It has gotten little public attention, but the interrelationship between malnutrition and global warming is as serious and as paradoxical as it gets. Worldwide, an estimated 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused not by belching smokestacks but by belching cows and other agricultural processes. There are 6 billion people in the world and 1 billion of them are undernourished and hungry.
The prognosis for mid-century? Grim. On its present course, Earth will host 9 billion people and be significantly warmer by 2050. And scientists, policymakers, lobbyists, industrialists, and ethicists are just now beginning to look for answers to a formidable question: How do we provide adequate nourishment to a growing population without destroying the planet and its atmosphere in the process?
Over three days next week some of the most important and visionary minds in science, agriculture, and academe will converge on Princeton University to debate that question and attempt to ignite public awareness to the conundrum. On Wednesday, April 29, the university will host a symposium, “Agricultural Biotechnology and Sustainability,” an all-day event at the Frist Center featuring representatives from universities, research groups, and multinational corporations who will stir debate over the best way to answer that daunting question.
The symposium foreshadows a two-day conference, “Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet,” that kicks off on Thursday, April 30, at 8:15 a.m. at McCosh Hall (see Page 37 for schedule). A series of panel discussions featuring professors, foundation representatives, and educators, will be highlighted by a keynote speech by president, chairman, and “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farm, Gary Hirshberg. Hirshberg will present “Thoughts from an Organic Entrepreneur,” a study in how he and a handful of counterculturists and cows became a $340 million enterprise.
Day two of the conference, Friday, May 1, wraps up with panel s on how to save the ground and the air from our attempts to feed a growing population.
The two-day conference was conceived and built by Princeton researcher Tim Searchinger, who with chilly calmness answers the question, “Do you think we can solve the problem by 2050?” by saying, “Unless we dramatically increase our focus on the issue, no. Not even close.”
Searchinger is a former co-director of the Center for Conservation Incentives at Environmental Defense, where he supervised work on agricultural incentive programs. He is a graduate of Amherst College and holds a J.D. from Yale. Prior to working for Environmental Defense, he served as a law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals and as deputy general counsel to Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey.
For Searchinger, awareness must come now and it must come from everyone — scientists, politicians, government agencies, educators, and the general public. Left unchecked, the problem that already has led to significant environmental trouble — deforestation, high greenhouse gas emissions, mounting pesticides — will grow beyond our ability to control it. And for action to take place, Searchinger says, people need to understand what’s at stake.
So why are we just hearing about this now? A mere 40 years before the problem is expected to become a catastrophe, it certainly is not news that agriculture contributes generously to global warming. Nor is it news that the world’s human population is growing significantly in those parts of the world that are least equipped to feed it. Have we all simply not been paying attention?
The short answer, says Searchinger, is yes. In America we by and large are well-fed; and agriculture-related emissions are a comparatively low 8 percent of the greenhouse gases we release. There has been little reason for us to notice because we have neither been a major cause nor victim of the problem.
But we do have the means to beat it — if we can get past the politics, says visiting Princeton professor and coordinator of the Wednesday symposium Shanthu Shantharam.
“Biotechnology” is simply a more succinct way of saying “genetically modified organisms” or “genetically engineered crops.” And the word itself has polarized those who believe it will save the world and those who, as Shantharam puts it, “somehow don’t believe that this technology will be of any use to anyone.” Anyone except American multinationals looking to exploit the world for a few more dollars it doesn’t need, that is.
This sentiment might sound like rantings from the fringe, but Shantharam has spent 25 years listening to it. President of Biologistics International, an environmental consulting firm based in Ellicott City, Maryland, Shantharam was born in India and is the author of three books on microbiology and biotechnology. He earned his Ph.D. in microbiology from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, in 1980. Since then he has been a tireless and vocal advocate for biotechnology as the top answer to the world’s food and atmospheric ills.
And in that time, he says, he has watched anti-biotech activists make great headway in keeping genetically modified crops from being sold or even donated to a world that desperately needs them. Social activists, he says, have commanded much of the world’s press by relentlessly arguing that if biotechnology cannot settle the world’s socioeconomic ills entirely then it is entirely useless to the people it is supposed to help. They even have a word — techno-imperialism.
Such loaded language is biotechnology’s major impediment to progress, Shantharam says, and this is precisely why the April 29 symposium is happening at Princeton University. Princeton has no agriculture program, meaning that it is a neutral place at which to have a neutral discussion. In culling top minds in the biotech debate, Shantharam hopes to quash the reactionary rhetoric that has plagued the industry.
Shantharam acknowledges the criticisms — that science keeps promising power-packed crops for poor areas but has yet to significantly feed people; that multinationals have a monetary stake in delivering these crops. And he acknowledges the major institutes and organizations — Oxfam, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club — that have recently released scalding assessments of biotechnology’s failures. But he counters that science has made great advances that the world has yet to see, due to a glut of politics and an absence of any regulatory structure.
Take golden rice. Developed more than a decade ago by Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus, the grain produces beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A and a nutrient in critically short supply in poor countries with rice-heavy diets. Golden rice was intended to be introduced to these places and eventually replace standard rice (not be the entire diet, as some critics have claimed). But golden rice has yet to see the light of day, and Shantharam fears it never will. Not long ago Shantharam met Potrykus, now retired and 78 years old. “He is frustrated,” Shantharam says. “Desperate. He said to me, ‘Before I die I want to see poor people eating my product.’”
Biotech’s proponents believe completely that it will save the world and solve the two-sided problem of increased food production and greenhouse gas emissions. If crops can be engineered to grow where trees do not have to be removed and made to produce more fruit, the technology will have been more than worth it. But Shantharam is haunted by a fear that poor areas of the world — particularly Africa — will miss out on biotechnology’s promise, the way Africa missed out on the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
Shantharam says the world never hears about how much money companies spend on the development of biotech, nor about how many of the hated biotech companies have given away products and technologies to people around the world. Shantharam will be joined by numerous pro-biotech voices for the symposium, including Autar Mattoo, who is developing nutritionally enhanced tomatoes for the USDA, Eric Sachs of agricultural chemical and biotech company Monsanto, and Prabnu Pingali of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, itself a major funder of biotech research.
He will also, of course, be joined by the opposition, chiefly Melinda Smale of Oxfam America and Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. These opponents openly espouse organic farming as the way to solve the central problem the symposium will address.
Many of the speakers and panelists appearing at Wednesday’s symposium also will appear at “Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet” on Thursday or Friday. Here the focus will be less on biotechnology overall and more on what other methods, such as organic, are available to feed the world and feed it well, not just fill it up on nutritionally lacking staple crops. The second day of the conference will focus on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an industry that paradoxically is so vital to and such an offender in the world.
Like Shantharam, Tim Searchinger hopes to spark reasoned debate and steer people toward a solution. Searchinger, however, is somewhat less gung-ho about biotech. The answer to the world’s food woes, he says, is neither purely organic nor purely technological, but rather somewhere in the middle. “It’s not a pure middle, though,” he admits. He leans toward technology, but in concert with crop rotation and other time-tested methods of farming.
To him, whatever the answer is, it needs the cool head of debate and scientific rationale. “This is not an ideological or religious issue,” he says. “This is something where success can be ultimately measured.”
So long as we start paying attention.