Attention Whole Foods Shoppers

Organic farming is less econ-friendly than you think, and conventional farming is more so.

Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa and The Politics of Precaution, has a “don’t miss” essay Attention Whole Foods Shoppers in the June 2010 Foreign Affairs. The following reviews of Starved for Science give the gist of the FP article (which could be very crudely abbreviated to “Greenpeace succeeds in keeping Africa poor and hungry”):

Condoning the cultivation of genetically modified crops for food is not, Robert Paarlberg concedes, likely to win him friends in academic circles…But in this timely book, Paarlberg, a political scientist, makes a strong argument: Europeans, who have so much food they do not need the help of science to make more, are pushing their prejudices on Africa, which still relies on foreign aid to feed its people. He calls on global policymakers to renew investment in agricultural science and to stop imposing visions of “organic food purity” on a continent that has never had a green revolution. As governments look for ways of tackling what is now commonly called a “global food crisis” with unprecedented price increases in basic foodstuffs, this book offers welcome food for thought.

–Jenny Wiggins (Financial Times 20080627)

Except for South Africa, no African state has legalized the planting of GMOs for production and consumption. While citizens of rich countries have the luxury of deciding what kinds of foods–organic, nonorganic, GMO, non-GMO–to eat, droughts and insect infestations continue to wipe out crops, and rural African children die because they have no choices. Bringing another perspective to the GMO debate [is] Paarlberg’s provocative argument.

–Joshua Lambert (Library Journal 20080501)

[An] illuminating book on the state of science and agriculture in Africa…[It] has much of merit.

–Jules Pretty (Times Higher Education Supplement )

[This] book ends with an alternative perspective on globalization that will inspire open-minded skeptics to rethink the matter…[Paarlberg is] a pragmatic believer in separating babies from bathwater. The fact that current applications of GM technology primarily benefit a handful of corporations does not deter Paarlberg from envisioning a scenario in which nonprofits and private African corporations might employ GM technology to serve the increasingly dire needs of African farmers…An insightful book that deftly balances the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, all within parameters conforming to the real world, the one in which we live…A clarion call for corporations and NGOs alike to revisit issues that have been ideologically polarized rather than rationally examined.

–James E. McWilliams (Texas Observer )

From the FP essay:

(…) In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.