Demon Seed

How fear of life-saving technology swept through Africa

In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and stopped another shipment on its way to the country. “Simply because my people are hungry,” President Levy Mwanawasa later said, “is no justification to give them poison.”

The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn produced—and consumed—comes from seeds that have been engineered to resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified. Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans, destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared where it is most needed. As Robert Paarlberg notes in his new book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press), in 2004 the Sudanese government “took time out from its genocidal suppression of a rebellion in Darfur to issue a memorandum requiring that all food aid brought into the country should be certified as free of any GM ingredients.”

Starved for Science includes forwards by both Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the architect of Asia’s Green Revolution and the man credited with saving more human lives than anyone else in history. Paarlberg, a Professor of Political Science at Wellesley and a specialist in agricultural policy, wants the West to help small African farmers obtain promising technologies just as it helped Asia discover biological breakthroughs in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he says, a coalition of European governments and African elites are promoting a Western vision of rustic, low-productivity labor.

reason: Was there a particular experience with African farmers that led you to write this book?

Robert Paarlberg: Partly it was the strong impression made on me by my own visits to rural Africa, working with African organizations, working with USAID, working with International Food Policy Research Institute. I started visiting small farms in Africa 15 years ago. I’d seen a lot of poor farmers in Asia and Latin America but absolutely nothing like this. There was simply no uptake of any modern productivity-enhancing technologies at all in some cases. And I wondered why I hadn’t been aware of this. And then, when I saw more and more narrative in the NGO community and the donor community that was frankly hostile to science, I thought “I have to put this down and write a book for younger people in the donor community who may not remember the importance of technology uptake in Asian agriculture 40 years ago.”

reason: You suggest that your understanding of modern ideas about food production arises from interactions with your students. What is it that they want?

Paarlberg: My students know just what kind of food system they want: a food system that isn’t based on industrial scale monoculture. They want instead small farms built around nature imitating polycultures. They don’t want chemical use; they certainly don’t want genetic engineering. They want slow food instead of fast food. They’ve got this image of what would be better than what we have now. And what they probably don’t realize is that Africa is an extreme version of that fantasy. If we were producing our own food that way, 60 percent of us would still be farming and would be earning a dollar a day, and a third of us would be malnourished. I’m trying to find some way to honor the rejection that my students have for some aspects of modern farming, but I don’t want them to fantasize about the exact opposite.

reason: Can you give an example of a genetically modified seed or organism, something in use today?

Paarlberg: Bt crops have been engineered to contain a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium that expresses a certain protein that cannot be digested by caterpillars. Mammals can digest the protein with absolutely no problem, but caterpillars cannot. When the caterpillars eat the plant, they die.

What’s wonderful about this is that it’s so precisely targeted at the insects eating the plant. The other insects in the field aren’t affected. Using conventional corn instead of Bt corn, you have to spray the whole field and you end up killing a lot of non-targeted species. With this variety, you don’t have to spray.

reason: That sounds less scary than “Genetically Modified Organism.”

Paarlberg: The book makes the argument that the overregulation of this technology in Europe and the anxieties felt about it in the United States are not so much a reflection of risks, because there aren’t any documented risks from any GM crops on the market. I explain that reaction through the absence of direct benefit. The technology is directly beneficial to only a tiny number of citizens in rich countries—soybean farmers, corn farmers, a few seed companies, patent holders. Consumers don’t get a direct benefit at all, so it doesn’t cost them anything to drive it off the market with regulations. The problem comes when the regulatory systems created in rich countries are then exported to regions like Africa, where two thirds of the people are farmers, and where they would be the direct beneficiaries.

reason: How pervasive are genetically modified foods in the U.S.?

Paarlberg: Roughly 90 percent of the cotton and soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified. Fifty or 70 percent of the corn is genetically modified. If you look at the products on a retail store shelf, probably 70 percent of them contain some ingredients from genetically modified crops. Mostly corn or soybeans.

reason: Are there documented safety risks that merit caution?

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  • ||

    This article is a brief history of a genetically modified food crop that agribusiness has duped the world's poor into eating. Nobody really knows what the long term* environmental consequences wil be. Be worried, be very worried.

