Book review: Starved for Science

Along with Prime Movers of Globalization, I bought and read Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa after Tyler Cowen recommended it (although a colleague also mentioned it earlier the same day – the two together were motive enough for me). The thesis is that the under-penetration of GMO crops in Africa is a travesty, ultimately caused by the post-colonial export of rich-country attitudes from Europe to Africa’s urban political elites, who are then reluctant to take the risk of allowing GMOs, despite the tremendous potential benefits.

Author Robert Paarlberg is aggressive, even polemical, but one can sense his deep passion and anger on the topic, and his ample supporting evidence is hard to argue with. A few of his strong points are that proving the absence of risk is impossible (and in practice a selectively enforced double standard in regulation); rich-country citizens do not object to pharmaceuticals produced through GMO pathways, perhaps because they provide tangible benefits to the majority of the population, whereas higher crop yields do not; and that the safety standards applied to GMOs in the African countries that don’t allow them (all but South Africa) wildly exceed the level of other food safety standards in those countries (something like 700,000 people are estimated to die from food poisoning in Africa every year, and millions are affected by hunger and malnutrition).

Worth a read to hear an uncompromising and well-informed exposition of the pro-GMO position; although I believe there are multiple, interdependent paths to improve smallholder farmer productivity, I found myself swayed by his arguments. I would be interested to hear a critical rebuttal from the other side, though.

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