Science and democracy

If someone were to ask me on what the United States was founded, “science” would not be my first answer. Or even my second. But in chapter three, “Religion, Meet Science,” Otto argues that science is a core, founding principle of the US and democracy itself.

Religion and science are inherently intertwined: science is the “vehicle to religious understanding.” The Puritans, the first American settlers, believed both faith and the exploration of nature—God’s creation—grants access to the divine.  Through “observation and reason” of and about the natural world, God’s will is knowable.

But this idea was not unique to just our founding fathers. Otto traces this thinking back to the very birth of science in the Islamic Empire. Subsequently, within each community in which science advances, there is the same story arc: a clash between the church and scientists (or philosophers). When the church loses its status as the sole arbiter of knowledge, nature and its laws– as the creation of God– becomes the highest authority.

It was this power shift, from the church to nature, that gave rise to democracy. Science, as a system of observation and reason, is accessible to us all–one just needs the right tools.

My favorite summarizing tidbit was:

“If we can discover the truth by using reason and observation—i.e. by using science—then anyone can discover the truth, and therefore no one is naturally better able or more entitled to discover the truth than anyone else.” (p73)

This is the heart of democracy and an idea to which our founding fathers closely adhered to in the writing of our founding documents. There was an understanding that a nation founded on science is intellectually wealthy, economically wealthy, and innovative. Knowledge follows the thinkers, and thinkers tend to gravitate towards open, democratic and supportive societies.

But what happens when society is so divorced from the scientific process that they fail to recognize the value of curiosity-driven science? Or when society limits the types of questions science asks? This is at the heart of the perceived, but false, dichotomy between basic and applied science, or curiosity-driven science and problem-solving science.

Given the current debate over the value of basic science among those with the power to defund it, Otto lays particular emphasis to the import of basic science. Science for the sake of understanding is the foundation applied science is built upon. One is process. The other is form.

It’s impossible to read this section and not think about the oft-used economic argument for shifting funds away from basic science and towards applied science. Science is expensive. Very expensive. Scientists must justify every expense, and rightfully so. But a problem arises when funders do not understand the scope of basic science questions and therefore fail to recognize the value of research without a obvious problem to solve. The questions basic science asks are abstract and far-reaching. While the results of applied science are perhaps more tangible, the potential rewards from understanding how something works are vast and often unexpected. Increasingly, people do not see basic science as the foundation for the other and are therefore dangerously unaware of the potential damage limiting basic research could cause.

But, economics is not the only ax people wield against science. Otto also ties societies’ feelings about science to the social context in which it is done. By outlining several major scientific controversies, from the theory of relativity to vaccines to evolution to the big bang, we begin to see how powerful arrogance, self-interest, and fear are in motivating people. Reading this section put knots in my stomach as I saw parallels in what is happening in the United States today. Tribalism has taken hold and reason has no bearing on people’s opinions. It’s painful to think of what becomes of a world without reason.

However, Otto gives us hope at the end of chapter four with a beautiful example of how science can build bridges between ideas and people: When Pope Pius XII cited Edwin Hubble’s work in astronomy as proving the existence of God, science and religion were once again entwined. While the journey to this moment was tumultuous and long, I think it shows us that societies only move forward with science.


Battle cry, not a playbook

I’m behind! We just wrapped up our first book club reading Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel. Instead of writing individual posts I opted to write one final summary of my take on our discussions guided by the author’s main points.

After finishing the book we were left with one overarching thought: There is more to the food system than meets the eye. And it’s not all about feeding people. For better or worse, the food system is a market just like any other and is, therefore, vulnerable to economic shifts, politics and even social upheaval. Mr. Patel argues that food and the way it is produced, distributed and marketed to consumers underpins all of those things and is, in fact, used as a social and economic tool.

