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India, Monsanto, GMO Crops and the Politics of Science

September 21, 2014

I believe that the world is knowable, and if we are to “know” it, we must measure all that we can measure, and render measurable that which is not (bonus points to anyone who can identify the provenance of that last bit). All of which is to say that I will support positions for which there is strong evidence over those that simply align with a “plank” in a fully formed political or philosophical ideology.

Which brings me to India, GMO crops, and rice, whose nexus has produced one of the more impassioned debates on genetic modification of crops, what the science tells us, and how that intersects with social policy—whose goal should be the greatest good to the greatest number of people, to borrow from John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianist philosophy.

17.5% of the world’s population lives in India making it the 2nd most populous country in the world, although at current birthrates, India will overtake China in the coming decades. And although India has rich farmland and exports a lot of produce, they only have 5% of the world’s potable (drinkable) water, as pointed out in a recent New Yorker article (“Seeds of Doubt” Aug 25th, 2014). All of that makes the exporting of Basmati rice (one of their prize and halo crops) essentially an exercise in shear lunacy. In the words of Deepak Pental, arguably the most prominent and distinguished scientist in the country, “Every time we export 1kg of basmati rice, we export 5 thousand kgs of water.” For India, that is simply unsustainable. He goes on, “We are exporting millions of tons of soy meal to Asia. The Japanese feed it to cows. The nutritive value of what a cow is eating in Japan is more than what a human being eats in India.” Why does he say that? Because white rice is basic starch…empty calories. I’ll quote Dr. Pental one more time with this great line, “White rice is the most ridiculous food that humans can cultivate….but it’s natural, so it passes the Luddite test.”

But there are solutions for India. But the most practical and cost-effective solutions may involve genetically modified crops, along with better irrigation systems, greater economic development, and a myriad of what we could collectively call social justice issues. But any rationale discussion fo GMOs instantly ignites a shit-storm of protest, and that’s where the critics loose me. The most vocal in India essentially dismiss the science on GMO crops….and there’s a lot of science. They argue that the scientists and major journals where these studies are published have been influenced by Monsanto lobbying and money. The problem is, scientists and scientific journals are arguably the LEAST vulnerable to that kind of external pressure. Oil, gas and petroleum companies are among the wealthiest in the world, and have spent millions and millions fighting clean energy mandates and legislation. Companies like BP and Exxon Mobil spends orders of magnitude more than Monsanto, but what’s the scientific consensus on climate change? I think you know. Tobacco companies spent 10’s of millions of dollars fighting tobacco legislation, and continue to spend more on lobbying than Monsanto each year, but you can’t find a scientist who will publish a study that’s anything other than critical of smoking. Scientists and the reputable scientific journals that they publish in are simply very, very difficult to buy off. Never mind, the peer-review process that acts as another bulwark to undue external influence.

And this brings us to the hypocrisy of much of the criticism. Almost every food you buy in a grocery store, including the “all natural” and “organic” varieties, are genetically modified. If the fruit or vegetable you are buying has been cultivated for decades (and that’s almost all of them) let alone for thousands of years, then it has been cross-bred by farmers, which is genetic modification. And those arguing that this type of engineering is somehow more natural because it happens over time as opposed to the kind of genome splicing that Monsanto does, don’t understand how forced and rapid the changes to crops are manifest even in traditional cross-breeding. The previously mentioned New Yorker article also correctly brings up the creation of synthetic insulin that is completely “unnatural” and genetically modified, but that millions of people around the world use to manage Diabetes. You don’t see people protesting that in the streets. In fact, I think one can make the easily defensible argument that in addition to political will to act on best policy, every existential threat to humankind going forward can only be addressed through science.

Are there legitimate criticisms to companies like Monsanto and their business practices, e.g., how they strong-arm farmers or try to enforce patents, yes, but that’s a whole different issue than the merits of genetic modification. Those are questions of science and the science should be left alone to answer those questions. And those answers, and NOT ideological orthodoxies, should be used to guide policies and implementations.

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