    * >20,000 years. A mere eyeblink in the planet's history.

  • Paul||

    In Zambia today there are expatriate Jesuits from the United States who have come to believe genetic engineering is against God's teaching, though this is not a belief that is embraced by the Vatican. They believe that all living things, including plants, have a right not to have their genetic makeup modified.



    I wish someone would do a book (or at least a good article) about the strong Judeo-Christian philosophical links between traditional religion and modern so-called secular environmentalism.

  • NeonCat||

    I will never understand the anti-science bias so many people have. Do these people need to be dumped in some godforsaken shithole like subSaharan Africa and have to live as subsistence farmers before they realize how truly beneficial technology is?

    The Europeans who have convinced Africans to shun GMO should look in the mirror each day and say, "Tonight thousands, perhaps millions of people, men, women, children, will go hungry, but at least their diet is organic."

  • ||

    Some have wondered out loud if the bt producing corn is responsible for the massive decline in honey bee numbers.

  • ||

    Some have wondered out loud if the bt producing corn is responsible for the massive decline in honey bee numbers.

    Some have done actual research on the subject.
    From the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) website FAQ. (pdf)
    The current research priorities under investigation by various members of the CCD working group, as well as other cooperators include, but is not limited to:
    • Chemical residue/contamination in the wax, food stores and bees
    • Known and unknown pathogens in the bees and brood
    • Parasite load in the bees and brood
    • Nutritional fitness of the adult bees
    • Level of stress in adult bees as indicated by stress induced proteins
    • Lack of genetic diversity and lineage of bees


    Notice anything lacking there?

  • stuartl||

    Some have wondered out loud if the bt producing corn is responsible for the massive decline in honey bee numbers.

    The science is clear, bt corn must be banned.

  • ||

    The book, Wealth of Nations, argues that a national average IQ of 90 forms the threshold for a technological economy. Also, according to this book, sub-Saharan African countries have an average IQ below 70. This would suggest that there is little hope for these people to develop prosperous and healthy nations.

  • ||

    Also, according to this book, sub-Saharan African countries have an average IQ below 70.

    Sure they do.

  • ||

    Terrell, without some references I'll be forced to assume that it is your IQ that is room temperature.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Paul, perhaps you should search the Reason website.

  • ||

    Some have wondered out loud

    Its a Scientific Consensus! The debate is over!

  • ||

    To Maurkov: It could very well be that my IQ is room temperature, but it is high enough to know that an ad hominem attack is the first defense of those without enough intelligence to attack the idea presented.

    I also can read and when I return to my post, I find there was a reference - a book named Wealth of Nations. Granted that is not a journal article, but these posts are hardly scholarly. If you reject the ideas presented here, give your reasons.

  • ||


    Robert Paarlberg: Partly it was the strong impression made on me by my own visits to rural Africa, working with African organizations, working with USAID, working with International Food Policy Research Institute. I started visiting small farms in Africa 15 years ago. I'd seen a lot of poor farmers in Asia and Latin America but absolutely nothing like this. There was simply no uptake of any modern productivity-enhancing technologies at all in some cases. And I wondered why I hadn't been aware of this. And then, when I saw more and more narrative in the NGO community and the donor community that was frankly hostile to science, I thought "I have to put this down and write a book for younger people in the donor community who may not remember the importance of technology uptake in Asian agriculture 40 years ago."



    my emphasis added

    How many deaths have the activists caused? [godwin omitted] It would be nice if some of them were brought to trial for crimes against humanity.

  • NeonCat||

    @ Terrell Perry

    OK, how about this? Were the IQ tests culturally neutral, so that people from different backgrounds wouldn't face bias from the questions? Were any inquiries made to determine if nutritional levels were sufficient over a lifetime to provide for normal neurological development?

    In any case, it shouldn't be about "those darkies are too dumb so fuck 'em," it should be "those people are starving so how can we help them feed themselves."

    At least IMHO.

  • ||

    The most hilarious thing to me about the entire anti-GM food craze is the fact that people seem perfectly content to eat foods randomly mutated by radiation and chemicals that contain dozens if not hundreds of randomly mutated genes whose effects have never been tested for.

