Feeding the masses

Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes recently wrote a well intended column on feeding people. Kristof is making some explicit and implicit points.

First, lets target the explicit points. There are two things I find problematic: (1) I don’t think the human body works in a simple cause-and-effect manner. One has to think of  synergistic systems–that is, systems that work together to obtain a result that can’t be obtained by either of the systems working independently. Consider, for instance, respiration in which the cardiovascular system works with the respiratory system. Now, it’d be foolish to assume that injecting the body with food fortified with Vitamin A and other nutrients will have an impact, because we don’t fully understand these nutrients’ synergistic effects. On the contrary, it may actually be harmful. This is the prime problem with chemical fertilizers. Scientists believed that by providing the soil with certain ‘critical’ nutrients (potassium, phosphorus, etc.), the soil would become increasingly fertile. Well, it was true for a while. Over time, however, soils have become sterile and tolerant. Lets not repeat this mistakes with our bodies.

(2) I’d be cautious to mass produce any genetically modified–whether through conventional breeding or engineering–foods. I have yet to come across any reliable longitudinal and latitudinal studies that assess the impacts of genetically modified foods.

Now the implicit point. Kristof implicitly agrees with the use of biotechnology in agriculture, a topic that was recently debated by The Economist. I agree with Kristof: biotechnology and agriculture can coexist to feed the masses. However, the biotechnology needs to be (1) reproducible at the small scale (i.e. decentralized), (2) cheap and (3) allow people to be creative, as Schumacher argues in Small is Beautiful. Unfortunately, most biotechnological-agricultural advancements (think Bp cotton and Monsanto seeds) of late haven’t met any of these criteria. Time and need will tell if this trend is reversed. I hope it is, given the projections for population growth in this century.

About Ranjodh Singh
I'm currently an Ally in the Public Allies New York Apprenticeship (www.publicallies.org). Through the apprenticeship, I'm partnered with NYCRx (www.nyxrc.org), a nonprofit organization that improves the health of New Yorkers using public health interventions. I'm excited to continue serving, but doing so closer to health and medicine. I'm also enjoying NYC, which I find to be an enriching environment.

4 Responses to Feeding the masses

  1. Lionel says:


    Great post my friend. You are right to signal some caution in deploying untested and poorly understood products. An often tragic consequence of The Enlightenment is our persistent, and deluded, belief in man’s ability to conquer nature through the mastery of knowledge. However I would push for some clarification on your points.

    While you are for instance probably correct to state, paraphrasing, that there is no silver bullet when it comes to nutrition, and that simply providing Vitamin A, or its precursors may not be sufficient, we can probably agree that its dearth is a major issue, and that steps to combat it, including the example Kristoff gives, should be embraced.

    Furthermore, given the broader need to increase food supply dramatically (an estimated 70% in the next 40 years) surely you can’t discount genetic modification as a method that may prove invaluable. My point in essence is this: While you are right to voice caution toward the utilization of genetically modified products, do you in fact categorically reject its use, or simply push for further oversight?

  2. Hi Lionel,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. To clarify, I caution against the use of cause-and-effect thinking behind implementing silver bullets, e.g vitamin A fortified-foods. Science provides correlations, rarely causations, and even those correlations are probabilistic, never certain. Accordingly, I’d first like to see a high-probability correlation between vitamin A scarcity and morbidity, which exists. I’d then like to see the research on the synergistic effects of vitamin A, and whether the human body becomes tolerant to vitamin A after extended exposure to high concentrations of it. I’d be hesitant to embrace vitamin A fortified-foods until we study these basic issues.

    If you read the fourth paragraph in the post, you’ll note that I don’t dismiss the use of biotechnology (I am including genetically modified foods in this broader category) in agriculture. I am also not pushing for further oversight; oversight comes once you have implemented. I am, instead, suggesting that prior to implementation, we understand what the technology does to and for the people. One way to assess this is to use the three criteria Schumacher talks about.

    At a meta level, what Kristof recommends is a topical fix to a systemic problem. There is plenty of food in this world. The US government throws away 1/3 of it’s food because it doesn’t meet FDA standards. Couple this with the food wasted in each US household and the quantities begin to add up. Instead of searching for a panacea, lets first look at the mismatch and misuse of current resources. The technology can buy us some time, yet it shouldn’t be nor can it be treated as a permanent fix.

