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.