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May 31, 2000


food distribution, science and belief


Subj:Re: Organic labels, fishy fruit, Prince Charles, Fellowships
Date: Wed, 31 May 2000 2:08:07 PM Eastern Daylight Time
From: Abigail Salyers

This is a reply to comments by

>Rajanaidu Nookiah
>Head, Plant Science and Biotechnology Unit, Mpob

on maldistribution of foods.

It is true that current food production could feed the CURRENT world's
population if food was fairly distributed. The maldistribution is largely
the fault of governments rather than companies. The recent: "voluntary"
move of pharmaceutical companies to cut AIDS drug prices for developing
countries is an indication of how governmental pressure, prompted by
public political pressure, can be effective. It would also help if
developing countries currently conducting wars against their neighbors
would devote the immense amounts of money spent to improved food
productivity for their population, but this is unlikely to happen anytime

What really struck me about your comments, however, was that you assume,
apparently, that the best solution to feeding the world is for countries
without adequate food to continue to rely on the US and other developed
countries for food. As a resident of the US midwest, I can assure you that
this is the solution favored by agribusiness, but wouldn't it be much
better to improve productivity of poor farmers in the countries were more
food is needed? Biotechnology could go a long way to help in this area, if
pressure were being brought on them to make such products. I have often
asked members of the Green Party and other opponents of GM crops why they
do not use their political clout to pressure the industry to put more
money into development and, while they are at it, to pressure governments
to correct maldistribution of existing food stores. To a person, their
response to this suggestion is that they are totally uninterested in
helping to feed the developing world and are only interested in removing
any food risk, however imaginary, to the people in developed countries.
This is not too surprising when one thinks of where their contributions
are coming from. In fact their actions are most likely to reduce the
amount of available food and raise costs to the consumer if they are
successful in getting the developed countries to return to organic farming.

Abigail Salyers
Professor of Microbiology
University of Illinois, Urbana, IL

Date:Wed, 31 May 2000 7:10:52 PM Eastern Daylight Time
From: jonathan jones

Dear Prakash

Heres an article i wrote that I have so far failed to get published in
response to Charles Windsor's Reith lecture contribution I have a slight
sympathy with some organic agriculture in the UK; there are
well documented beneficial effects on biodiversity And in the UK there
are essentially no separate wilderness areas; our wildlife has to share
the agricultural land with us enjoy your visit

cheers jonathan jones

Science and belief; different analysis, common goals

Prince Charles' contribution to the Reith lectures, despite its
contradictions, raises a crucial issue. Is there a real conflict between
scientific and religious views of our place in nature, and of how we
should treat other species and the environment? Are the urgings of head
and heart so different? The answer is no; a wise and enlightened self
interest mandates that we make rational judgements based on scientific
facts for our
own good and that of the planet. In the 19th century, "common sense" led
many people to reject the idea of the descent of man from other primates.
However, the evidence for evolution is incontrovertible, and the mechanism
should allay fears of GM. Darwin summarized his insights into the origin
of species in 3 words; "Descent, with modification", and had the word been
invented at the time, he might have said genetic (ie heritable)
modification, for without GM, none of us would be here. The most
remarkable insight from the last 25 years of biology is that we have far
more in common with other species, than common sense would lead us to
expect. We know that plants and animals shared a common ancestor around
1600 million years ago, and chimps and humans, about 4 million years ago.
Chimp and human genes are 98% identical, and we share gene sequences to a
lesser degree with all other species. We use essentially the same
molecular mechanisms to control the cycles of our cell divisions as do
yeasts, plants, worms and flies. Even more remarkably, we use essentially
the same mechanisms as the fruitfly to control where cells will
differentiate to form eyes or limbs; there are many more such examples.
These scientific insights are beautiful, but it would be negligent not to
also use them to help people with diseases like cancer that arise when
such mechanisms go awry. To suggest that we should gain knowledge but
never use it is absurd. So science tells that we are part of Nature, not
apart from it. A cat may indeed look at a king, and discern a close
relative. For some, such as the legislators of school curricula in
Kansas, this insight goes against the feelings in their hearts, their
religion and their common sense. For similar reasons, others rejected the
idea that the earth goes around the sun, rather than vice verse. However,
on both questions, the scientific facts are clear.

Is the world in natural, harmonious balance? This idea would have amused
a dinosaur contemplating the asteroid that was to render it extinct when
it hit the earth 65 million years ago. More recently ice ages have come
and gone, changing the local environment and biota. The world has never
been at equilibrium, and the only time we are is when we are dead.
Indeed, it is life itself that treats the world as a "great laboratory of
life", not us. Mutations occur, DNA moves within and between species,
natural selection is applied, and the world changes, day in, day out.

