Beth Hoffman writes for Forbes and she’s mainly about changing the food system. Recently she wrote a piece on Genetic Modification and why Golden Rice is not a good thing.
I was stunned by such a statement but before I could respond “Drama Happened” and distracted me, so consider this trying to get back on track.
Recently the debate over genetically modified (GMO) foods has heated up again. In just the past few weeks, articles about GMOs have appeared in Slate, the New York Times, and Grist. And over the weekend New York Times writer Amy Harmon wrote again of the saving graces of genetically engineered foods, this time citing “Golden Rice” as a clear example of the life saving abilities of GMOs.
Let’s get this clear.
Golden Rice is a really good idea. It’s the genetic modification of rice to produce carotene and an excellent and cheap way to improve supplementation of Vitamin A. This would effectively halt the spread of xeropthalmia which is one of the biggest preventable causes of blindness and mainly affects children.
The rice is a charity development. It will be sold at cost and without regulation allowing farmers to crossbreed the plant with standard rices to produce local hybrids if people want to do that.
Yes, even Monsanto helped make it and did so out of “Charity”.
Yet journalists on both sides of the argument seem to have forgotten there are many ways aside from “ science” to describe the world around us, and that there are other highly effective tools out there to solve hunger and malnutrition besides genetic engineering.
I don’t know what Hoffman thinks powered the green revolution but it certainly wasn’t Professor Sprout and her herbology classes.
Hoffman falls down a trap in thinking that farming is not highly scientific. The entire farming industry is heavily entrenched in science be it the physics of irrigation or the usage of astronomy to decide seasons of planting or the utilisation of meteorology to predict rainfall or chemistry to make fertiliser or biology to understand everything from cross breeding to treatment of disease and control of pests.
Farmers aren’t going at it “randomly” and haven’t been going at it randomly for quite some time. They may not have understood the principle but early farmers quickly realised through simple observations some ideas about farming that held true for decades. When we actually understood those principles we harnessed them in a much more effective way.
Which is what we call the Green Revolution or the sudden spike in food production making us live in a bubble of artificial excess.
Let me be clear – I am not “afraid of science,” a claim that someone invariably writes at the end of an article like this one to try and discredit its argument. I, like millions of people around the world, am against genetic engineering, but not because of the proven or refuted science behind it.
No. But Hoffman certainly claimed that science doesn’t have the answer and doesn’t quite understand what agricultural sciences entail. She may not be scared of science but that’s because she has made a statement that’s indicative that she doesn’t understand science or has a very specific view of what she thinks since involves. And something tells me that view involves a lot of old white men in coats poking at test tubes.
If we are to make fun of her that’s like me suggesting that pre-Green Revolution farming practices can be gleaned from the Wickerman
So the question is why? Why am I part of a huge, and growing, group not willing to believe the “facts” (according to its proponents) about the benefits of genetic modification? Why am I against the creation of Golden Rice, even if it may stop millions of children from going blind?
The basic answer is simple: trust.
Wait what? You believe the scientific knowledge that vitamin A deficiency causes xeropthalmia which is a terrible terrible disease but wish to stop people gaining access to the preventative measure?
Xeropthalmia is a progressive disease that is reversible during it’s early stages. Basically? It’s the degeneration of vision starting with night blindness, moving on to corneal abrasions and finally the formation of scar tissue over the eye. It’s a permanent loss of vision but at the early stages is reversable.
In addition? Vitamin A deficiency is linked to malnutrition and unfavourable outcomes on common childhood diseases.
I find this hypocritical that one can trust all the science that came up with these answers but not “Genetic Modification”.
I bet Hoffman knows atleast one person on Insulin. Made by a Genetically Engineerd Organism.
Science has a credibility problem. It has for too long been used to distort food and twist the natural into long lasting Twinkies and nutritionally void Lunchables. Tobacco was good for us, we were told, and DDT was fine to spray on our fields. Food dyes are all still considered safe for our kids to eat, and “natural” foods, we are made to believe, are made of naturally occurring ingredients.
Unlike magic, voodoo and prayer?
Science doesn’t have a credibility problem, people NOT understanding science has a credibility problem. Oh for the love of god? Who the hell thought Twinkies and Lunchables were healthy? That’s not a failing of science, that’s a failing of education.
We need to teach our kids about bloody food. Our kids are happy to be eating processed meat and sinew in their chicken nuggets but won’t touch real chicken. We feed our kids caffeine and sugar then complain that they are hyperactive. We feed them fried potato mash but not show them how to mash and make their own.
In short? It’s not science that created kids eating nonsensical food it was adults who bought the damn stuff despite the information being written on the packaging.
At no point did scientists say Tobacco was good for you. In fact for most of the past 100 years science has been staunchly ANTI-Tobacco. DDT was a godsend and most Americans don’t realise why.
The shipping off Africans as slaves to the USA brought along an African disease. Yellow Fever. Every year yellow fever outbreaks in the USA would kill thousands sometimes even tens of thousands of people. Aedes Egyptii and Yellow Fever both made their way to the USA and the south’s swamps made for ideal breeding grounds. Mosquitos are pretty mobile critters.
The usage of DDT eliminated Yellow Fever as a threat in the USA. There are no native monkeys for the disease to form a reservoir. DDT saved hundreds of thousands of lives. You have to weight the scales. Would you rather hundreds of thousands of people died or we damage the environment? At the time it was a sensible call. With the depletion of Yellow Fever’s reservoir we didn’t need to spray any more. Still think it was a bad idea?
And as I said. You are the one who feeds your kids. If you buy garbage they will eat garbage. If you inculcate a habit of eating “Real” food then they too will eat real food.
And you cannot compare Lunchables to Golden Rice, one’s pretty real in nutritive value and the other is weird food.
In all cases we have been misled, and today it is not “false fears” that has bred skeptical consumers, it is experience.
No. No it hasn’t. I bet that Greenpeace has some Type 1 diabetics who dose themselves up with Humalin then go out to yell about genetic modification being bad without any sense of hypocrisy.
And many of the scares about science are false fears or hyperbole.
Equally suspect is the ridiculous notion that anything in the world – be it love, or windmills, or children, or genetically engineered rice – can be all good. Regardless of what “scientists,” Bill and Melinda Gates or anyone else involved with creating genetically engineered foods might say, and I am willing to bet the farm there will be unforeseen consequences, just as there are in every other aspect of our lives. 11,000 farmers in the southern United States found this out the hard way when they lost an estimated $150 million in rice sales in 2006 because of a contamination by a genetically modified strain, even though, claims Harmon, “science” says cross pollination will be “extremely limited.”
Because they wanted to sell their crops as organic at high mark ups. The agriculture “bullshit” industry is quite well known. Free Range is different from Organic and Organic may be worse than Free Range and the classifications are just tick boxes to be fulfilled.
Not because the crops produced human legs instead of rice.
And what about the assertion that we should all get over our hangups and embrace genetic engineering for the lives it can save?
Tell that to my dad. Man’s addicted to Insulin like his life’s dependant on it.
Gerard Barry of the International Rice Research Institute is quoted in Harmon’s article as saying that “critics who suggest encouraging poor families to simply eat fruits and vegetables that contain beta carotene [instead of Golden Rice] disregard the expense and logistical difficulties that would thwart such efforts.”
No, Gerard Barry is kind of right.
This is the most audacious claim made by those who believe genetic engineering is the way to go. Namely the insistence that genetic engineering is somehow better, and in the long run, cheaper than other more natural ways of eating and that the logistical complexities of getting fruits and veggies to malnourished human beings are too large to overcome.
Do you know what Hoffman is saying? They have no bread so let them eat cake. This is the bit where I have some experience.
My ties to the Middle East were because I lived there. I have been all over both as a kid and as a medic. But as a kid one of my experiences was that of a refugee during the first Gulf War. And I “Starved”. I was on a starvation diet. I ate anything put in front of me. Mostly what you ate was rice and pulses. Carbs and Proteins.
The problem with fruits and vegetables is that on a starvation diet they are expensive and since what people are suffering from is protein energy malnourishment they spend all their money on rice and a pulse of some sort. Basics. High Energy Food To Get Them Moving.
Hoffman doesn’t understand two things. That the ground that grows rice doesn’t grow other vegetables all that well. It’s clay soil and holds water and rice can survive waterlogging. Carrots? Less so. They will die. The right soil for the right crop is important. It’s the reason why Scotland and Wales raise sheep. It’s because the land is unsuitable for growing crops and sheep will eat most green things. Hoffman’s ideas simply would not take hold and worse.
If she tried her experiment in a third world nation all that would happen is the crop of vegetables and fruits would fail and the crop of rice would be lower resulting in greater starvation.
