"Food Evolution" – the ever evolving science

By Ben Gordon

Ben Gordon 

When I moved to Oakland in 2010, I became quickly wrapped up in Proposition 37, which sought to label GMOs, and even advocated for it as far as San Antonio, Texas, at an unrelated conference. I also worked with a youth education NGO focused on high school gardens. A few years later, as my dad challenged my strongly held beliefs about GMOs on a bike ride, I came up short in answering straightforward questions. I had read no studies, didn’t understand what I was fighting against, and posed no alternative. Until a year ago, I still wavered in my view of the role of modern biology in agriculture. But today, now that I understand its history, scope of application (i.e. as a tool in plant breeding, not an entire agricultural system), and limitations, I firmly believe it plays a crucial role in enabling humanity to address some of the most pressing challenges of climate change, migration, and moving toward a renewable economy. This is based on reading hundreds of blogs, papers, and reports from many countries and all sides of this complicated issue. And now, months away from starting a PhD in agricultural economics at UC Berkeley, I am excited to focus on agricultural production.

I’m not new to the strong opposition to GMOs. I was fortunate to see "Food Evolution" at a prescreening several weeks ago and came away thankful that a 90-minute documentary was able to unpack how the world of plant breeding got mired in political and social turmoil. It leaves the viewer thinking that a deeper understanding of GMOs is needed and that some, but not, all of the opposition to GMOs is anti-science (akin to climate change or vaccine denial). But the next week, leading up to another screening at UC Berkeley campus, a letter denouncing the film as propaganda, and signed by a number of academics, was sent to several listservs, and subsequently published online. To see people affiliated with UC Berkeley and other universities describe "Food Evolution" as such is beyond disheartening. 

Propaganda is the use of biased or misleading information for a desired point of view or political purpose. "Food Evolution" evaluates one aspect of a complex topic, and shows how science and new technologies utilizing it have become politically charged. This has led to the underutilization of a technology that has great potential to help agricultural production adapt to changes more effectively, reduce environmental impact, and improve farmer wellbeing. Further, the movie does not try to sell GMOs as a full system — it shows that it is one tool that assists plant breeding more effectively achieve desired traits. This is what the consensus of science shows too.

The letter makes a comparison between GMOs and Phillips Morris that is incredibly misleading, and one to Exxon Mobil that is somewhat misleading. Scientific studies had not accumulated decades of research showing benefits compared to the status quo from smoking cigarettes. Petroleum production has many benefits, and of course costs, but the case here is the deliberate attempt by Exxon to hide costs.  Finally, the propaganda letter’s reference to a study showing a lack of scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs is misleading. Consensus means a general agreement, not 100 percent agreement. The consensus is not as strong as, say, the benefits of vaccines in human health while we can still find arguments against it, but it is very strong.

But rather than dispute every point in the letter, I think it is best addressed by shifting the conversation to focus on a few highly relevant topics: science as being for the people, the process of learning, and the role of technology in agriculture.

Science is by and for the people. I believe in the idea that trust in science has an overall positive effect on humanity. It is one of the strongest forces to disrupt the status quo. It creates new ways of doing things, and is open to the people. Yes, specific applications and technologies may be controlled by large companies, but that is a function of institutional and social constructs, not the science itself. So once it enters the real world, it gets wrapped up in society and politics just as anything else. It is our role as active citizens to push scientific applications this way.

As the philosopher Kant wrote, from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing ever came. To make real progress in agriculture we need to talk more about how to use the best of all techniques, practices, and processes. Isaiah Berlin, my favorite historian of ideas, used the Kant line for one of his books. He is a pluralist and believed that because people have different sets of values, there is no one right way of doing things. In that book, he opens an essay entitled "In Pursuit of the Ideal" by saying that "developments in the natural sciences and technology [are] the greatest success story of our time." He then deals in his essay with trying to understand the ideological schisms of the first part of the 20th century. 

He believed, as I'm sure we all do, that there is no ultimate solution to anything and that decision making is about right and wrong just as much as compromises. So back to biotechnology. It is an extension of our 11,000-year experiment with managing plants and animals. What Berlin, and Kant, were getting at is that we need to understand not only how scientific and rational approaches to natural systems can go wrong and their limitations, but also that different groups of people have different values. And so, there is no one right way of doing things. Level-headed proponents of biotechnology know that it is part of a diversified farming system that doesn't negate the need for agronomy, cultural practices, learning, and so forth.

In being scientific, we can’t let a few bad apples, or seeds, be a reason to abandon something novel. We humans are fallible, but know that the learning process is real. It's this pragmatic approach to tackling the challenges around us that will keep us steadily moving forward — yes, two steps forward often lead to one step back — and modern biology has a lot to add to agricultural production this century. 

Learning happens both at the individual level and the firm or system level. Economists and other scientists understand that people have different outcomes given the same inputs for a variety of reasons both internal (time, effort, skill) and, in the case of something like agriculture, external (land quality, water availability, etc). One aim in agricultural development is to enable a wide range of people to improve their outcomes, and for many, allow them to engage in other activities. And over time, outcomes improve because both people and systems improve, assisted by education and technology. 

The aim with smart innovations, both institutional (like education programs, incentives, policies) and technological, is to provide ways to increase output with reduced environmental impact, reduce variability (and thus risk) of the user, and generally make it easier for people to get things done. As humans, we are creatures of comfort and when a way of doing things more easily comes along, we want to do it - and there is nothing wrong with this, because with that extra time, we tend to find new ways to apply it. For instance, most all of us use a phone, even to call our neighbor, rather than write a letter or walk down the street. One exercise I did a few years ago, during my anti-technology phase, was to take stock of all the technologies I used and benefited from. As a result, I quickly abandoned that ‘anti’ phase.

In agriculture, a good example of a technology is chemical controls. When we speak of chemical controls, we need to ask the relative toxicity of the chemicals used, and those replaced. A good analogy is with soda. If we only looked at total beverage sales, we'd see a large increase and put some blame on beverages for health issues. But peeling back one label, we'd learn that bottled water and diet sodas account for the increase in sales, and the story changes.

And so we return to modern biology and its role in agriculture. Biotechnology is trying to improve our accuracy in plant breeding by making the complex natural world a little more straight forward — which lies at the heart of agriculture. Agriculture affords us many luxuries, and creates new demands and challenges, too. The challenge we need to address is how to manage the natural world in a less impactful way, while also balancing the many values we have as people coming from different backgrounds and living in different contexts. 

I’d like to see more debates on science and the intersection of technology, agriculture, and social change. The technology has huge potential, does not belong to corporations, and delaying it further will only serve to hurt all farmers, big and small, and people in general. Today the big challenge is how to address issues like climate change and food security. If, for example, biotechnology can contribute to mitigating climate change, we need to talk about how to use and regulate it effectively. It's true, biotechnology has a long way to go to meet its potential, but this is an opportunity, not a disaster. Let's make science sexy again and start chipping away more quickly at the challenges we face today.

Ben Gordon lives in Oakland, CA, and has worked in community development banking, environmental youth leadership education, and as an assistant to an agricultural economist. He received his masters in development practice from UC Berkeley in 2016 and begins a PhD in agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley in fall 2017.

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