    Breeding, like all forms of selection natural or otherwise, begins with variation and diversity in the gene pool. To accelerate the development of new strains, researchers increase diversity by randomly mutating seed stocks with radiation or mutagenic chemicals. This produces new genes, which code for new proteins, which in turn form the plant structures we eat. They then select the mutations exhibiting the phenotypes they want and repeat the process.

    We have been doing this for over a century and every plant and most animals you eat have been randomly mutated. Until recently, we lacked the technology to even tell what new genes might have been created that had no immediate or visible effect on the food produces by mutated plants. Even now, no one looks for such things.

    To me, this demonstrates without a doubt that the anti-GM craze is a social/political phenomenon and not a scientific one. Clearly, randomly altered genes would poise a greater risk of unknown harm than would genes whose provenance and proteins are well known yet we hear not a peep about them.

    Frankly, I miss the good ol' day's when leftist were unrepentant technophiles perfectly willing to cut down entire forest to provide material benefits for the poor.

    We're going to have to fight for every technological advance from here on out.

  • ||

    Shannon Love,

    Social engineering is much easier than teaching science.

  • ||

    I would also point out that this is a good example of how wacky political ideas are relatively harmless in a wealthy and stable society become lethal when they spread out and contaminate less developed societies.

    In the developed west, communist were childish and annoying but when their ideas spread out into the undeveloped societies of Russia , China etc, they proved horrifically destructive. Likewise, the environmental concerns of effete, pampered westerns prove mere annoyances to the well fed and developed west but kill when they spread to under developed Africa.

  • ||

    Terrell, perhaps you could begin by explaining how the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, could discus IQ, a term coined in 1912? Then, as the book is rather long, perhaps you could direct me to the specific chapter or passage where these ideas are put forth?

  • Paul||

    Baked, thanks for the link. But that's still not quite what I had in mind. I'm not talking about the (and I'm sorry for this) predictable "environmentalism is a religion" meme, but something that really looks at the philosophies of modern environmentalism, coupled with the teachings of Jesus, and draws lines between the minimalist message, piousness, avoiding conspicuous consumption etc. Anything that someone strongly believes in can be likened to a religion. What I'd like to see is someone studied on the historical roots of Judeo-Christian history and philosophy, to tie the the themes together.

    Young's article hovers around this, but doesn't quite get at what I've been wondering about for years.

    For instance, many Christian organizations are getting on the Global Warming bandwagon. The media seems surprised and always reports as a phenomenon. I keep wondering why it took them so long.

  • ||

    Terrell 2:24 They are not subsistence farmers because they are dumb. They are dumb because they are subsistence farmers.

  • ||

    Why do we bother with Africa? No, seriously: why do we invest time, money, thought, concern, *anything* in this forsaken continent? Why?

  • ||

    Why do we bother with Africa? No, seriously: why do we invest time, money, thought, concern, *anything* in this forsaken continent? Why?

    "We are Borg. Resistance is futile"

    There is no *WE*, Danny, only individuals.

  • ||

    You gotta be tough if yer gonna be stupid.

    Stupid. African. Surprise, surprise.

  • Brandybuck||

    Some have wondered out loud if the bt producing corn is responsible for the massive decline in honey bee numbers.



    CCD (colony collapse disorder) is not pandemic, is localized, and is temporary. In other words, the bees are not disappearing!

    It is immoral in the extreme to condemn hundreds of millions of human beings to starvation and agonizing death just because you guess Bt might be responsible for a localized fluctuation in the honeybee population.

  • ||

    To NeonCat: I hope you realize that you have set up a straw man to use to attack me for something that I didn't say. I would also like to point out that vulgarity does not help your argument. May I suggest that you strengthen your vocabulary and logic skills before responding to posts in "REASON."

    However, NeonCat, you do have one valid point. It is possible that the IQ tests were not culturally neutral. Below is a link to book in question. You can make that decision.

    To Maurkov: The full title of the book is IQ and the Wealth of Nations - a link is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iq_and_the_wealth_of_nations. There are also reviews in Amazon.

    To rebarbarian: My ancestors for as many generations as I can find were subsistence farmers, yet they seemed to be able to care for themselves. And as far as I can determine, none starved to death. None, as I can find, was a Luddite. They produced a progeny (me) that can take care of himself and who can also read and write.

    What I find interesting is that I simply presented a theory of another person as a possible cause of Africa's misery. I expected it to be a point for further discussion. If it were not true, I expected intelligent logical rebuttals. Instead, I find myself being attacked as a racist abet with others' nonsensical arguments. Is it possible, even here on REASON, that some ideas are not up for discussion because some undesirable/politically incorrect truth may be discovered?

  • ||

    Paul,
    I agree, a book investigating the link between Judeo-Christianity and modern radical environmentalism is a good idea. I have long noticed a not-so-subtle connection between the puritanicalism of the Testaments and the tacit puritanical and secular churchiness of the radical enviros as well as even sometimes the nanny-state variety of liberals. While it's no longer cool to bash gays for their lifestyle, it's just fine to go after heterosexuals who aren't monogamous or who pay for sex. Smoking cannot be tolerated in any circumstances. The environment must retained in an absolute pristine state. Pornography needs supervision, or elimination, by the deacons of the state, drugs and fattening foods need to be controlled or banned, etc. etc. In short, the nanny-state liberals and the radical environmentalists are some of the most officious, finger wagging, churchy people around.

    P.S. I've also wondered if there could be some link between Disney's anthropomorphism of animals and modern radical environmentalists (many who grew up on Disney and the presentations from the company where man is always depicted as the black hat and animals are depicted in the most benign way).

  • Anonymous Coward||

    I don't have a problem with genetically modified crops, but I don't approve of how some legal issues surrounding them are handled here in the US. Mr. Paarlberg reassures us that there are no environmental concerns if a transgenic plant fertilizes a nearby field. What he doesn't mention is that the owner of the nearby field can now likely look forward to a lawsuit from the owner of the gene-modded plant's patent for 'stealing' the modified plant. And along the same line the patents on gene-modded crops typically mean that you can't save seed, you have to buy it all every year from the patent holder. Something a poor farmer in Africa might be concerned about, yes?

  • ||

    No doubt "Anonymous Coward". There are court cases where this has happened.
    http://www.percyschmeiser.com/
    Maybe this link will work click or copy & paste: http://www.google.com/search?num=20&hl=en&safe=off&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=0&ct=result&cd=1&q=Versus+Monsanto&spell=1

    I think that it has more to do with politics than science. Money more than feeding people.

  • NeonCat||

    @ Terrell Perry

    Gosh, Terrell, I sure am sorry I'm not smart enough to put into proper words that you brought up what is ultimately a completely irrelevant point, namely whether people in Africa are just too dumb to feed themselves.

    Sometimes vulgarity is called for, especially with irrelevant arguments. Since you know absolutely nothing about me…

    You know what? The hell with it (oops, more vulgarity!). I don't give a shit if you are racist or just some smug Rand-reading SOB. I stand by my point: whether they are complete morons or not, they shouldn't have to starve because of ignorant jackasses in the EU or because some damn book says they're, on a national average, too dumb to make a technological society. You brought up a subject and are hiding behind the genteel mask of, gosh, I didn't write it, I just thought it was a good point to debate, and you shouldn't use such vulgar language in the august pages of Reason magazine's discussion boards.

    Maybe that's all you had to contribute to the discussion - an irrelevance which, frankly, did not reflect well on you, unless you were trolling, in which case I apologize to everyone else for feeding the troll.

  • zoltan||

    How is it that they could feed themselves for hundreds of thousands of years until now?

  • Nutter||

    I don't know what Dr Perry was intending with his unfortunately worded remarks but he has some impressive credentials.

  • ||

    Neoncat: If you wish a response to your post, respond to the base premise, and try to write with logic and intelligence.

    Otherwise, my last response to you is still valid.

    PS: Not very good that you are so angry at someone you know nothing about - would it not be better that you get a life?

  • ||

    Hi Nutter, Since I try to think very carefully about every thing I say, I am not know what "unfortunately worded remarks" you are referring to. Regards, Terrell
    PS Thanks, for the complement.

