Readings Reactions – Week 2

Why are we so insistent on food being ‘natural’?  What does that even mean anymore?  We embrace technology in all aspects of our lives but as soon as it get near our food we freak out.  Why?  Perhaps it’s the revulsion towards Monsanto that has led us to our ravenous distrust of technology with regards to food.  But that’s not a fair judgement, in my view.  To me, what’s detestable about Monsanto is not their rampant use of tech, but their singleminded drive towards profit.  Morals fall prey to the bottom line, and as a result their use of tech is to drive profit through more efficiently grown, hardier, and more marketable foods, rather than healthful, environmentally friendly ones.  But the key here is that the technology is not to blame.  The Wired article detailing Monsanto’s efforts into crossbreeding bothers me because the difference between GMO’s and crossbreeding is, to me, semantic.  There’s a great Slate article, incredibly well-thought out and thoroughly researched, discussing GMO foods that addresses a lot of the issues surrounding the hysteria and misinformation about GMO’s (I should also drop in here a reaction piece that continues the debate, both pieces are extremely important).  Take what you will from the Slate article, and I’m not suggesting that it’s the end of the debate – the jury is still very much out on GMO’s in general – but when I think of tech and food what I want to see is debate on the lines of that Slate article.  Articulate.  Highly researched.  Attempting to understand rather than spouting hyperbole.  The fact is that GMO’s have become such a dirty word that company that practically invented the idea has put all their eggs into the ‘natural’ basket and started crossbreeding instead of injecting genes.  We made them change.  We won.  But ultimately we haven’t changed a thing.  Monsanto will continue to modify food in anyway they can to drive their bottom line, and us shouting about GMO’s is not going to stop that.

The second and third article address much the same issue – food and tech.  Sure you might not consider a farmer learning how to grow salt-water tolerant potatoes ‘tech’, but I do.  He applied knowledge to fundamentally alter the traits of the potato.  Monsanto is doing the same thing.  Just because he didn’t use any specialized equipment or wear a white lab coat doesn’t mean he’s not applying scientific thinking.  It’s hard to get a real sense of his motivation from such a brief article, but it seems like he’s doing it for humanitarian reasons.  To help adjust ourselves to the rapidly decreasing fresh water supply.  If that’s truly the case, then we applaud him.  If he’s an entrepreneur realizing that he can capitalize on this and that his main goals are financial, then we deride him.  In the case of the latter, we wouldn’t just deride him, but we’d certainly deride salt-water grown potatoes as ‘unnatural’.  Hypocrisy abounds.

What seems abundantly clear, however, is that yes, we do need a ‘New Green Revolution’.  As rabid pro-science human, I get a little twinge of pain when I think how little we spend on research.  Particularly Ag research.  A telling fact is our seeming abundance of Ph.D’s with no job prospects.  What a world we live in that the mostly educated among us can’t find jobs.  Universities are churning out Ph.D’s as cheap lab labor, but what happens when you have a bunch of highly educated, yet low paid and disgruntled workers?  They’ll go find jobs where they get to do real work.  In the Ag industry, this means going to work for Monsanto, who’s working on some pretty interesting scientific problems.  The Ph.D with no job prospects might not consider the ethics of their work.  They’re chasing a fun problem, without recognizing the broader implications.  Plus, Monsanto probably pays them really well.  This is a trend we need to reverse.  Tech in Ag has been driven by industry for too long, and needs to be reconfigured to run through public grants that address problems of the common good, rather than industry profits.  We have an highly incomplete scientific understanding of food.  It doesn’t’ take much to see that.  It’d be arrogant of us to suggest that in just a few decades of research, we can untangle the vast complexity of the food system that naturally developed over millions of years.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  We can accomplish marvelous things through science, and while eschewing tech in food may benefit the few and the privileged, it cannot, and will not, address the global issues (much of which we’re responsible for) that our food system faces going forward.

One thought on “Readings Reactions – Week 2

  1. Stefani

    Fantastic post Jamie – another honest, balanced and really smart take on the readings. We will talk a lot about these issues on Wednesday and I am counting on your knowledge and interest in this topic to push forward some difficult conversations. I agree with you on so many counts about perception of GMO’s, tech + science in food and the fate of phD students with few viable research options outside of Monsanto and other industrial food producers. I also want to thank you for the Slate piece (and its rebuttal) – it’s amazing and I hadn’t come across it – both pieces are excellent resources for my talk on Thursday. Wonderful resources.

    Looking forward to unpacking this material more in class and having a healthy debate about these very slippery topics.

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