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Book Review: Starved for Science

(Low res. image of book cover via Harvard Univ. Press under Fair Use)

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa was one of the most riveting works of fiction I have read all year! Oh wait… non-fiction, you say? Well, then it sucked.

I went into Starved for Science with as open a mind as I could. After all, my next book will be more or less a refutation of much of what Paarlberg promotes as the way to help the poor, starving farmers in the world, and it would not serve me well at all to read his book without giving it a fair chance. Perhaps there are good points to be made that support his point of view? I would look stupid in my own book if I were to ignore them. And, not only that, but helping the world’s most vulnerable people is far too serious a subject to allow ideology or ego to get in the way. If I’m wrong, I want to know it. I want to challenge everything I believe to be true and test it as much as possible, because if we don’t do that, we are less likely to solve the world’s problems. And it seems like a good way to challenge my point of view is to read a book – a rather well-respected book (by certain crowds… like the U.S. Senate) – that argues that everything I believe is wrong.

Paarlberg has a talent at blending cleverly selected facts, weasel-y statements that are technically true, and complete bull-pucky to construct his arguments. I cannot say why he does this, whether he’s funded by agribusiness, or owns a factory farm somewhere, or perhaps he’s just a really poor researcher who got it into his head that he knows what he’s talking about and ran with it without getting all of the information. Or maybe this is all just a way to win himself prestige within the academic world. He’s a political science professor, not an agronomist or ecologist.

He begins by explaining why the populations rich countries do not like genetic engineering. This is part of a larger argument of his that the same populations are made up of “food purists, environmentalists, populists, and agrarian romantics” who don’t like agricultural science (p. 77). And they do not like for a very specific reason: it gives them no tangible benefit. Having never experienced hunger (his statistics for the number of hungry in the U.S. are suspiciously low), they have no concept of what the starving farmers of Africa are going through. These elitists (although he doesn’t use that word) want lovely countrysides where they can see cows grazing and maybe take their children to let them experience collecting eggs from a henhouse. They want better quality food. And they foolishly buy organic to avoid pesticide residues, even though the government has set limits for pesticide residues in produce and the vast majority of food does not exceed those limits.   . . .

While he doesn’t use the word elitist, he does use the word “blue blood,” referring to Prince Charles, as he says:

His Royal Highness is today an avid organic farmer, a leading patron of the Soil Association, and the most prominent current exemplar of this blue-blood attachment in England to preindustrial, chemical-free agriculture. – p. 72

Paarlberg describes J.I. Rodale as an accountant from the Lower East Side, and says that Sir Albert Howard came to his ideas about the importance of healthy, living soil from Eastern spiritual concepts he learned in India. Yet he writes that organic agriculture requires more land to be devoted to agriculture and makes no-till impossible, when he would find the very opposite if he visited the Manhattan accountant’s Rodale Institute in rural Pennsylvania.

Paarlberg does give some credit to Rachel Carson, who exposed the danger of certain pesticides (notably chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates, with the latter still being widely used today), but he says that farmers solved those problems with more science, not less, by finding better pesticides:

Carson’s charge against excessive chemical use in agriculture was powerful and irrefutable, and eventually persuasive even to most commercial farmers, who had an interest in reducing toxic chemical use for pocketbook reasons (the chemicals are expensive), for occupational safety reasons (farmers are those most exposed to risk), and also for compelling agronomic reasons (insect populations can become resistant to the chemicals). Yet the technical strategy farmers preferred wasn’t to abandon science in crop protection, but instead to use still more science. Industry developed newer chemicals with fewer harmful side effects and high-precision application equipment that reduced excessive or unwanted exposure. Farmers also cut chemical use by purchasing crop varieties bred scientifically for increased resistance to disease or insects. – p. 66

I must give some credit to the idea here of finding or developing resistant crop varieties – that’s a practice I even employ in my own garden. What he did not mention in this quote was the move to IPM, integrated pest management, that was also a wonderful change in agriculture in the last several decades. Under IPM, instead of spraying according to the calendar, farmers would wait to see if a pest infestation actually occurred and only spray as a last resort. IPM – as employed in the U.S. – sure ain’t organic, but it’s an improvement.

Paarlberg goes through study after study that proves the safety of genetic engineering, but fails to mention other studies that hint at the possibility of – or actually prove – there are problems associated with them or that they do not provide the benefits claimed. He does not mention the implication that there is no way to contain genetic engineered crops (which, at this point, is pretty well established). He also does not note the lack of independent studies of genetically engineered crops, which has been reported on in the New York Times, or the backlash in the scientific community against any scientist who makes even remotely anti-biotech findings, which was reported on in Nature.

All in all, he concludes that:

This reification of what is “natural” is in part a cultural reaction to the hegemonic expansion of modern science. Advances in modern science tend to diminish both unspoiled nature and unquestioned faith, prompting those with a strong romantic or spiritual side to register their objections by seeking foods that incorporate less modern science. – p. 71

There are several problems with Paarlberg’s arguments here, and we haven’t even gotten to Africa yet. First, he completely discounts that there is any science whatsoever behind organic or, as I would prefer, agroecological agriculture. There is. Crop rotation and mulches may be ancient techniques but that does not make them unscientific. Try comparing them in a controlled scientific experiment against your favorite “scientific” herbicides, pesticides, and GMOs sometime. That’s not to say that every agroecological technique always works. It doesn’t. (As an example, someone I know planted trees as windbreaks to see if it would solve the problem of his corn blowing over. Unfortunately, the variety of tree he planted attracted a corn pest. Oops.) But that’s why you use science to determine which techniques work and which don’t. And there is scientific research showing that these techniques, when selected and used properly, often provide better results than conventional agriculture, PARTICULARLY for resource-poor farmers in the Global South.

So what about Africa? Well, here’s proof that organic won’t work:

In Africa, in other words, farmers today are not engaged in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, non-industrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are de facto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed. – p. 82

There you go. And here I am saying “Let them eat cake.” Africa needs some GMOs, baby!

With so many easily debunkable statements in the first section of the book, it is hard to take seriously the points advocated by Paarlberg in the latter half of the book, where he specifically addresses Africa. As you know if you follow my work, I am far more acquainted with the situations of small, subsistence farmers in Latin America than I am with those in Africa or Asia. Some things (such as the workings of Mother Nature) are universal; others obviously aren’t (such as climate, political systems, prevalence of AIDS, and wars).

Paarlberg nails it when he calls for any approach to aid to be pro-poor, and then defines pro-poor as follows:

A new farming technology will be pro-poor as well as pro-growth only if it raises the total factor productivity of small as well as large farms… New farming technologies will also be more likely to deliver productivity gains to the poor on small farms if they reduce rather than increase weather risks, if they target disadvantaged areas where the poorest small farms operate, and if they target the staple food crops currently grown by such farmers – p. 85

Quite frankly, he is outlining some of the core principles of agroecology here. However, what he fails to mention is that organic agriculture is more resilient to weather extremes than industrial agriculture. I think what’s important to note is that this book is not entirely worthless. There are sections that make excellent points. But there’s no way for an uneducated reader to know the difference between what’s true and what’s false. Which ideas will help Africa’s poorest farmers, and which ideas will hurt them?

Paarlberg makes it abundantly clear upfront that he does not have very good judgment, and that unfortunately wipes out any value that a reader may find in this book, once he or she realizes that the author is not trustworthy.

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Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson