the ebb and flow of epidemics, economies etc. And some of the benefits accruing to the ‘us’ you mention are at the direct expense of others, living and dead. And not all of them would be recognised universally as benefits, eg. privacy, which nobody much cared about prior to modern times. There are also issues about relative and absolute living standards. So my objection is to some of the details of your claim, and also to the scale – which makes your argument teleological, or a ‘Whig view of history’ to use Butterfield’s term.

    (1b) Surely nobody can know whether the problems we face are insurmountable or not? There’s plenty of serious science on climate, soil, water, nitrogen and phosphate suggesting that we’re on a perilous path. And the historical record is littered with dead civilisations that bought their own hubris and considered themselves invincible. Whether we’ll become one of them I don’t know, and nor does anyone else. It’s something I’m interested to debate, but not with the sort of folks on this website who consider any questioning of conventional industrial agriculture to be an ‘ideological’ commitment to peasant romanticism or whatever.

    2. An example of using technologies to solve problems would be implicit in a statement such as, “Analysis suggests that golden rice grown over time period x in region y for community z produces the best improvement in DALYs per dollar invested than all other practicable programmes and should therefore be supported.” An example of using ‘Technology’ to solve problems would be implicit in a statement such as “people ought to embrace technological progress such as GM crops” (as per the New Scientist, 02.02.13). Despite the persistent misrepresentation of my views on this site, I’m in favour of the former (though yes there are always grounds for questioning any analysis, and surely for anyone genuinely committed to science that’s absolutely fundamental), but I’m not in favour of the latter.

    3. Yes, it requires more than a blog post, but it’s what I’ve been doing to date on smallfarmfuture.org.uk and hope to continue in the future. I’m interested to debate the issues civilly on my site as far as time allows, but not to wade through any more absurd misrepresentations on this one.

    Reply
    • The long-term trend has surely been up, much of it in the recent industrial era, true- but in no small part due to technological innovation.
      1b- we’ve always been on a perilous path, now a lot less perilous due to technological innovation (eg the Green Revolution- how much more perilous did it look just before for millions?)- at a cost of course; but innovation needn’t stop- in fact to regard it with suspicion and hinder its development is the real danger (imagine if we had banned the Green Revolution….)
      Of course we are not invincible- but the lessons of the past are not all equally relevant- the real lesson is ongoing progress, in science, understanding the world. That is not to say it is Destiny in any way that we continue- but one of the lessons of the past especially the past 100 years or so is that prophesies of doom tend to be always around, and have not been proved right yet. Do we have any real reason to think we happen to be living at the very time when it all falls apart? The most likely is that we are not living at any such special time, that despite the huge challenges we face, we will be seen from the future as just another bump on the road of progress. (Not “Progress” but real measurable improvements in living standards.)
      2)But how do assess the Big T other than by studies like the little T? Surely the reason people have trust in Technology is precisely because it has had so much success on the level of “technology” (small ‘t’). It comes down to the evidence.
      Despite considerable success at hindering development and deployment of GE the scientific case for it has only grown stronger- this can only be because it is so useful, farmers want to grow it for the advantages it brings, it does things other breeding methods cannot. Claims that there are special risks are just restatements of the precautionary Principle, which can be brought to bare on anything we dont like in a quite arbitrary fashion.
      The thing about innovation is that it is always new, which is why it is not accurate to look back and say “Oh we messed up then so we are going to make a bigger mess now”. We have no choice to continue with what we do best, innovation. The future will not be like the past.

      Reply
      • “Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago…(I)f you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.’” – P. J. O’Rourke

        Reply
  22. Well it’s an age-old debate and it’ll never end because no one can ever define ‘progress’ or its converse with any precision. For that reason alone, perhaps we should avoid projecting our contemporary notions of progress or decline onto history. I don’t say that there was some golden age of pleasure in the past and for all the attempts of folks on here to position me as a nostalgic romanticist, it’s you folks and not me who are reading your schemata back into history: the real debate is about what direction to go in with contemporary technologies to address contemporary problems. On that note, you need to look at the social context of technology as well as the technology itself – which is why the dentist part of the PJ O’Rourke quote is a non-sequitur, since there’s virtually no dental caries in prehistoric skulls. We need dentists, they didn’t: it doesn’t mean our society is worse than theirs, but we can address caries with dentists or with diets. It’s basically the same issue with golden rice or the green revolution.

    I’m not sure how useful it is to say that the future won’t be like the past. Of course it won’t be. But then again it will be. It’s like saying ‘people are basically the same’. They are and they aren’t. I think it’s useful to look at history because we don’t have anything else to look at. But I don’t think we can safely infer any grand lessons about human decline or progress from it.

    Reply
    • It was meant to be funny, Chris. O’Rourke is a Harvard Lampoon alum, so punchlines are what matter. But, of course there has been ‘progress’ in whatever way you might define it. I don’t know about the caries, but the archeological records of indigenous cultures I have studied showed a loss of teeth due to using stone tools for grinding that introduced grit into the food and ground down the person’s teeth over time. Toss in that hunter-gatherers also have a 0.5% per annum death rate due to murder (http://www.economist.com/node/10278703) and I’ll take technological progress with a lower-case or upper-case t.

