Ronald Herring Discusses Role of Science in Agriculture

Ronald Herring gave a captivating and thought-provoking talk
on genes in food Sept. 29 at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Herring, a political economy and ecology professor at Cornell University, teaches a vast range of
topics but maintains a primary focus on agriculture and rural
development. An expert on agrarian political economy, Herring is
currently the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics and Society.

In his talk, Herring focused on the use of science and technology in society—primarily in the production of transgenic foods.

“All breeding technologies create genetic modifications even if they are conventional and natural,” he said. “In fact, transgenesis has a lesser impact than conventional breeding.”

Analyzing the risks involved with scientific agricultural techniques, Herring
connected consequences with the role of democracy and expertise. Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs) have a number of
uses in the pharmaceutical industry and can even be used to make biodegradable
plastics.

Even while speaking about strictly biological and engineering topics, Herring spoke in terms that were easy to understand. Highlighting the potential of GMCs, Herring cited their use in the recent outbreak of Ebola, in which the serum was produced by genetically engineered vector and mutated tobacco plants.

Herring
went on to draw a similarity between cell phones and genetically modified crops. More than
the technology behind these creations, the utility of the products is what matters.
Most, if not all, of the research proclaiming the harmful effects of cell phones
does not have enough evidence to effectively support this claim.

The same can be said for
genetically modified crops: Most of these research projects are funded by large-scale enterprises, which have profits to gain by undermining a product. These pervasive facts and evidence, then, cannot be blindly trusted. This is where politics comes
into play. Herring used the example of Donald Rumsfeld’s theory of “unknown unknowns”:

“The primary problem here is that social construction is
born out of uncertainty,” he said.

GMCs have
proven to be highly beneficial to farmers, resulting in better yields, higher
net incomes and guaranteed environmental protection, according to Herring. They have given farmers in
developing countries the opportunity to surpass production levels of highly developed
countries, somewhat leveling the playing field. Yet the media continues to deny their benefits, often publishing what Herring refers to as “junk science.”

One such journal published a study on the
impact of genetically modified foods on rats, claiming that the crops lead to
tumor growth in the kidneys, liver and so on. However, the journal was later
forced to retract this publication after it was revealed that the species of
rats used had been bred for research on cancer, increasing their susceptibility to various cancers.

While the GMC debate will surely continue, Herring said that it mostly affects poorer people in impoverished countries, such as India, where farmers cannot afford higher levels of technology. Even if given access to important technological advances, they may not have knowledge of its proper usage, resulting in harmful side effects.

“Science is inherently vulnerable to politics,” Herring reiterated throughout his speech.

Audience members both
enjoyed and critiqued Herring’s viewpoints.

“I thought Herring brought an interesting
perspective to the issue by framing the debate as not just about the science
but also about the general public’s perception of that science,” Samuel Breslow PO ’18 said. “It is
unfortunate that so many people distrust scientists on issues like global
warming and GMOs, but so long as widespread anti-intellectualism exists in our
society we must seek to understand it in order to fight it.”

While Breslow enjoyed Herring’s explanations of the GMC debate as a whole, Olivia Matthews CM ’18 was looking for more of Herring’s own personal viewpoints.

“I was expecting him to be
more biased or offer his opinion during the talk,” Matthews said. “The presentation was really
information-based, without much of his personal views. He focused on the
political impact of GMOs more than the hard science behind it, and it was
really clear that he was an expert in his (very specific) field.”

As is typical at the Athenaeum, the talk ended
with an insightful and interactive question-and-answer session, in which Herring debunked several myths about genetically engineered farming. The
audience was left with a fresh perspective.

“It
was a refreshing take on how the trade-off between risk and uncertainty faced
by developed countries on the issue of GMOs affects developing countries who
really need the GMOs,” Kanishk Kapur CMC ’18 said.

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