Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reasonable Genes, Rational Responses?

It's not easy to grow stuff here - but divisive moralising
in the "1st world" surely won't help!
The US National Public Radio (NPR) service recently posted a story about Saving Lives in Africa with the Humble Sweet Potato - the piece is 'fair and balanced' to the degree that it is requisitely vague in detail. The ~5 minute audio segment documents a project in Mozambique (a stones throw across the channel from where I've been living in Madagascar); this project aims to save lives by improving the genetics of sweet potatoes to enhance their production of life saving micro-nutrients. While the story has nothing to do with meat - the responses on NPR's Facebook comments reveal insights critical to all food debates.

The story does go into the potential of genetic engineering of crops to enhance micro-nutrient properties - though from my listen; it's hard to tell whether the majority of the crops their using are GMO or not, and in fact, the sweet potato they were highlighting was just a normal everyday, orange fleshed tuber-au-natural. Perhaps it was this lack of clarity that, in part, fueled a not-surprisingly heated debate.

Right out of the gates, minutes after the story was posted; a Dave Wu comments "NPR, stooping to new lows, promoting GMO crops. wow! every day you post more crap!". Just moments later, Josh Hofmeister rebuts Wu by claiming "anti-gmo is pro-starvation"

The lines have been drawn, the food tribes begin to gather and circle around their sacred beliefs!

To be fair- not all commentors engaged in high level tribalism here - many were happy with the story and many others were simply confused.

But soon after Josh Hofmeister's strongly divisive stance, Eleanor Pickron weighs in; "Josh, yams, the orange-flesh sweet potatoes are NOT at all GMO food. I am totally anti-GMO and there's no benefit to GMO-food only problems."

As well, the fiesty Melissa Giaccheti adds "Anyone who says anti-GMO is pro-starvation is an ignorant moron....of course the people benefiting from the sale of those [GMO] crops are going to spew propaganda. look at the facts".

Already we see many moral foundations being invoked:

>Care / Harm
-For GMO opponents; this is the potential harm of using them
-For GMO advocates; this is the potential harm of not using them

>Liberty / Oppression
-For GMO opponents; this is mega-corp Monsanto oppressing the rural poor
-For GMO advocates; this is about the freedom to farm, eat, and live

>Sanctity / Degradation
-For GMO opponents; this biotech process threatens the sanctity of their sacred object- food

Now, NPR has a reputation for attracting an intellectual listener base.

Unfortunately - the comments cited, and many more left on the cutting room floor - do not seem to exemplify this. Let's remember - the sweet potato they are talking about is - by point of fact - NOT a GMO. To turn this story into a battle ground for the GMO-Debates is neither needed nor helpful. To argue that "anti-GMO is pro-starvation"  is self-defeating in that this whole story is about a non-GMO making strides in alleviating hunger.

And yet - I'm afraid both of these points soared to to voluminous heights - leaving a far more real and critical issue never to be discussed. It's an issue best described by the brilliant Bill McKibben. Back in 2003, McKibben wrote Enough - a book outlining the dangers of emergent technologies including GMO's. Now I actually disagree with almost everything he claims in that book - except for his point around the so-called "bio-fortification" of crops to alleviate hunger in developing nations. McKibben reminds us, it's not a lack of Vitamin A that the worlds poor are lacking - it's a lack of a diet rich in diverse vegetables and adequate in everything else. McKibben is specifically arguing against the bio-fortified GMO Golden Rice - but indeed - his argument goes beyond the issue of GMO's.

African folk aren't lacking in sweet potatoes, they're lacking in access to a diet rich in diverse vegetables and adequate in everything else. So what - is this potato story just a scam? an illusory feel good story turned into a worthless heated debate?

Literally as I write, my girlfriend is in the extremely isolated village of Efoesty in southern Madagascar. She's an agronomic researcher working with local farmers to diversify their vegetable production in these unbelievably harsh semi-arid conditions. Together with the farmers, they are experimenting with varieties, irrigation methods - and all manner of complex variables to hopefully help these folks add diversity to their rice-based diets rather than putting nutrients into their rice.

You want to tell this girl she shouldn't eat
because it's a GMO? Conversely - she
may very well have no need for GMO Food!
Without question - this is how it should be done - but guess what - it's TOUGH! Given current technology it is highly questionable whether such diversified yields will be attainable in the near future. And it's the near future that is most important to the kids who need nutrition today.

What we need is long-term vision and short-term solutions. What we don't need is idealogical brow-beating that obscures reality and wastes our precious social capital.

As evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt says "morality binds and blinds". Our minds are intuitive and emotional - this binds us into groups of the like-minded, and blinds us to real problems and real solutions.

If you're staunchly anti-GMO; perhaps realise that SOME applications, in SOME contexts - may just possibly be helpful and appropriate.

If you're staunchly pro-GMO; perhaps realise that sometimes things are more complicated than they appear; that sometimes a hard-nosed engineering approach, however powerful it may be, just might not be what is actually needed.

Instead of accusing others of ignorance and malice, lets remember we all want to feed the hungry and assume the best of anyone willing to talk about it!

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