So life is an (extraordinary) property of matter. Teilhard de Chardin,
the French paleontologist and priest, ried to rationalize this by
proposing that all matter contains a divine aspect (as if God used the Big
Bang to "hide from himself") and this has created a force in evolution
that tends towards progressively higher levels of consciousness. In time
this leads to the appearance of something like man that has the capacity
to reflect on the miraculous nature of matter; our destiny is to become
"God's way of looking at himself". This proposition is unfalsifiable, but
true or not, life IS miraculous, life IS precious and certainly provokes a
sense of reverence. A scientific understanding of how evolution over
millennia has led to the diversity of life, including ourselves, elicits
from me more wonder than ever could a religious interpretation.

Irrespective of who gave it to us, we as a species now have an awesome
responsibility for life on earth. Our numbers have increased nearly 6
fold over the last 100 years. We are causing extinctions at an
unprecedented rate, and extinction is for ever, not just for Christmas.
It has been suggested that humans are like a disease, raging out of
control over the earth. From the standpoint of most other species, that
must be how it looks. Religious views, that long predated scientific
views, did not save us from destructiveness. The Old Testament tells us
God gave man dominion over the earth and its creatures. I share with HRH
the view that we have not exercised this dominion wisely. We did not know
what we were doing, but we no longer have that excuse. Biology tells us
that we are made of the same stuff as all other species; we have no more
God-given right to make them extinct than vice versa. We have to choose
what we do more wisely, with a better understanding of the consequences of
our actions.

Our new knowledge of biology enables us to work much more "with the grain
of Nature" than before. For example, it is much better to reduce insect
damage to crop plants by modifying them to express a protein that kills
the moth larvae that eat them, than to spray broad spectrum insecticides
on fields from aeroplanes. GM has got a bad rap; it will play a crucial
role in a less environmentally damaging future agriculture. This
fear that technology is bad and we should go back to more traditional
practices, threatens to lead us down a blind alley. There is much
uncritical use of words such as "natural" and "organic". It is natural
for people to starve to death. Aflatoxin and strychnine are natural,
organic molecules, but I don't want to eat them. Organic agriculture
leads to lower yields, and there is no proof that organic food is
healthier. In rejecting
genes to help control disease, organic farmers are shooting themselves in
the foot. Nonetheless, I would be delighted to see organic agriculture
increase from 1% to 5% of UK agriculture. Why? Because that would
probably reverse the decline in our farmland birds; organic may not be
good for yields, but it will be good for biodiversity. My major concern
about the organic food business is that it espouses a dangerous
fundamentalism, a politics of purity against other forms of agriculture.
Their intolerance and narrow-mindedness about growing their crops next to
perfectly safe GM crops is unjustified and intolerable; if they cannot
police themselves on a rational basis, they need to be policed.
Eco-absolutism will get us
nowhere. With more "live and let live" from their side, I would be
delighted to see more research into low impact agriculture, especially for
the tropics, where intercropping and successional management have great
potential for more sustainable production. Gordon Conway of the
Rockefeller Foundation, in arguing for a "doubly Green" revolution, has
rightly noted that truth will lie in the many shades of grey between the
apparently entrenched positions espoused by advocates of head or heart.
We all, after all, have both organs. But there are enough real problems
to worry about without losing sleep over purely hypothetical ones

A way to focus the efforts of those who care would be start thinking
hard now about what we want the world to look like in 200 years time.
With Y2K behind us, it's time to think about Y2.2K. What should the
population be? How should we conduct forestry and fishing? How much of
the biota will we share with other species? Will there still be forests
in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia? Are we too selfish to share
some land with our closest living relatives, the chimps, the gorilla and
the orangutan, or will we drive them to extinction by poaching and by
chopping down their habitat? Can we reduce CO2 emissions in time to save
the polar bears from global warming? Can we use solar power in the Sahara
desert to fuel a new industrial revolution in North Africa? Will we
create sustainable lifestyles for Africans, Indians, Chinese and even
Americans? Will our agriculture be focused on a few highly productive
regions, with more of the planet providing wilderness areas? Can more of
our food, fuel and fibre come from living plants than from dead plants
(oil, coal and gas)? We have a huge responsibility; the Prince is right,
we should be facing it, and educating our children to face it. This is
the biggest question we have to think about. It is a challenge of values
as well as technology. And when we agree what we want, we have to figure
out what economic and political mechanisms will enable the necessary
changes. To cope, we need all the science we can get, but we will also
need to get our hearts and heads together.