OSU FFT Lecture: Dr. Robert Paarlberg

Tanner Sheahan

Several of us attended a lecture at Oregon State's LaSells Stewart Center Tuesday night. The Food for Thought lecture series has been focused on how biotechnology is being used in agriculture and the opportunities it offers to feed an ever growing world population while highlighting the political and philosophical roadblocks to its implementation.

The topic of biotechnology or GE crops (genetically engineered or genetically enhanced) is like cryptonite to the organic community but Dr. Robert Paarlberg gave us all some things to think about last night.  His lecture was titled "The Ethics of Modern Agriculture" and discussed the need for advanced crop cultivars in Africa and the political and environmental factors that are keeping them out of the hands of farmers.  It is currently illegal to grow any GE crop on a nearly all of the African continent for no other reason than a list of unfounded fears of modernization in general and biotechnology specifically.  Dr. Paarlberg confronted the organic or "bio-dynamic" farming philosophy and its inadequacy to feed the world population as it stands, let alone to keep up with growth.  He subtly highlighted the ethical duplicity of the embrace of biotechnology by the wealthiest nations of the world during the Green Revolution of the 40's and 50's while environmental-NGO's and certain government agencies have worked very hard in advising leaders in African countries to avoid biotechnology and embrace organic production.  One main point Dr Paarlberg made is that most farms in Africa are already producing food organically because they currently have no other choice. "They could be certified tomorrow," he said, and yet people are still malnourished and starving.

His presentation sought to refute three primary assertions regarding organic vs conventional production:
"Organic food is better/healthier for our bodies than conventionally produced food"
"Organic food is safer for our bodies than conventionally produced food"
"Organic production is better for the environment as a whole than conventional food production"

Dr Paarlberg systematically and logically provided evidence to contradict these claims.  He discussed the incredible negative environmental impact organic production would have if implemented on a scale necessary to keep up with the conventional acres currently in production.  He concluded with the proposition that embracing biotechnology and the advancements in agricultural applications of genetic science would ensure that those in developing countries would be able to continue to provide enough food for themselves.  At the same time he advocated for an integration of some of the management philosophies prevalent in organic production with the large scale of conventional production to refine our farming habits and improve the overall efficiency of food production world wide.  He argued for the education of African farmers, reduction or removal of regulatory prohibitions to make these new technologies and genetic enhancements available to them, and then to allow the African people to decide for themselves.

Dr, Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.  His book, Starved for Science-How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa can be found on Amazon.com for about $10-15 and features a forward by the Father of the Green Revolution himself, Norman Borlaug.

Some other links of interest:
The Real Hunger Crisis
Books by Robert Paarlberg