No clearly something better needs to be done. Fruits and vegetables may require infrastructure that will be easier to provide if farms got bigger by falling populations but at the moment bar simply giving them a ration it’s hard to get people eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
You see this in the USA and the UK too. Poorer people are less likely to indulge in healthier food because it’s cheaper to eat badly.
There once was a teacher in Asia. Who thought like Hoffman. He knew better than the farmers. IF a stupid farmer could grow crops with barely any education and the inability to write, then imagine what a city man with all the luxuries of education could do?
His name was Pol Pot. And the ensuing famine killed millions. Because farming issues are not as easy as you waggling your hands and demanding people eat carrots.
The amount of money it has cost to concoct a product like Golden Rice is enormous. Scientists first got initial funding for Golden Rice from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1984 and have now been supported (with monies to cover lab expenses, legal fees, teaching assistants, salaries, long patent processes, etc) for more than 30 years.
Because developing it was a landmark event and even then once a single batch had rolled out you in effect eliminated all Vitamin A deficiency and didn’t need to keep spending money on supplements.
The problem with Golden Rice is fear mongering has kept people from adopting it. It could have been rolled out 10 years ago even. People demanded testing and refused to use it because of scaremongering and all the while people died and were blinded.
Meanwhile, again and again, simple low-cost, low-tech solutions like “kitchen gardening,” improved agricultural methods, and cover cropping have been found to give outstanding nutritional and economic results quickly to farmers. If people can grow a carrot or yam for far less expense and trouble than developing a strange looking rice (it is bright yellow – and we think getting people to eat brown rice has been hard!) – why aren’t carrots or yams the first stop for solving the problem?
The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation teach comprehensive scientific agriculture. Places which can grow mixed crops do so. As for Kitchen Gardening? Really? You think the poorest people of India have TIME to faff around with Kitchen Gardens? Or do you think they have land to garden in? Tell me what plants in your garden grow in sandy soil using salt water? Coconuts perhaps?
This is the argument of someone who has never seen a rice paddy field if you think you can grow Yams in it.
Why are we pouring money into lab salaries, field trials and professional conferences instead of ensuring that people around the world have nutritious – and tasty (do you want to eat only rice?) – food to eat every day?
There is no other word for it but privilege.
People don’t eat monodiets because they enjoy it but because they need to survive. They eat to live, we live to eat.
25% of the world’s starvation is in India. Roungly 60% of people are functionally malnourished and roughly 50% of people have had to face PEM (Protein-Energy Malrnourishment). These are big big big numbers of people and many of these people don’t have farms or gardens to grow carrots on or have land that doesn’t grow carrots.
Golden Rice would be a godsend because you can use it as a staple and reduce the need for Vitamin A supplementation. India has the biggest Vit A supplementation scheme in the world! Golden rice would save a lot of money and increase farmer independence.
I believe the real question which needs to be asked is not “why is the public so reluctant to embrace the “science” behind genetic engineering?” but “why are scientists intent on solving problems in the most costly and complex way imaginable?” Why has feeding the hungry become a self-serving competition for lab funding when viable solutions to the problem (and the organizations to carry them out) are available now?
The estimated cost of Golden Rice is between 80 to 120 million dollars from what I can find. Let’s take it at a round $100 million.
India spends $32 million a year on Vit A supplementation and still has cases of Xeropthalmia as the network isn’t perfect.
This would have better penetration and costs the same as just 4 years of supplementation scheme to come up with.
And this is without one off the most global uses of Golden Rice.
It’s a starvation food ideal for famine conditions and natural disasters because when shipping starvation food you need maximum diversity minimum space.
I am afraid the problem is Hoffman thinks a $100 Million project is a lot of money when compared to the hundreds of millions we throw down the drain every year trying to fight Vit A deficiency.
Why are we spending millions (billions?) of dollars reinventing the wheel when we already have several that work?
Because you think we can use a wooden cart wheel on a 18 Wheel truck.
Because Hoffman has a very very simplistic view off starvation economics.
Just because science can improve nutrition by genetically engineering food, doesn’t mean we have to.
Your right. We should engineer Carrots to Grow Under Water.
Arguing against the fight against Xeropthalmia is just madness.
This is a disease that robs sight to the poorest and people who need it the most. It turns healthy children into people who’s only future is begging.
Keratomalacia and Xeropthalmia are an eliminatable scourge of mankind and the simple utilisation of Golden Rice can save millions of eyes.
This is a thankful rarity in Tamil Nadu, but you see these in the rural parts of the North in places like Bihar.
These people cannot be saved after it gets to this stage. But you can stop more from happening by the adoption of the rice.