Book of the Year
Dec 23, 2008
Mark Twain once defined “a classic” as “a book which people praise but don’t read.”
I’m going to praise a book you may not have heard of, let alone taken the time to read. But I hope you’ll pick it up because Robert Paarlberg has written a modern-day classic. “Starved by Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa,” published by Harvard University Press, is my Book of the Year for 2008.
Paarlberg grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., not far from the farm where his father survived the Great Depression. Today, he’s a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts--and he’s devoting his scholarship to helping Africans escape from a depression that never seems to end.
You’ve heard the grim statistics. The United Nations keeps a list of the world’s 50 least-developed countries. Thirty-five are in Africa. They are the poorest and hungriest nations on the planet.
Why is Africa so impoverished? Paarlberg points to the central problem: “Low productivity in farming is the trap that is currently keeping most Africans poor.” What they most urgently need is a “science-based escape from rural poverty.”
Unfortunately, this common-sense solution is also a controversial proposition.
Much of the rest of the world is living through an agricultural renaissance. In the United States, farmers are producing more food than ever before, and doing it in a sustainable manner. Thanks to the Green Revolution, the best farming practices are now widely accepted throughout Asia and South America.
Yet Africa remains different. Its farmers continue to struggle and even lose ground. Paarlberg cites this bracing statistic: “In the United Kingdom, there are 883 tractors per 1,000 agricultural workers, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa there are now two per 1,000, which is actually a drop of 50 percent from the 1980 level of three.”
The continent’s problems are complex. They include everything from rotten political leadership to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The devastating inability to produce enough food, however, lies at the heart of the crisis.
The solution isn’t to keep out promising agricultural technologies, even though this is precisely what a lot of non-governmental organizations now demand. Scandalously, many of them encourage African nations to turn away from proven farming practices in favor of “indigenous” techniques (meaning they are primitive).
“In effect, rich outsiders are telling African farmers it will be just as well for them to remain poor,” writes Paarlberg.
The European Union should take a special interest in Africa’s problems for reasons of geographic proximity and colonial history. Yet the EU merely makes matters worse. Its own rejection of agricultural biotechnology has compelled many African countries to do the same.
“European tastes regarding agricultural GMOs are not a good fit to the needs of Africa, given that two-thirds of Africans are poor farmers in desperate need of new technologies to boost their crops’ productivity,” writes Paarlberg. “Keeping the new technology of genetically engineered crops away from these African farmers will come at a heavy and steadily increasing price.”
In their foreword to “Starved for Science,” Norman Borlaug and Jimmy Carter demolish the mindset that refuses to let Africans take advantage of the best farming methods: “This is a rich-world argument that is hurting the poor.”
A lot of us have been saying such things for years. Paarlberg says them with the authority of an academic--and with a good amount of bravery, too. Although Paarlberg in some ways holds the views of a typical college professor he isn’t afraid to take politically incorrect positions.
“Many of the arguments put forward in this book go against dominant opinion in my own social circles,” writes Paarlberg. “Many of my colleagues and students would recoil if they knew I wanted to replace traditional African farming practices with an increased use of high-yielding crop varieties, or even worse, genetically engineered crops.”
They should read “Starved for Science.” It will change their minds. If enough of them change their minds, this outstanding book may even wind up feeding hungry Africans.