    I hope this addresses your points 🙂

  3. Marc says:

    Agreed on the great post.

    I want to bring up a couple points from a soil science point of view, which I’ve been absorbing here in Vancouver for the past couple of months.

    Micronutrients are often found in the parent material of any soil. The parent material being the deposited stone that is some depth below the surface. As those rocks were cooling – if they cooled quickly, many ‘impurities’ or non Silica or Aluminum atoms, were trapped in the crystal structure and locked in. Weathering through chemical, physical, and biological mechanisms eventually bring them out.

    Phosphorous is taken out of the soil through crop removal, as is Nitrogen – these are well understood. Crops soak up available nutrients, and then, we eat them. Or if you’re Canada – you export about 50% of them to other countries – possibly the ones that you imported your fertilizer from. The US is about the same, although I have not seen those numbers.

    My point is that when we devise strategies for nutrients, those nutrients come from somewhere. Ignoring the role of environment to our food production is a huge oversight. It says that we are unconnected from the environment and has drastic consequences when we do not – SEE CLIMATE CHANGE AND CURRENT OIL PRICES.

    I’m not advocated any certain policy, but I am saying that there are really important factors to think about outside of the human nutrition part – that ultimately relate to the human survival and human quality of life. One technique to make sure that we think about the environmental impact is to develop a nutrient budget (where do the nutrients come from and where do they go). Developing nutrient budgets that show how the soils hold Zn or Mo or Fe or any of the other micronutrients is essential to health. Knowing the full impact of our beefed up, or rather, orangeD up sweet potatoes and can help us to either fertilize if necessary, or to develop management techniques that can preserve the enviro and the nutrient to be used in subsequent plantings. Often a nutrient budget will save the farmer a shload of money.

    Another important point to make is that ecologies are slow. they’ve had millions of years to figure things out. When we transform plants ie round up ready soybeans, and let them grow, we also spread that gene into the world. What’s the impact of releasing the vitamin A gene into the environment through a reproducible plant? I have no idea.

    This all being said – I think that it’s a fallacy to think that there is any reason that we won’t do this, unless the people themselves don’t want it. Even if there is an environmental harm, even if the genetic code is taken up by fish who then over populate streams and choke out other life forms. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it won’t matter – if people are hungry and there’s a way to decrease that, we’ll be hard pressed to do anything that won’t be helpful for them. We might even sell it by eventually developing a market, because there will probably be a huge financial incentive to sell this stuff.

    Therefore quick summary: 1. Nutrients come from somewhere – we should understand how and why the flows look the way that they do. 2. Biofortification is a tool at our disposal for increasing the health of people. We can also do companion planting, no-tillage agriculture, and a billion other management practices. Finding every tool can help us have a complete tool kit, from which to CHOOSE our management practices. We should research this and do a good evaluation of the impacts it will have (as extensive as we possibly can), then we should make a decision.

    There you go – my too long discussion. And now back to reading about the Acid Unhydrolyzable Residue, YAY!

    Take care Rj,


  4. Hi Marc,

    So nice to hear from you! 🙂

    Your post is excellent: informative and provocative.

    If I may, I think you are making an implicit point that I’d like to emphasize: When it comes to agriculture, the more localized and decentralized the techniques and resources, the better. Importing nutrients from abroad and biofortifying crops (through bioengineering) are beyond the means of your average farmer. Though, to make these techniques within the means, one requires middlemen in the form of centralized companies; think Monsanto. With such companies comes profit maximization which leads to monopolization. Such companies are thriving yet farmers are committing suicides. This is happening in India at the moment.

    Companion planting and no-tillage farming are sustainable, localized and decentralized ways for farmers to maximize food production without disturbing ecologies at-large. On the contrast, tools such as imported nutrients and biofortified crops are not sustainable (think of soils becoming tolerant), not localized (these tools are not within the local means of the farmer) and not decentralized (these tools are in the control of large corporations). Yes, we have lots of tools are our disposal, but some tools are better than others.

    Like you suggested, I’d recommend that we do more research into these tools, but, lets make sure that through research and the decisions thereafter we empower the average farmer, not corporations. To do this, lets keep in mind the criteria stated by Schumacher.

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