Book Review: Starved for Science by Robert Paarlberg

Starved for Science by Robert Paarlberg
Starved for Science by Robert Paarlberg

I met Robert Paarlberg at Camden Conference this past weekend where he gave an excellent presentation. Robert is an expert in global food politics and has extensive experience and understanding of food science, a subject of which I am immensely interested. Therefore, I purchased his book, Starved for Science, from the conference bookstore.

In this excellent book Robert lays out the history of agriculture science achievements and the myriad ways in which they have changed the societies and economies where these advanced techniques have been applied. He discussed the benefits and imagined risks of genetically modified organisms and the ways ignorant public perceptions in the rich Western countries drive resistance in Africa of these beneficial crops.

Rich countries, he argues (with ample citations), gained their affluence in large part because of advances in agriculture and industrial science, and their application. While we continue to need and applaud genetically modified organisms in things like pharmaceuticals, we are increasingly eschewing them in agriculture simply because we do not need them. We can afford to pay higher food prices for non-science approaches like organic farming, dislike the chemicals used in science-based farming, and have irrational and baseless fears about genetic modifications in the food supply.

Because of the precautionary regulatory frameworks transplanted in most African countries from European Union countries, few donor countries and organizations are willing to invest in agriculture advances that could help African farmers, who are predominately women and who are very poor (and often hungry). Despite any evidence supporting increased risk with GMO foods, NGOs have mounted an aggressive campaign in Africa to keep genetically modified foods out of Africa. This has devastating consequences that are measured in millions of lives and livelihoods. One hope, if there is one, is that new drought resistant crops, whether conventional hybrids or GM varieties, will be permitted because of their significant and obvious advantages, despite the prohibitive regulations that currently exist.

I learned a lot about African/European politics, African culture relating to agriculture and the urban/rural divide, the history of food science and why some countries have an advantage while others do not, and who are the influential players in the game. It has been eye-opening and somewhat discouraging, which add to my frustrations regarding public attitudes toward science generally and genetic modifications specifically.

From the Conclusion, a fact oft-disputed by the ignorant luddite:

GM crops are no more dangerous to human health and the environment than conventional crops.

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