This is a production of Cornell University.
RONALD HERRING: I want to-- there's a contest about who has the most dismal science. And I think politics is probably a much more dismal science than anything else that's come up today. Because we can't fix any of these things without the collective action involved in creating public authority that has some ability to move forward.
David set the stage nicely. Agricultural sustainability is a really critical global problem right now. I think we noticed this in 2007, 2008 with the price rises, which though they backed off a bit, have continued to rise, which led to a global scramble for land, something like seven times the level of land transactions in the world that we had on an average previously.
Everyone is trying to buy land in Africa. It's a tremendous thrust across the globe to secure some kind of access to an agricultural future. And there's also a global politics around agriculture, which has to do with two models, the kind of-- the one that David just showed us of.
Because something used to work, it has been romanticized and glorified and becomes a model for sustainability, often by NGOs who haven't done their cost accounting, or their ecological analysis, or much of anything else, but have romanticized systems that used to work out of a revulsion against contemporary industrial agriculture.
The second model out there is one based on what I'm going to talk about, which is the genomics revolution in biology, especially recombinant DNA techniques, both transgenic and cisgenic, that have a potential to change the shape of agricultural production and its externality. So that's the kind of science I want to talk about.
And when we talk about agricultural sustainability, I lifted from David's paper, which he nicely gave me a definition from the FAO, the Food and Agricultural Organization, which says that sustainable agriculture is resource conserving of land, water, plant, and genetic resources-- important part.
Secondly, it is environmentally non-degrading. It's difficult for agriculture. It's our most degrading activity. Thirdly, it is technically appropriate. And fourthly, it's economically and socially acceptable. And it is the economically and socially acceptable part of alterations of agricultural systems that has become most politically salient. So that's what I want to talk about.
We're in a biotech building. I'm going to be talking mostly about agricultural biotechnology as an exemplar of the more generic problem of what science has to do with public policy, all right? And my conclusions are not going to be very hopeful, so I'll try to be upbeat on the way to get there, OK? So this is pretty much boilerplate.
We're going to have-- sustainable future science is essential, but vulnerable. You can't have regulation and law, public goods production, unless you have some subtle scientific knowledge. We have to know from the FDA. Are the drugs that we take safe? Is the food that we eat safe? The USDA has to tell us something about what's an authoritative treatment of whether our food supply is safe.
We lose 5,000 people-- dead according to the Center for Disease Control every year, because of foodborne illness. We're not doing very well and yet, we do have authoritative knowledge centers that we collectively agree to pay attention to. Atmospheric science. Compare the Montreal Protocol to the Kyoto Protocol.
Montreal-- you had almost immediate collective action of nations all over the world to solve the problem of the ozone hole and ozone-depleting substances. On Kyoto, there's not a ghost of a chance that we'll have a serious protocol and an implementation of that protocol, despite the similar threat to our species.
So this is the general problematic. We depend on subtle scientific knowledge. And yet, of course, politics often resist subtle knowledge. In the United States, think of the political battles over evolution, vaccination, climate change, GMOs, which is what people have politically dubbed anything with recombinant techniques involved in its production.
And the politics of this operation is to unsettle settled knowledge, OK? That's the basic politics. Now, let me just give you an example. This is President Obama. "Few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent in combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute, and the facts are clear."
Full-page ad-- New York Times-- "With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true." And here is a list of 125 scientists on this page who say that there's no such thing. As you know, in the US Senate, when the possibility of the Kyoto Protocol came up, it was 97 to nothing against Kyoto.
So there's a lot Rick Perry famously said-- the only reason people think there's climate change is so scientists can get more money for research on a problem that doesn't exist. So there's a push-back that's pretty strong on the issue of climate change. And here, we have kind of the people who have signed this.
I've pulled some of them out. And they're all scientists, right? This category-- scientist. And that sounds like, well, OK, so there's dissonance in science. We'd expect some dissonance in the fringes of disciplines, even though there's coherence at the core. But this is how that came about. This is where that ad came from-- did a little research.
This ad in The New York Times did not come from sort of spontaneous collective action of scientists. It came from the Cato Institute, which sent out a document that said, you can have your name here in The New York Times if you'll sign onto our petition. And they paid for the ad. And they mobilized these scientists.
This is a very common practice now. And there's a book called Merchants of Doubt that many of you may have seen, about the corporate mobilization of science to poke holes in the connection between cancer and smoking, and successful for many, many years.
And they had an entire scientific community fed from corporate profits to keep people ignorant of the science that was being established. So the movement toward a kind of authoritative knowledge that we can base serious politics on is a fraught one, because their interest. In this case, without the Cato Institute, this ad would not have happened.
So what science-- and in this case, I mean, the specific science of the genomics revolution contribute to sustainable agriculture. And then we'll use science secondarily as a matter of epistemology. That is, how do we judge what the truth value of statements is, to assess what kinds of knowledge might be productive?
And I'm just going to talk about several possibilities. But then I want to focus in on one, because it's a short time. So first, herbicide-tolerant plants and conservation agriculture all yield increases, save additional land clearing. Herbicide-tolerant plants, by the way. Conservation agriculture.
Again, this is one of these things where it missed a slide. I'm sorry. I don't know where this slide went. Oh, here we go. OK, this is the one I wanted. OK, so herbicide-tolerant plants allow low till and no-till cultivation, which conserves both soil and fuel, reduces emissions, wear and tear on plant and equipment, saves a lot of time and labor.
And then secondly, yield increases, which-- save additional land clearing. There's an estimate by Barlow and Brookes that it's 2.64 million hectare-- would have to be used to attain the same increases in yields that we already have from biotech crops. I want to emphasize that is harvested yields, right?
Because in fact, we don't understand very well the mechanisms for increasing the genetic potential of plants. We can only reduce the biotic and abiotic stresses on plants as the harvested yield is higher. The gold standard will be when we understand the complex networks increase the genetic potential to yield.
But just with the technology that we have, their estimate is 2.64 million hectare-- would have to have been cleared from forest or some other source in order to get the kind of production out of agriculture that we have today. Yield increases-- anything that gets harvested yield at a higher level for a given unit of land is saving the prospect of clearing land.
And so virus-resistant plants, one of which, of course, most famously developed at Cornell University-- the papaya ringspot-- papaya virus-resistant plant, which has been resisted in much of the world. It's only grown in three countries, but it's a tremendous technology. And it allows you to keep papayas from being destroyed by this otherwise inaccessible virus.
And then finally, insect resistant. That is Bt technology reduces the damage of pesticides to people and ecosystems. I'm going to concentrate on Bt for some reasons we'll talk about later. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis. It's a soil bacterium, very common-- you probably have on your shoes right now.
There are lots and lots of Cry proteins that we've derived from this Bacillus thuringiensis. And it allows, in this case, targeted insect resistance. You can target coleopteran. You can target lepidopteran. But it's not a broad-spectrum killer. It's a very targeted protein that affects only certain orders, OK?
So that's what we have out there. And there are other things out there, but those are the main things we have out there. And then we have in the pipeline-- and I won't talk a lot about this. But you see in the global debates about the future of sustainable agriculture. These issues come up increasingly-- enhanced tolerance of moisture stress, drought-resistant plants.
There'll be two of these cultivars available in the coming year. And this, of course, especially important in nations like Africa as we get more variability in climate, high cost of irrigation, and deterioration of our natural capital, available clean water for irrigation, and so on. Becomes increasingly important to be able to reduce the moisture stress on plants.
And there's tremendous work being done on changing the stoma and their responses to letting moisture out and so on. Salinity tolerance, as we have more and more dams that create salinization downstream, more and more integration of saltwater into freshwater bays, and estuaries, and so on.
Salt-tolerant plants are absolutely critical for agriculture. Nitrogen-use efficiency. There, again, there's some progress here. Expanded bioremediation and wasteland reclamation-- tremendously important-- and photosynthesis efficiency. One could go on. There are a lot of other possibilities. That's more the pipeline than it is existing reality.