  • Tim||

    @Terrell Perry:

    I don't think Adam Smith mentioned IQ in his book. In fact, I don't think the concept of IQ was even conceived of at the time (1776).

    For your reference:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_of_nations

  • ||

    Terrell, I don't know whether it's a coincidence that you originally misidentified the book. The Wealth of Nations is a libertarian staple so your mistake was either wildly unfortunate or deep trolling.

    The wikipedia link points out many problems with the data set, so I don't believe it is accurate. As I haven't read the book, (and likely won't, since I doubt the premise) perhaps you could explain how the author concluded that a certain average IQ is required for a technological society? Since the number of Americans that really understand the technology they use daily is rather small, even if the data are correct, I have my doubts on the conclusion. A high IQ would help develop new technologies, but even a moron (IQ 50-69) can use existing tech. Even if the average IQ is low, a couple of standard deviations can still put individuals into 'developing new technologies' ballpark.

    Finally, even if the premise and the conclusion are conclusion are accurate, the Flynn Effect says there's plenty of hope. Unless you're a dirty racist.

    (Hey, look. I can poison the well, too.)

  • ||

    Found at Gristmill:
    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/3/27/95332/6053
    "For years, industrial-food enthusiasts such as Norman Borlaug have attacked organic farming on two grounds: 1) it produces essentially the same nutritional results as chemical-intensive farming, and 2) it's less productive.

    Both of those criticisms are crumbling. This month, the Organic Center released a "state of science" analysis of peer-reviewed studies comparing the nutritional content of organically and conventionally grown veggies. Organic wins by a substantial margin."


    The above has more links and stuff.

    I have no idea what's true in this stuff. I am concerned about patent abuse from GMOs. But it would be nice if Reason would actually take a look at the technologies organic-agriculture employ. Mostly Reason seems to wish away organics with FUD-class interviews with anti-organic pundits.

  • Tim||

    @Sam-Hec:
    There's a big difference between "chemical-intensive farming" and GM crops.
    If you read this interview you can see that one kind of GM crop allows pest control without chemicals.
    I'm all for letting science sort out what works best, but claims of "peer-reviewed studies" need to be examined carefully.
    If "organic" farming truly is more efficient then I'm sure that all farmers will rush to adopt it. Why would they use less efficient methods, especially if they can sell "organic" produce for a higher price?

  • ||

    Thank you Maurkov. That was an intelligently written and logical rebuttal. In general, I tend, however, to believe the results presented in the book. It offers an explanation for the abject poverty of these nations. I have found no other reason that I find to be plausible. If the premise is true, then we are wasting time and money using current policies trying to help. Certainly more true scientific research is called for, and if the premise is true, then we should research how best to help them. The author's of the book conclude: "The rich countries' economic aid programs for the poor countries should be continued and some of these should be directed at attempting to increase the intelligence levels of the populations of the poorer countries by improvements in nutrition and the like." Again thanks, for the rebuttal.

    It was unfortunate that when I posted, I simply dropped words from the title of the book I was referring to. It was a mistake. At my age, one really should not be in a hurry. But all of us seems to be in a bit of a hurry, for example, the title of Smith's book is actually: An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations - not just Wealth of Nations.

  • ||

    Tim wrote:
    "I'm all for letting science sort out what works best, but claims of "peer-reviewed studies" need to be examined carefully.
    If "organic" farming truly is more efficient then I'm sure that all farmers will rush to adopt it. Why would they use less efficient methods, especially if they can sell "organic" produce for a higher price?"


    I would like Ron Bailey and friends to actually look at these claims of peer reviewed science of organic farming. To wit I have regularly pointed out these existing claims for about a year now, and have yet to see as much.

    Im a Free Market, the more efficient methods will be adopted. Given that we don't have the luxury of an agricultural market free from political interference...

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    I've also wondered if there could be some link between Disney's anthropomorphism of animals and modern radical environmentalists Discount Cordless Screwdriver(many who grew up on Disney and the presentations from the company where man is always depicted as the black hat and animals are depicted in the most benign way

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