James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

September 26, 2009

I spoke too soon…

Filed under: agriculture — James @ 9:45 pm

Just yesterday I said this about Roger Beachy getting appointed to head up the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture:

He’s spent his entire life working in the public and non-profit sectors (places like Cornell, Wash U, the Scripps Institute, and most recently president of the Danforth Plant Science Center). Can you imagine the screaming if Obama had picked someone who’d ever worked in industry to head up the NIFA?

But of course it couldn’t be that easy. It turns out people like Tom Philpott are quite capable of branding Beachy as a Monsanto insider regardless.

I’m not going to refute Philpott’s assumptions point by point. Rather I want to point out that his piece does contain one spark of hope:

My conjecture is this: Obama likes cutting-edge ideas. You look at the ag landscape, and you see two distinct areas with great innovation, energy, and movement: biotech and organic/sustainable. So he’s coming out strong behind both camps, and plans to sit back and see which one develops the best ideas.

It can be a tiresome job being an advocate for the virtues of genetic engineering and sustainability. The only other people who are paying attention to food production are those involved in the organic/sulocal food movement, and while I, and hopefully most of those like me, will happily concede that the organic/local folks have their heart in the right place*, they in return seem to delight in demonizing us, even those like Roger Beachy who’ve never worked for a seed company.

And that’s why, even though he ends by making excuses for organic/local and claiming the contest he just predicted is already rigged against them, I want to thank Philpott for at least acknowledging that we too are producing innovation and change within agriculture. Because the status quo (conventional ag) is not sustainable. And while I have a bunch of other issues with his article, I’m not going to go into them because the focus should be on this positive development (however small it may be.) I’d be happy to see the two approaches to the future of agriculture go head to head, and for the path we take to be a synthesis of the best of both.

For a quick sense of how agriculture would benefit from such a union check out this piece by Pamela Ronald in the Boston Globe.

*Though I might prefer they use their heads rather than their guts to follow those hearts.

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