But isn't it risky? Here's the politics, right? There's all this potential out there. There's a lot of hype. But isn't this a risky venture? What I want to argue here is that the entire concept of a GMO and the global debate about GMOs is entirely socially constructed. It is entirely socially constructed. You can find it in law.
You can find it in politics. You cannot find it in science. This is just a summary conclusion. I could give you a bunch more of these. This is the European Commission Directorate-General for Research. We use these because they're not exactly under the thumb of Monsanto, or the US government, or anyone like that.
The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, period of 25 years, 500 independent research groups is that biotechnology, in particular, GMOs are not, per se, more risky than, for example, conventional plant-breeding techniques, OK? So keep that in mind that the science on this, I think, is pretty clear, that people talk about risk, which means hazard times incidence.
But if you can't find a hazard, there is, in fact, no risk out there. But epistemologies differ. That's the result of a European summary of science funded by the EU, their Directorate-General of Research. This is a picture in the EU in Belgium of people destroying field trials of transgenic crops, right?
So the epistemology on the one hand is you have to do lots and lots of testing to make sure that there isn't vertical gene flow or even horizontal gene flow, and make sure that there is sort of not too much weediness, or aggressiveness, or you don't destroy the ecological balance by some quirk of the transgenic process. The alternative epistemology is we already know that this stuff is dangerous, and we will destroy it.
And there are confrontations with police. Now, coexistence of these crops in Europe is extremely difficult. Because whenever you put up on the web, as you have to, that you're growing a transgenic crop, people come and destroy it. So this is what farmers are doing. This is a standard kind of boilerplate, what's happening to biotech crops. You see there's probably a little light here.
Oh, this is it. OK, yeah. OK, you see this little hiatus. Europe and the United States take off with exactly the same pace. Europeans are equally supportive as Americans. This is the hiatus in which Europe basically changes the global trading structure, puts a moratorium on these crops, and dramatically decreases the curve of that line by making it scary for other countries to adopt transgenic technologies.
But we still have a pretty clear upward thrust. And there are now 29 countries that allow biotech cultivation. And you see some of the data here on what's going on. So this is what farmers have adopted in terms of utility. That's a steep adoption curve. And it's the kind of utilities that David was just talking about.
OK, here's the opposite world of GMOs. This is a biblical response to genetic engineering. Note that it's in its second edition. How many of you have second editions of your books? Right? In its second edition, they're playing God and shoving it down your throat.
The nature of the unnatural-- power, hubris, arrogance, shoving it down your throat, OK? And note the demonic, satanic picture here. You literally have a demonic presentation of genetic engineering worse, according to this definition from the FAO that I pointed out-- global famine.
Now, you say, but you can see anything on the web. OK, there's lots of crazy stuff on the web. The first time I got on the internet, I saw this cartoon that said, on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog, right? So you can find that Barack Obama has no birth certificate. And all this stuff is on the web. Fair enough.
This guy-- worldwide adoption of GMO seeds' major transition since its inception 10,000 years ago, invariably resulting in famine replicated country after country, leading to worldwide demise of the peasant economy. That's pretty strong stuff. And you say, well, yeah, but you can find a lot of crazy stuff on the web.
Professor of economics, University of Ottawa, president of the Latin American Studies Association of Canada. He's been on about 12 United Nations panels. I actually have all this stuff listed here that I could tell you, but it'd be boring. He's a legitimate authority, by the way, that we count legitimate authorities. He's been a consultant to numerous international organizations on numerous international panels.
And this is his conclusion, and it's on websites all over the world, right? Invariably resulting in famine, demise of the peasant economy. So I just want to say a few things about looking more closely at a technology, OK? This is Bt technology-- Bacillus thuringiensis insect-resistance technology in India.
Bt cotton was-- been an extraordinary agro-economic ecological success-- 2002 to 2004. We've had a decade of experience now. And what's interesting about that is India at the time of the introduction of Bt cotton had the lowest cotton yields in the world, but the largest cotton area in the world. And much of this was because of the destructive power of the bollworm.
Official science approved the Bt cotton, and it's been a tremendous success. Therefore, official science approved a Bt eggplant. Again, a project Cornell has had a very large role in. Cornell has been involved with the transfer of this technology using literally the same gene for insect resistance-- the Cry1Ac.
The same regulatory authority, same logic, same testing procedures, and the same results. And I just mentioned here that the normal science of field trials. Nine years of field trials before this Bt eggplant is approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. And this is the kind of-- just to show you what kinds of trials are taken, who they were done by.
State science concluded current practices with extensive pesticide spraying are not only harmful to health and environment, but are non-sustainable in the brinjal crop. Just a flat statement-- is unsustainable. Secondly, there's an urgent need for developing the alternative control strategies.
The pest of this crop eat up the 70% of the crop, so the farmer loses. And then the consumer gets unregulated pesticide residue with their brinjal for breakfast. And then finally, transgenic crops engineered primarily using Cry proteins getting excellent results in cotton, maize-- economic benefits.
Brinjal-- that's eggplant-- is expected to provide substantial benefits to the farmers. It's official science, OK? But didn't Bt cotton fail? OK, the reaction was, wait a minute. You're depending on a logic that has been disproven by exactly the same kinds of phenomena that Michel Chossudovsky gave us three slides ago.
These seeds killed biodiversity farmers, people's freedom. Monsanto's Bt cotton, terminator technology, debt, penury, multi-nationals, debt trap. They have no other escape from the debt trap to take their lives. 40,000 farmers committed suicide over the past decade.
Or the more accurate term would be homicide or genocide. His Highness Prince Charles in New Delhi, 2008, said, I blame GM crops for farmer suicides. I assume everybody in this room has heard of farmer suicides in India, right? This is part of-- it's in The New York Times. It's everywhere.
So all the farmers in India are killing themselves, because of Bt cotton. And His Royal Highness Charles officially said so in New Delhi. OK, so I'm just going to run through really quickly something about Bt cotton. This is the adoption curve. This is only up through 2008.
It's now 98% of all cotton grown in India. This is percentage of pesticide spending. This is the big advantage of Bacillus thuringiensis technology-- the Cry proteins. Because all the seed-- all the technologies in the seed-- it's scale neutral.
So small farmers, middle farmers, big farmers, low caste, outcaste. This is social categories, sized categories. The benefits are roughly similar. Reduction in pesticide use of between 30 and 60% and reduction in the cost of production of 100 kg of cotton of about 30 to 40%.
So you're having tremendous reduction in the cost of production per unit, a tremendous reduction in pesticides. And these, by the way, are the same farmers. You're controlling for the farm practices, and connections, and money, and deep pockets-- these same farmers over time before Bt, after Bt.
And this is just the change for India as a whole. You can see the rough kind of magnitude here. You look at a five-year average ending in 2002, 2003. You get production almost tripling by 2010 through '11, yields up more than double over that same time period.
You see the fairly dramatic change in the production and in the yields. India surpassed the United States two years ago as the second-leading producer of cotton in the world. So the cotton sector is probably the only sector in India in agriculture that is not in deep trouble.
Again, this little guy-- that's when Bt cotton came in-- 2002, 2003. And the yield increase has been pretty steep. So we have this technology. It's worked very well in cotton. We have lower cost of production per unit, much less pesticide-- 47,000 metric tons less of toxin sprayed on fields.
Tremendous reduction in pesticide. Anecdotally, a lot of increase in biodiversity in the fields. I've seen it myself. So in 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee concluded Bt brinjal is effective controlling the pest, safe for the environment, non-toxic, da, da, da, da.
In technical terms, this should be a slam dunk, OK? But not necessarily. Notice several characteristics of the banned Bt brinjal crowd. They're urban. They're middle class. They have signs that are all exactly the same. And they're produced by Greenpeace, right? "We are not your lab rats," is their slogan.
And this is the crux of the matter. Here's an official Greenpeace outfit of a brinjal with poison on a platter, talking to the minister of environment. It's the minister of environment, Jairam Ramesh. And Jairam Ramesh is telling her she's gone a little too far over the edge here in her poison on a platter thing.
But at the same time, the minister of environment defeated state science. He rejected the conclusions of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. The cabinet split, but the environment minister won. He downgraded the GEAC and made it an appraisal committee, not an approval committee.
