As our country approaches one of the most divisive election days in modern history, I would venture most of us know who we’ll vote for next week and find ourselves numb to new information at this point. Facebook fights with our relatives have given way to resignation and acceptance, or have been ignored or blocked long ago.
I sometimes find myself feeling the debates around food and agriculture have reached a similar impasse. The parties have formed, our most articulate representatives have honed their messages, and heels have dug in around a particular view of how the world works and what it would take to improve it. Deep mistrust and the accusation of selective use of facts are common in the discourse. Who are our parties? Quite bluntly, if you are interested in this conversation, you already know the lines have fallen. The average voter is told there is only one decision worth litigating in the end: Are you Pro-GMO or Anti-GMO? Those who care are asked to cast their vote for the future of food and humanity around a single issue. Ironically, for the average American consumer one issue matters much more than GMOs, and it is affordability, but you can learn more about that here.
This week, the New York Times published a piece reviewing how well the promises of GMOs have been kept, using data from North America and Europe as the primary comparison. Many have published thoughtful, well written objections to the analysis, such as this response by Grist. Questioning the effectiveness of the technology is the newest in a long line of objections against GMOs, starting with a basic assertion that it’s immoral as a scientific technique (“it’s wrong to move genes between plants”), evolving to focus on how GMOs might undermine human health (repeated scientific studies have failed to demonstrate this assertion) and in more recent history, acting as the tip of the spear for a more generalized indictment against the business models and size of the agribusiness sector as a whole.
All of this energy and time spent on the great GMO debate forces all other questions to take a back seat or worse: suggests that the fate of all other issues rests on a single plant breeding technique. This mindset prevents people who share a common vision for the future food system from finding a tent big enough for them to exchange ideas, find new solutions, and move forward. No doubt we all want the same thing: a world that bequeaths a safe, healthy, affordable, and environmentally-positive food system to our grandchildren. So how have we allowed problem solving around something as unifying as food to degrade into something more akin to partisan deadlock?
Doing so is not only unfortunate, it can have dangerous consequences. We should all be wary of oversimplifying the debate or being imprecise as it can poison the well in unforeseen ways. And, just as American political decisions affect the rest of the world in real ways, so does our discourse about science, food, and agriculture.
For example, many now know of the fantastic innovation known as biofortification by which foods are bred to have higher than average levels of essential micronutrients. In fact, four committed, admirable professionals received the World Food Prize this year for their contributions to bring high iron beans and vitamin-A enriched sweet potatoes to market in several African countries. For poor families whose diets are largely comprised of these starchy foods, these improved plants could mean the difference between children who are blind from vitamin A deficiency or not. Pregnant women who are anemic or not. When I mention this innovation as an exciting example of the power of science to solve problems I’ve noticed some people can react negatively to even the word biofortification because they assume it is shorthand for biotechnology. It isn’t. Certainly it’s possible to achieve micronutrient improvements with this technique, but the varieties just mentioned are in fact bred without genetic engineering. We can’t allow meaningful solutions—which are not in fact part of this particular controversy—to be hindered. The problems facing us are too important.
Namely, nearly 800 million people are chronically food insecure and they need solutions like biofortification to build their modern food system. I sometimes sense a yearning in the current debate for a return to a simpler, more traditional food system. Perhaps the word that best describes it is a search for authenticity. And that is understandable. But traditional is not synonymous with wholesome or idyllic. For many of the world’s poorest farmers farming is absolutely traditional; it looks very similar now to the way it did 100 or 200 years ago. This means their labor is some of the most backbreaking in the world, their farms are some of the least productive, and at times, their economic options and cyclical poverty appear uniquely inescapable.
It is time for a smarter debate that can lead us to collectively put our heads together to solve the big issues. The day before our election in the United States, countries from all over the world will meet in Morocco for COP 22 discussions and interestingly, the focus will be on how to meet the ambitious emission reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement, with a special focus on agriculture. Attendees will have to talk tradeoffs because we don’t yet know how to reduce emissions to zero and still eat. So the question becomes: What are practical, near-term, large-scale ways we can improve the whole supply chain to support ourselves and the planet? Starkly in focus in this discussion should be the fact that we still fall short on the most basic metric of success: that everyone has enough to eat on a daily basis.
Imagine what would happen if a fraction of the attention captured by the GMO debate was directed at debating how to best manage our limited water resources—including across country borders before the resource struggles get so contentious that we risk even more conflict? Or if we spent more time using social science and policy tools to solve for food waste, which here in the US would force us to confront our own personal, wasteful behavior—no less real because it’s behind closed doors.
Let’s start keeping the loudest voices accountable in the debate and start asking them to cross the proverbial aisle and start building a better public discourse. And let’s find ways to help scientists to better educate the public about the facts. And while we’re at it, let’s thank our actual politicians on both sides of the aisle here in the United States for their leadership and agreement that food insecurity can and must be eliminated around the world. They found the big tent this past summer to set differences aside and passed the Global Food Security Act, enshrining longstanding efforts into law. If they can see the importance of taking a step back for the sake of a bigger goal, certainly those who take up the mantle of food system pundit can do the same.