A phobia is defined as an irrational fear. I’m going to describe a real life example of how irrational fear about a company called Monsanto gave some influential people in our food industry a way to ignore a significant ethical question. First I need to give a little background.
A particularly articulate and challenging article appeared Wednesday in the journal, Foreign Policy. It opens with the line:
“Stop obsessing about arugula. Your ‘sustainable’ mantra — organic, local, and slow — is no recipe for savings the world’s hungry millions.”
It is written by Robert Paarlberg, the Wellsley/Harvard scholar who has spent his long and distinguished career studying international food policy issues, all with non-corporate support. He is a forceful advocate for the plight of the 850 million people, mainly in Africa or South Asia, that are chronically undernourished . He writes:
“Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work.”
I highly recommend that you read the whole article, but here is another key paragraph:
“What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.”
Agricultural Development Aid Has Declined Dramatically
Paarlberg goes on to document the decline in such international aid, at least partially driven by this sort of activism. Anti-technology groups have been quite successful in reducing agricultural development aid of the type that fostered the Green Revolution in the past.
Paarlberg makes that argument that:
If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of pre-industrial food and farming.”
So What Does This Have To Do With “Monsantophobia?”
Theoretically nothing. This article never mentions Monsanto. It never even talks about biotechnology or claims that it is the solution to the suffering of these people. The anti-technology activism Paarlberg describes began before Monsanto was even available as the central bogeyman for anti-technology advocates.
A friend in the fresh produce industry sent this article to an influential group of people in the elite, “progressive” food business. These are people who are promoting Organic, Local and Slow food, serving the higher end of our affluent society – basically the group that Paarlberg is “calling out” in his article. What disturbed me was their responses. Rather than revealing any serious consideration of Paarlberg’s critique of their influence, their emails were mainly something in the vane of, “but Monsanto…” They are Monsantophobes, and it clouded their read of the important ethical issues raised in this article.
The Effects of Monsantophobia
They played back the standard (and generally misinformed) criticisms of Monsanto as if any discussion of modern technology would automatically lead to corporate subjugation of poor people by a rapacious international corporation. Paarlberg has raised a huge ethical issue, and they were able to ignore its ramifications for them because somehow this was all about Monsanto.
This is the kind of” jump of logic” you hear from gun rights advocates about the slightest gun control effort. Extending a little bit of modern technology to hungry people only seems like a “bad thing” if you have bought into the idea that all technology is a bad thing. If people have gone on to the level of demonization of Monsanto, then it is possible for them to completely ignore the articulate arguments that Paarlberg makes saying that the poorest people of the world need at least rudimentary technology improvements to better their lives.
This is not about Monsanto! This is not about the “sustainable” food choices of the rich. This is about hundreds of millions of nutritionally marginal or deficient people in the world. The fact that this group of food industry leaders was able to deflect Paarlberg’s important challenge with the excuse that, “this might have something to do with Monsanto” reveals a sickness in our society.
If rich people want to intentionally select lower productivity farming systems for themselves, that is one thing. When their view of technology is so skewed by irrational fear of Monsanto that they won’t consider how their advocacy effects (non-Monsanto) technology development for the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth, there is a moral issue.
Image of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting, “The Scream” from oddsock
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