      Reply
  23. Yes, apologies I’m not quite as humourless as my previous post may have suggested. It is funny. But it wouldn’t get a good grade in an archaeology class. There’s a problem with these grand comparisons – like you I’d prefer ‘technological progress’ than to have to live in a hunter-gatherer society, but then that’s because I’m not from a hunter-gatherer society. I suspect they would see it differently and I can’t find convincing grounds for supposing our own society to be objectively superior – including murder rates (presumably in highly compromised modern h/g societies in any case, so hardly a fair comparison). Better to stick to debating present agricultural futures I think.

    Reply
    • The fight against GMO foods is a fight of emotion against science, an effort to deny that everything we eat is the product of human ingenuity and the purposeful manipulation of nature, that science has brought great advances in the production of food to the tremendous benefit of mankind, and that we had better not stop.

      http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/02/25/genetic-engineering-monster-exists-only-in-our-minds/

      -but you seem to accept that you prefer ‘technological progress’- so why question if it is progress or not, even if only for yourself? Most other people seem to agree, they also prefer progress.
      And so why is Golden Rice different from any other kind of progress, why wouldn’t people also prefer that just as you prefer your progess? and shouldnt the potential beneficiaries be able to decide for themselves without scare-campaigns from Greenpeace?

      Reply
  24. Ach well, I put ‘technological progress’ in scare quotes – the fact that I don’t want to be a hunter-gatherer doesn’t mean I have to support golden rice, which I reckon is probably the wrong kind of progress, in the timeless words of British Rail.

    Reply
    • Chris, I know you dont support Golden Rice, that’s why we are having this discussion, remember? I’m asking you a) why not b) what’s it got to do with you (since you are presumably not suffering from VAD thanks to the benefits of “technological progress” that you say admit you enjoy).
      “the wrong kind of progress” really sounds ideological Chris, it really does I have to say.

      Reply
  25. Are we getting anywhere with this? There is no non-ideological position, there are just political choices to be made. Given that many people throughout the entire history of humanity have not suffered from VAD, its avoidance is clearly not a matter of technological progress. That’s where your notions of science and progress are both serving and occluding your own ideology. What’s golden rice got to do with me? What’s it got to do with you? Why are you so convinced that golden rice is the answer when nobody currently knows how it will work on the ground and there are simple low tech community interventions available as recommended by the WHO. Where is the money and the political will going in relation to VAD and why?

    Reply
    • No, we dont appear to be getting anywhere Chris, why is that Chris? Why are you still asking “who benefits?” as your only apparent objection to GR when you yourself are unable to shed any light at all on this issue. Why do you have a separate set of standards for your political choices around the technology you enjoy yourself- including for example mutagenesis which is pretty ubiquitous- than you do for GR? Obviously my interest in GR would be fairly incidental were it not for the dishonest and manipulative campaign against it, much to the detriment of people who really need it (which doesnt include you- you are already very well catered for with life-saving, life-enhancing technology.)
      It is you who have an issue with GR, not me, but you appear quite unable to explain why. What the hell is “the wrong kind of progress?” and what does it mean when you are referring to technology that your yourself do not need?
      The WHO report recommends a broad spectrum of approaches, and guess what no-one knows exactly how they will play out either. There is no silver bullet that will solve VAD. Why single out GR which has many advantages over the other methods? Who is benefiting from the activist campaigns? Answers please.

      Reply
  26. I don’t think it’s obvious at all that your interest in GR would otherwise be incidental – I think it’s all consuming, and your interest in poverty is minimal, which is why Greenpeace is the only international organisation that seems to makes you angry. But it’s good to hear at last that you don’t think GR is a magic bullet. The magic bullet that does solve VAD in your case and in mine is access to a proper diet, and that would be the right kind of progress. As I’ve said before, I don’t rule out a role for GR as a palliative interim measure, though it remains unproven, but I consider the strident blustering of GM enthusiasts on GR to have a lot more to do with your enthusiasm for your pet technology than any loftier humanitarian aims. I doubt those answers will satisfy you, but I think they’re all you’re going to get.

    Reply
    • I have never thought of GE as a “silver bullet”. There is no one technology that can solve VAD, but VAD like many other problems is a symptom of poverty; science and agricultural technology do not in themselves guarantee development but they are certainly an essential part of it.
      Chris, why have you concerns about GE but not about, say, mutagenesis? Why do you think there is a powerful anti-GE campaign but no anti- mutagenesis campaign? In the US the organics industry have recently accepted cell-fusion. Why is that “the right kind of progress” and GE not?
      Do you not think we should stop the anti-GE campaign until deeper questions about who benefits from this campaign have been answered?
      why dont you answer my questions about who you think benefits from GR and why that would be an issue for you?
      Greenpeace have ruled out GR, on any basis, they are opposed even to trials on GE and spread lies about GR to scare-monger, yet you refuse to condemn them, even as you condemn advocates of GE- why?
      why have such bad faith about peoples’ good intentions?
      why put more energy into banning something that clearly has great promise than into the much vaunted alternatives, none of which on their own are either likely to be “Silver bullets” and have many short-comings and difficulties;
      why would GR not be part of a balanced diet?
      answers please.

      Reply
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