Bt brinjal remains in limbo. And now, there are new attacks emerging in the press, the media, organizations, marches in India against Bt cotton on the grounds that it causes farmer suicides. If you haven't seen the film, Peepli Live, and you have Netflix, I strongly recommend you get it.
It's a comedy about farmer suicides, but it's actually very, very good. So I have a couple of conclusions. Unsurprising conclusion-- science is inherently vulnerable politically, OK? It has an epistemological commitment to tentative conclusions, limited findings, subject to revision.
You never have closure at the margins. No one can ever tell you that a technology is absolutely safe, that there are no black swans. You're never going to find absolute closure. And so scientists can only tell us, well, we only had a thousand rats to feed.
But if we'd fed 5,000 rats, we'd be more confident about our results. We'd have enough money to do all the tests, OK? Secondly, politics makes impossible knowledge claims, demands, right? You have to disprove a negative that something won't happen in the future.
And for mass publics, that creates enormous anxiety and uncertainty. If you had to ask your surgeon-- I had surgery last summer. If I asked my surgeon, are you sure this isn't going to have some untoward effect? And of course not. I mean, he can't say that. He said, well, I don't think so. I mean, usually this works.
But nobody can assure you of absolute no risk. And then finally-- or not finally. But professional reluctance of scientists to enter the political fray. On this campus, a very powerful organization has had a huge impact. And this campus has had a big part of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Well, once you call yourself a concerned scientist, aren't you entering the political fray in a sense and giving up a bit of your notion of doing objective science that is value free? Now, this creates a very serious dilemma for a lot of scientists, most of whom have stayed out of politics in India until the Bt brinjal.
And now, public sector scientists in India are mobilized. Because they say science has been sidelined by the ambitions of a single politician who happened to be a minister, and we don't want anymore of it. But in general, scientists for professional reasons do not like to enter the political fray. And then there's a tactical advantage of critics.
In 55 language-- 56-- I found one more. In 56 languages, there is folk wisdom that says where there's smoke, there's fire. So where you find this tremendous amount of controversy about these things are killing farmers, they're causing malformations and cancer of people, and so on. All of that sort of smoke indicates there might be a fire.
Now, you could get a thermometer and find out if there's a fire. But only our evolutionary history probably predisposes us toward caution. The person that thought, oh, there's smoke, we better get out of here-- probably survived better than the person who said let's go investigate the fire.
So there's a basis for this folk wisdom. On the other hand, it gives a tremendous advantage to people who doubt the science. And then finally, real science is expensive. Junk science is free. OK, conclusion. I know Norm is jumping up. Conclusion. OK, so science-based policy confronts the political vulnerability of science.
There will always be a fringe. And we can't even agree on Keynesian economics anymore. And biotech science is especially vulnerable, because cognitive distances are so large. Nobody knows agriculture. Nobody knows how the traits that we have in our crops got into our crops, right?
I'm certain that's true. Even at Cornell, a lot of people don't know how traits get into crops. So we have a huge cognitive distance about agriculture. We have a huge cognitive distance on molecular biology and genetic engineering. People don't understand how those things could work.
So with cognitive distance, you have very high information cost. High information cost means you have to depend on epistemic brokers. Someone has to tell you what the science is saying, which is my position on climate change. I don't read atmospheric science very much.
But I do read the kind of epistemic brokers that I trust, and they tell me what's going on. So epistemic brokerage is inevitable. And that gives us situations like the one that we just talked about. And I will stop there, because I see how antsy Norm is. And I'll just stop right there. Thank you.
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Professor Ronald Herring, spoke about "What's Science Got to Do with It? Politics of Sustainability" at the National Academy of Engineering Regional Symposium on May 16, 2012.
Cornell University and the College of Engineering hosted the Regional Symposium of the National Academy of Engineering on the topic, "Toward a Sustainable Future." The symposium brought together distinguished Cornell University faculty members to address the numerous elements of sustainability from the perspective of the physical sciences and engineering, environment, economics, business development, international implications and social sciences.