Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Paarlberg and Ronald: A Food Fight
Part Three

Yesterday we posted part two in our dialogue between Robert Paarlberg (who recently published Starved For Science) and Pamela Ronald (author of Tomorrow’s Table). These two experts have been debating all week how to best ensure a safe food supply with the least amount of damage to the environment. This is the third and final part of the series, so be sure to read parts one and two first.

Robert Paarlberg is the Betty F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. His most recent book is Starved For Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa(Harvard University Press), explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought.

Pamela C. Ronald is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding. She is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her most recent book, written with Raoul W. Adamchak, is Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, genetics, and the Future of Food, which argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture–genetic engineering and organic farming–is key to helping feed the world’s growing population in an ecologically balanced manner.

Dear Pam,

Thanks for your last note. I like your final observation:

“So what I advocate is intensive farming using the most ecologically responsible approaches. In our view this would include many organic production practices and GE crops.”

I am attracted, as you are, to a number of organic production practices. What I find less attractive are the strict prohibitions in organic farming against some practices, such as the prohibition against all synthetic fertilizer use, or against all synthetic pesticide use. In many cases it will make ecological sense to restore soil nutrients by using a combination of both compost and synthetic nitrogen, yet the rules of organic certification make this impossible. It makes ecological sense, in many cases, to adopt an integrated pest management strategy, eliminating the routine use of synthetic insecticides yet keeping the chemical option available for the occasional circumstance when pest damage crosses a certain threshold. Yet once again the rules of organic certification make this practice impossible, since no use of synthetics is permitted.

I have another question about the rules of organic certification, which say it is perfectly all right to use “natural” poisons to kill insect pests. What is it that allows us to assume naturally occurring insecticidal substances are good, while those fabricated by people are always bad? This rule seems to derive, a bit too much, from the pre-scientific views held by the mystics and romantics who originated “biodynamic” and organic farming a century or more ago.

But perhaps I am missing something here.


Dear Rob

The organic certification system provides guidelines for a biologically-based agricultural. One of the points of our book is that a truly sustainable agriculture will need to integrate many of these organic, scientifically-based principles. Yet it will also need to integrate new crop varieties, including those GE crops that satisfy principles of sustainable production. As you point out, different locations, crops and farmers will need to employ different approaches to achieve this vision. As Mike Madison, a fellow farmer, neighbor and writer says, “In dealing with nature, to be authoritarian is almost always a mistake. In the long run, things work out better if the farmer learns to tolerate complexity and ambiguity . . . Having the right tools helps”

Unfortunately such a sustainable system, although increasingly used around the world, has not yet been clearly defined. We begin that dialog in our book and appreciate your valuable contributions.

All the best

Dear Pam,

Yes, I appreciate the dialog we have begun, and look forward to staying in touch. The point made by Mike Madison is solid. It was Rachel Carson who taught us best not to be either authoritarian or arrogant when working with biological systems, as we still know only a small amount about how they work, and especially how they work with each other. Whenever we introduce agricultural cropping systems into the natural environment we risk doing harm as well as good.

I have just been asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN to prepare a background paper that tries to imagine how the world can double its food production by the year 2050 (as will be necessary, given projected population and income growth in the developing world between now and then) without doing unwanted harm to the natural environment. A tall order, I think you would agree. I will have your nice book, Tomorrow’s Table, open on my desk when I get started on this task. Your willingness to integrate multiple approaches – from organic to GMO – into the design of sustainable farming systems is a persuasive approach to me. Thank you for opening so many minds with this inclusive approach.

Rob Paarlberg

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *