Tag Archives: Paarlberg

Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”

While John Tierney wrote this piece in 2008, it is just as relevant in 2012. If this surprises you, then I recommend you also read Attention Whole Foods Shoppers by Robert Paarlberg.

I hope you will be persuaded to try to enlighten your “green” neighbors – that they are part of the problem, not the solution:

Farmers and consumers in poor countries are now paying the price for decisions made by well-fed Westerners, as reported by my colleagues Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin in their front-page article on cutbacks in financing for agricultural research. They explain how the Green Revolution faltered after Western governments and agencies slashed funds for agricultural research, partly to shift money to other areas, like environmental projects, and partly because of opposition to high-yield agriculture from advocacy groups.

If you find it hard to imagine how anyone could be opposed to growing more food for poor people, read Gregg Easterbrook’s 1997 Atlantic Monthly article on Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose achievements through the Green Revolution may have saved a billion lives. Mr. Easterbrook wrote:

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the World Bank, once sponsors of his work, have recently given Borlaug the cold shoulder. Funding institutions have also cut support for the International Maize and Wheat Center — located in Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT — where Borlaug helped to develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world’s population now depends for sustenance. And though Borlaug’s achievements are arguably the greatest that Ford or Rockefeller has ever funded, both foundations have retreated from the last effort of Borlaug’s long life: the attempt to bring high-yield agriculture to Africa.

Pressure from environmentalists was the chief reason for these cutbacks, Mr. Easterbrook reported:

[By]the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world. As Borlaug turned his attention to high-yield projects for Africa, where mass starvation still seemed a plausible threat, some green organizations became determined to stop him there. “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa,” says David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute.

Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too — though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa,” Borlaug says. The green parties of Western Europe persuaded most of their governments to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa; an exception was Norway, which has a large crown corporation that makes fertilizer and avidly promotes its use. Borlaug, once an honored presence at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, became, he says, “a tar baby to them politically, because all the ideas the greenies couldn’t stand were sticking to me.”

Dr. Borlaug didn’t disguise his anger in summarizing his feelings about greens to Mr. Easterbrook:

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

(…)UPDATE: 

My colleague Andy Revkin notes parallels in financing for energy as well as agricultural research: short-sightedness seems to reign.

 Continue reading John Tierney.

The face of climate change should be the poor (not polar bears)

Steve Savage’s latest on global food prices led Steve to emphasize that technology is our primary tool to double food production by 2050. That essential tool is being fought by rich and powerful NGO’s and by the wealthy European states. Here’s a snippet from “Should “Charismatic Megafauna” be the “Face” of Climate Change“:

Unfortunately, there is continued resistance to “GMO” crops even after 13 years and billions of acres of safe implementation. Of course if we fail to grow enough food, it won’t be the risk-averse, affluent people of Europe and Japan that will suffer. Even though their own farms are less productive than they could be, they will be able to afford to import food at prices that put it out of reach for the poor. They may also continue to be able to block other countries from growing GMO wheat or rice without suffering much for it, but the suffering will occur somewhere else. I highly recommend Robert Paarlberg’s book, “Starved for Science” which documents how European influence has influenced agricultural policy in Africa to reflect the precautionary leanings of their former colonial masters rather than what is needed to feed poor people.

This is why a polar bear is not an appropriate image of what will happen if we don’t respond properly to the challenge of climate change. We need to envision hunger, starvation, political instability, and mass migration. Climate change consequence needs a human face.

Steve’s book recommendation is available in a Kindle edition: Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa. I just ordered for our iPads. UPDATE: Paarlberg’s book is truly excellent. I’ve already sent a Kindle gift book to a UK friend.

Polar Bear photo from Flickrfavorite.

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.

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.

Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science—including biotechnology—has recently been kept out of Africa.

In Starved for Science Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.

In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the recommendation.