Misrepresenting agricultural science

At the suggestion of a friend I wrote this letter to the NYT in response to an interview in their science section two weeks ago. It didn't run, but the same friend (Stephen Shalom at William Patterson University) suggested I post it somewhere. So here it is.

Misrepresenting agricultural science

In her interview with Claudia Dreifus (Aug 18/08), Dr. Federoff misrepresents genetic modification by conflating it with selective breeding. She is correct that plant breeding has been done for millennia and that all agriculture uses such breeding. But to suggest as she does that genetic modification is the same as selective breeding is like suggesting that talk therapy is the same as a lobotomy. Both are techniques for modifying behavior, after all. But lobotomies were discredited because we discovered that we do not know as much about the relationship between the mind and the brain as we thought we did in the 19th century. Those who caution against genetic modification, which is equally intrusive and involves using bacteria, viruses, or injections to directly modify DNA sequences of cells, argue the same: that living systems are complex and attempting to change them by manipulating single variables could have perverse and unintended consequences.

Dr. Federoff also misrepresents organic farming, saying it could only support perhaps half the world's current population. The statistic she mentions -- that 2 percent of Americans are living on farms -- as a sign of getting "good at growing food" describes the labor productivity of agriculture. But not only is this deceptive about labor productivity, given the important role of Mexicans and other migrant workers' seasonal labor, but it also fails to account for land and energy productivity. Because growing food in North America requires a great deal of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides made with expensive and dwindling oil and natural gas, we are optimizing in one area (labor productivity) at the expense of another (energy productivity). There are, in fact, few studies that compare organic farming to current models of farming, but looking at the whole system, organic farming compares well.

Dr. Federoff also does not mention the result of most genetic modifications: creating organisms that make farmers dependent on agriculture companies like Monsanto, through Terminator seeds (that produce yields but not seeds that a farmer could collect and use next year) or Traitor seeds that are require proprietary chemical formulas to work.

In both the poor and rich countries, what is urgently needed is a truly scientific approach that combines modern science and technology with the best of traditional practices and the knowledge passed down through generations of farmers and peasants. Those engaged in science diplomacy should not misrepresent the science behind our planet's agricultural problems.

Dr. Justin Podur
Assistant Professor
Faculty of Environmental Studies
York University
Toronto, Canada