• “Feed the world” at the Royal Institution

    by  • February 18, 2009 • Science • 2 Comments

    Feed the World
    We live in an age of scientific and technological advancement that was almost unimaginable only a few generations ago. From mobile telephones to the Large Hadron Collider, human know-how and ingenuity is deeper, more widespread and disseminates faster than at any time in history. However, despite our vast knowledge almost 900 million people in the world today are undernourished. Hunger and malnutrition is the number one risk to health worldwide – greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

    The challenge for science is clear. How can we use the world’s huge intellectual resources to solve one of humanity’s most basic problems? What approaches should science pursue? Is genetic modification the answer, or would greater use of organic farming help? Are more and better pesticides needed? Is it advantageous for food to be grown locally to where it is consumed? Is a high-tech approach needed or is it time to rethink what science can do and what it is for?

    Join the debate at this café scientifique as we discuss the issues for agricultural science of how best to feed the world’s growing population.

    This event will be held in the Ri’s cafe and the focus will be on an informal discussion between Sygenta’s Andrew Coker, biologist and writer Colin Tudge and the audience, facilitated by Alok Jha, science and environment correspondent at the Guardian.

    Admission is free and there is no need to book

    (from the RI web site)

    What transpired was shilling from a genuinely dislikable man from a GE company with patents on things like “golden rice” (GE vit A enriched rice) who said things along the lines of “some people in the developing world only want to eat rice, not vegetables, they have a rice based diet so we made a rice for them, we’re just giving them what they want.”

    Now, this may be a “there’s this tribe” story. There may be such a situation, somewhere, with exactly these properties. But, in general, the arguments about GE foodstuffs in the developing world are not about the fact people don’t “want” vegetables, but that they cannot afford them. A patented rice is at best a questionable intervention, but to justify it’s existence with a bullshit story about dietary preferences – rather than absolute poverty – is excremental bad and an insult to every person in the room (or who died from lack of vitamin A.)

    I could poke a few more holes, but they’d involve words like “genetic chernobyl” and involve a lot of swearing. It went beyond lame and deeply into sleazy and unpleasant. Would not buy again.

    Colin Tudge I was too hard on. He’s obviously very expert in organic farming, particularly in the UK, but his grasp of the developing world situation left a lot to be desired. I was still too angry at the entire event’s desire to ignore actual food security issues and its presentation to apologize properly, but I certainly owe him one. He knows his stuff on the UK situation inside and out. But he’s not a poverty guy, or a one acer farming guy, or a development guy, and the applications of organic agriculture to starvation-level farmers is a totally different thing to why we can’t transform the UK food supply. Organic is a luxury in the UK, but effective farming is a life-or-death matter in the developing world.

    Alok Jha did an excrementally bad job of framing the issues or encouraging debate. The fatuously shallow game he seemed to want to play was “GE or Organic” without any discussion of – hello – why are people starving?

    No mention of micronutrient deficiency.

    No mention of farm subsidies.

    No mention of any of the realistic plans in play to do something about food security issues globally.

    I am extremely disappointed that the Royal Institution ran such a deeply amateurish show about such an important topic, and I’m none too pleased that the moderator chose to block all discussion of the actual science which shows paths to solving these problems.

    It was billed as a discussion. It was not. Alok Jha had a fixed agenda: GE vs. organic, and absolutely no apprent knowledge of or interest in starvation, despite framing the food issue as being one of the world’s most important problems because of its humanitarian impact and associated death toll.

    I forcefully brought up Ivette Perfecto‘s work demonstrating that organic agriculture can feed the world, including increasing food availability in the developing world by 80%. I also mentioned that small lot farming is vastly more effective than large lot farming, and would have mentioned Paul Polak‘s work had there been any opportunity.

    I emailed copies of Perfecto’s paper to about a dozen people who asked for one. But I really think the RI needs to tighten up these shows, because this was embarrassingly bad. To frame something as one of the world’s most important problems and then have people who are not expert in the field presented as experts who are capable of leading discussion? To frame the problem itself in a way which is entirely irrelevant to the real issues in the field?

    Fundamentally, if feeding the world one of the world’s most important problems, get people who actually know their way around the problem to discuss it. This is London, the city is packed with universities and institutes, and food security is not hard to present in a comprehensive way.

    The real issues here matter enough to get them right. Science for Humanity is the RI’s attempt to make itself relevant to the ongoing humanitarian problems of the world, but it’s no good at all if the RI’s lecture series undercuts SfH’s credibility in the field.


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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