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50 years after silent spring

It is the nature of popular books to inspire people to wildly overstate their importance. The most stunning example is Abraham Lincoln’s statement upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” While _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ was an incredibly important book, one that moved many people to shift their sympathies on the subject of slavery, this was, of course, the wildest hyperbole. So too are claims that _Diet For a Small Planet_ invented modern vegetarianism, that _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_ started the local foods movement. In general, what really popular books do is build on work that had already been done by others, but arrive at just the moment at which these efforts are coming into the light, and capture public imagination. The public’s passion for these

The single possible exception to the overstatement of the importance of popular books might be the claim that Rachel Carson’s _Silent Spring_ began the environmental movement. While many of the claims about the book are hyperbolic (the reality is that she alone was not responsible for the banning of DDT, for example, something that both her adulators and her critics often claim), and it is also the case that she built on the prior work of others (Carson intially was reluctant to take on the “poison book” – she didn’t come to it from personal passion initially), Carson’s book hit the stores like a bomb. Most people simply had never thought about this. If a nascent environmental movement existed (it did) it all of a sudden went mainstream.

It is also the nature of popular books to be used for any number of political purposes, with and without their author’s consent. Carson’s death shortly after publication precluded consent for most of these. Just as Stowe has been accused, for her sentimentalism and the obsequity of her characters of undermining her own case as well as starting a war that was in train long before she ever set pen to paper, and Pollan attacked for pushing a path than his detractors claim will lead to widespread starvation, Carson has been accused of killing more people than Hitler because of the banning of DDT in malaria-infested areas, and of the wrong kinds of environmentalism as well. My colleague Pamela Ronald makes a slightly improbable case that Carson would be pro-GMO over at her blog “Tomorrow’s Table” (actually, she doesn’t really spend much time making it, since her primary agenda is to assure us that all scientists agree GMOs are a good thing).

Science blogs editorial staff contacted me hoping I could work up a head of outrage on this subject, presumably about how horrifying it is to see Carson used this way, or how I know that she would have opposed GMOs. But it is pretty difficult for me to get up a head of steam here – using the famous popular book as a tool to justify your ideas is a perfectly normal thing to do. Honestly, neither Ronald nor I nor anyone else know what Carson would have said about GMOs. It all depends on how you read her – and how Carson might have read five decades of history she didn’t get to see.

The question is a matter of emphasis. Ronald finds this plausible because she sees Carson’s book as about “he over use of technology—in that era it was chemicals–in farming.” There’s a case to be made here, of course, that that’s what Carson’s book is about – that she did not fundamentally oppose chemical agriculture, but merely wanted to find biological controls that were less destructive to wildlife and people. Those words “over-use” are critical here – fundamentally Carson’s book is not a critique of chemical agriculture, but a refinement – one in which all sorts of revisions can be used to cut the amount of chemical usage. And given that the modern organic movement didn’t exist, that fifty years of changes in agriculture hadn’t happened, it is possible that Carson might have agreed. Or not – she might have sided with those who argue that for the most part pest controls can be managed without GMO inputs.

Where I do think that Ronald is overly optimistic is this – Carson was a scientist and a naturalist, but her deepest gifts were as an investigative reporter. It was in that capacity that she took on the “poison book.” Yes, it includes the narrative “A Fable for Tomorrow” but ultimately, it is a book that seeks to debunk myth. And one of the central myths I think she might have easily located around the GMO movement was this – that most western agricultural technologies are needed and justified because they benefit the poorest and hungriest people in the world. Ronald’s post, which emphasizes crops grown in the Global South implicitly makes this claim.

But historically speaking, and at this moment, most high-cost, high-investment agricultural technologies have functioned not to feed the poor, but to feed the rich. Thus, we know that the vast majority of the grain calories produced by Green Revolution crops went not to feed the starving billions that Norman Borlaug emphasized, but into the mouths of livestock in the developed world where they became more meat for the already-well fed denizens of the developed world. There’s a simple reason for that – high cost agricultural technologies have to be made to pay for themselves – those university research grants aren’t free, and rich consumers pay better than poor ones.

If you can imagine that any investigator might skip the money trail, you can make the case that Ronald does. I don’t in any way doubt that most agricultural researchers genuinely want to help feed the world, are genuinely concerned about the stresses on world crops, but we know that the largest consumers of GMO crops are not Bangladesh, but the United States. And we also know that during the current epidemic of world hunger, most of the world’s hungriest people lack access to any number of basic things we already have aplenty that require absolutely no agricultural research – better varieties of already extant seed, access to fertilizers and a basic irrigation, the simplest agricultural technologies and the simplest methods of holding the harvest – like the ability to dry grain crops that were inundated before they rot. If in the 50 years and more that we’ve had all those things, we have not made the accessible to most of the world’s poorest people, why do we think it is likely that a high cost new technology will be different?

Volatile and rising energy costs and problems of global distribution in an energy constrained world make it even less likely that the GMO food we grow the US will reach hungry people in the world’s hungriest places – or that expensive technologies from universities in the US will make it to those places on a scale that makes a real difference. Moreover, the growth of high-input technologies like GE seeds have been participants in the rapid intertwining of food and oil – if your seeds require a million dollar grant and a full university research lab to produce it is food that is tightly tied to the price of oil – and when oil and food prices are intertwined, the world’s poor, who already spend 60% or more of their income on food, are most vulnerable. Food security for the world’s poor depends on breaking those ties, not on increasing them

Fundamentally, the case against GE crops that I think is most important is that one. It is the fundamental disingenuity of the companies (I’m not accusing Ronald or individual scientists of conscious disingenuity here, in case that isn’t clear) of research institutes and corporations that trumpet their work as fundamentally making an impact on world hunger for the poorest when it is unlikely to reach them, and when the capacity to make that difference has been in our hands for decades – and we haven’t cared enough to make it. The idea that THIS time, THIS critical breakthrough will make all the difference is fundamentally a lie – because what would make a difference is greater access and equity to the things we’ve had all the time. It wouldn’t take an investigative reporter a long time to see that one.

In our book _A Nation of Farmers_, Aaron Newton and I ask whether we could feed the world at its present and growing capacity for long enough to begin to stabilize world population and the ecology. Our answer is that such a thing is just barely technically possible – if that was our priority. And our answer is that there is no evidence whatsoever that we will do so – if we did not make ensuring food access to everyone a priority when we were rich and had all the energy we needed and wanted, why would we be more likely to do so in an era of scarcity? The food crisis of 2008 that never entirely left us was only enhanced by the tight links between oil and food prices, and the increasing dependence on high technology agriculture. It is important to remember that in 2008, we had record harvests – and a billion people still went hungry, more than ever in human history. The hunger we are facing is as much or more a problem of equity as one of production – and ultimately GE crops do little to create greater equity, and often much to preclude it.

It does not diminish Rachel Carson’s book to say that it didn’t do all the things people attribute to it – it invented a consciousness of ecology, a public awareness of nature as something vulnerable to us. Moreover, it provides a canvas from which we can build – as all books that stand any kind of test of time do. The question is which way we build – and that, ultimately, is not a writer’s problem, but the reader’s.


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