In general, things that delight, instruct or entertain are the order of the day here. Occasionally, though, I find it necessary to point to stuff I really do not like. This is one of those days, in part.
It pains me to say this, but there are still people who regard particular bits of science (or technology) as inherently evil or good. I’m not a reader of Radio Times, so I am grateful to Colin Tudge for noting Sir Paul Nurse’s recent contribution to that magazine (which, unfortunately, does not appear to keep any articles online). Colin also quotes the bit that interests him, and me:
In particular, says Sir Paul, those who lack understanding and/or are positively anti-science include “…climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and those who attack gene editing as being unsafe – despite it being a highly precise way to improve agricultural crops.”
Colin’s article Who are the real friends of science? offers a lengthy compare-and-contrast on those three categories of “anti-science” folk. One of his points, in essence, is that some technologies that have been equally well applied in medicine and agriculture have been all for the good in medicine but harmful overall in agriculture.
On the subject specifically of gene editing, though, I would argue that in agriculture as in medicine, it depends on which genes you propose to edit and why. Furthermore, among objections to gene editing, just like objections to the much more haphazard process of genetic engineering that came before (and that still dominate), safety is not the actual concern. People may claim they are worried about safety. In my opinion, they are actually concerned about power imbalances, and control, and economics, and intellectual property, and self-determination and so on and so on, and they will never be persuaded by demonstrations of safety or absence of evidence of harm.
Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two pieces that illuminate how some scientists think about agriculture.
It has, of course, done nothing of the sort. The paper is a thorough genetic mapping of the chickpea which, in the way of all such maps, sheds plenty of insight into the chickpea’s origins, spread and adaptations. The authors have found genetic bottlenecks that they think might be holding up progress in breeding higher-yielding chickpeas. They have even come up with possible strategies to break through the bottlenecks. But a perfect chickpea? Who even thinks that is desirable? A single perfect chickpea variety is a completely dumb idea that panders to outmoded ideas of what agriculture and crop breeding ought to be about.
Two companies “control the genetics for more than 90% of the 60 billion broilers annually slaughtered for food worldwide”. And in the US, meat from a smaller, slower, more humanely-reared bird costs three times more than a mass market bird. There is nothing, however, that says it has to be that way. Yes, you can use science to breed chickens that perform with maximal efficiency under tightly controlled conditions that create all sorts of external costs. Science can equally breed chickens, as the article gushingly puts it,
whose offspring are healthy, with robust immune systems and strong legs for jumping and running outside. And they’re looking to ensure the animals achieve happiness in bird terms, meaning the ability to do things like perch, peck, and scratch in the dirt.
‘Scuse me, but isn’t that what chickens used to be able to do without the aid of scientific breeding?
If rich countries really want to do something about food and climate, in my opinion the best first step would be to regulate the hell out of intensive livestock. Yes, prices would shoot up. Yes, people would eat less meat. Yes, climate, environment and animal welfare would benefit. Isn’t that the point?
I do wonder what Gaius Musonius Rufus would think about modern agriculture. And now, thanks to a new book from Princeton University Press, I can at least take a guess. How to be a Farmer – translated with commentary by M. D. Usher – offers “A delightful anthology of classical Greek and Roman writings celebrating country living—ranging from a philosophy of compost to hymns to the gods of agriculture”. Balm for the Stoic soul. And there’s an extract from Musonius Rufus in Lapham’s Quarterly.
Like the winter-smitten cretins who said “bring it on” when we still called it global warming, there are those determined to see the good side of the climate emergency. Like, for example, The Economist. I confess, I am enjoying Sicilian avocados right now, and a mango a few weeks ago. But that hardly seems like a good reason to worry flippantly about the effects of the climate crisis on the various schemes that promise protected geographical origins for food and drink. And any hard-working hack can always find an expert to support their view. Probably the best thing would be to ignore such tosh, but this time I couldn’t. Sorry.
One of my favourite clever-clogs quiz questions is this: What is the common name of the plant known in Latin as Nasturtium officinale? Because most people will say nasturtium, and they would be wrong. It is actually watercress, the useful nose-twister. And one of my favourite sandwiches is thick slices of crusty white bread, amply spread with good rich butter, holding enough lightly salted watercress to burst forth from the sides. Never, yet, having found watercress in Italy, I read with almost painful nostalgia a piece all about watercress on BBC Travel. Why it needed to tout watercress as yet another superfood is a mystery.
I’m just a lowly seventeenth-century British sailor, not some fancy-pants seventeenth-century British sawbones, but there’s one thing I know for sure: I would rather walk the plank than suck on a single stinking lime. In fact, I will be giving a wide berth to any and all citrus fruits the Captain brings aboard during this long and arduous voyage, because scurvy is a hoax, and I don’t trust foreign fruit.
Some people may think it isn’t funny, but I read Wake Up, Sailors, Scurvy Is a Hoax and laughed out loud.