Food, Hunger, Science, and Data

Recent readings and the time of year lead me to two lessons. First, for those of us who can, let’s give to those in need. Second, let’s use science, data, and reason to guide policy. Extreme views for or against modes of farming and issues of the environment lead to mistrust, failures, and, in this case, starvation. Starvation should not be an issue on the table for the 21st century. Questions of efficacy and safety can be addressed. The information is here. The time to use it is now.

Maybe it is the time of year when food feasts like Thanksgiving and the season of holiday giving make me think about simple, direct need and especially hunger. Whatever the reason, today that fundamental issue is upon us more than ever. The Times reports “Millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes during the economic crisis, qualifying their families for the decades-old safety-net program.” The numbers are stark: “The number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the meals program. Eleven states, including Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and Tennessee, had four-year increases of 25 percent or more, huge shifts in a vast program long characterized by incremental growth.” More than 3 years ago I wrote about the problems of a stigmatized school lunch program. I don’t know whether that system has evolved, but “apparently many of these formerly middle-income parents have pleaded with school officials to keep their enrollment a secret.” Society’s tendency to look down on the less fortunate is absurd. I am not sure what can be done about that. But perhaps we can reconnect with efforts to provide food across the world. The hard part could be the tensions between industrial farming and the organic movement. Yet, good science and data could show us a way out.

A Long Now Foundation seminar by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future shows that rather than combat, we can sue data and reflection to marry these efforts. Sustainable food should: Provide abundant safe and nutritious food. Reduce environmentally harmful inputs. Reduce energy use and greenhouse gases. Foster soil fertility. Enhance crop genetic diversity. Maintain the economic viability of farming communities. Protect biodiversity. and improve the lives of the poor and malnourished. (He pointed out that 24,000 a day die of malnutrition worldwide, and about 1 billion are undernourished.)

That is a tall order. As the speakers noted organic farming works well and mitigates the problems of pesticides, (Data point: “Every year in the world 300,000 deaths are caused by the pesticides of conventional agriculture, along with 3 million cases of harm.”). But organic techniques can’t address all the diseases and pests out there and “Its yield ranges from 45% to 97% of conventional ag yield. It is often too expensive for low-income customers. At present it is a niche player in US agriculture, representing only 3.5%, with a slow growth rate suggesting it will always be a niche player.” Genetic engineered plants (often not allowed under current regulation) can fill the gap.

According to the report of Dr. Ronald’s part of the talk, “One billion acres have been planted so far with GE crops, with no adverse health effects, and numerous studies have showed that GE crops pose no greater risk of environmental damage than conventional crops.” Examples include, cotton, papayas, and rice. “About 25% of all pesticide use in the world is used to defeat the cotton bollworm. Bt cotton is engineered to express in the plant the same caterpillar-killing toxin as the common soil bacteria used by organic farmers, Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt cotton growers use half the pesticides of conventional growers. With Bt cotton in China, cases of pesticide poisoning went down by 75%. India’s cotton yield increased by 80%. Other pest management techniques are needed but genetics can do much work. Hawaiian papaya was going extinct from ringspot virus, but a GE solution inoculated the fruit and the saved the industry. As I have written, basic food supply is a huge problem and rice is a key example of that. Dr. Ronald’s work on rice is impressive. The data: “Half the world depends on rice. In flood-prone areas like Bangladesh, 4 million tons of rice a year are lost to flooding — enough to feed 30 million people.” Her work developed “a flood-tolerant rice (it can be totally submerged for two weeks) called Sub1. At field trials in Asia farmers are getting three to five times higher yield over conventional rice.”

Seems compelling to me.