In the book, Mr. Patel tells a story about greed, power, money and the role the food system has played throughout history in setting up and perpetuating inequality. This is a story dating back to the days of European colonization of lands around the world, bringing foreign agriculture and social systems with them. In this context, settler colonies are something to be abhorred. Patel purports that exploring new worlds was more about expanding influence both economically and socially around the world by pre-emptively removing any possibility of commercial competition. What they found was land well suited for farming and people to farm it. Through slave labor, the colonists “extracted food resources” from these lands to feed the working class of Britain. Because a fed lower class is a passive one, the power hierarchy remains intact. And if there’s anything those in power want, it’s to remain in power. And consumers, without seeing the human toll in producing cheap food and faced with economic realities of their own, keep consuming along market trends. It is easy to see how this system is perpetuated. This is a theme Mr. Patel continues to weave throughout the book with example after example of how the food system fails us and our humanity.

And I’m not in a position to disagree entirely. It’s impossible to read these heartbreaking narratives and not feel anger and deep frustration that this is what the food system is, guilt for my role in it, and incredibly small in trying to fix it. This was the intended result. Stuffed and Starved is a battle cry, not a playbook. It reads like a call to action rather than a full, unbiased autopsy of what went wrong. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect it to be. I imagine that a report of the problems would be rather boring in comparison. Storytelling is powerful. We’re also told in science communication to tell stories complete with characters and plot. And it’s our job as scientists sharing our work to put those elements to work for truth with the hope that they emphasize not embellish. Reading Patel’s book as a student of science, there were many times I saw embellishment rather than emphasis.

Specifically, I have issue with the motivations he ascribes to the agents of food inequality. He paints a picture of the food executive or the produce distributor knowingly raping the soil of resources over here where labor is oppressively cheap, in order to feed, but mostly pacify, an affluent society over there. Images of hand wringing and the sound of evil cackling come to mind. While in some cases that may be more true than not I, perhaps idealistically, don’t think a person can knowingly doom an entire population to starvation and poverty. He makes it clear that there are bad and good people in his examples when in reality I think the situation is much more nuanced. You might argue that nuance doesn’t matter when the effect is people dying from starvation and obesity. You might be right but I think that if we want to really understand what is going on in the food system and more importantly, how to fix it, we need to see it for what it is. All the gray areas included. If it were really as simple as rooting out the bad guys then let’s get to it…but my gut tells me it isn’t.

Additionally, while I am certainly not equipped to argue the finer economic points of Mr. Patel’s assertions and illustrations, I can say something about the science. Most of this discussion happens in Chapter 6, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

If you’ve followed the talk around biotech (and GMOs) for any amount of time you already know what Mr. Patel is going to say about it. The whole thing is another scam designed to hold agricultural technology over the heads of the poorest populations on Earth in an attempt to keep them under the thumbs of the powerful (the global North, as Patel calls it). He brings up the suicide rate amongst farmers in India, a widely debunked cause and one that distracts from the real underlying causes; terminator seeds, an uncommercialized piece of technology created to protect intellectual property; and even touts golden rice as nothing but a useless ploy so biotech executives could feel good about themselves while solving nothing…or ya know, maybe not. Perhaps biotech executives, not having any expertise in solving the economic structure that prevents the poor from being able to afford a balanced diet, decided to try to alleviate the immediate crisis of children going blind and dying by doing something they do know how to do: engineer an essential vitamin into the food they have access to. And of course the most irritating and incorrect assertion of them all: that GM crops are not tested for environmental and health safety. They most definitely are.

(For a more detailed analysis of the inaccuracies in chapter 6 read this letter to the campus book project committee written by two UC Davis Biotechnology experts.)

These are the quintessential examples often cherry-picked from the debate and then used to paint a terrifying and terrible view of biotechnology. And something that should be particularly enlightening is the fact that this is not the story you hear from those who directly interact with and are impacted by biotechnology–farmers,

But it goes even further. Biotechnology, according to Patel, doesn’t just stop at the marketplace. Biotechnology is out to control the most precious of tools–knowledge. The section where he claims that biotechnology has changed the way science is conducted in academia is short but frightening. It’s a story accusation I’ve heard several times being a graduate student studying plants at a big research focused university. Sometimes it seems that you’re not really a plant scientist until you’ve been asked who pays you to say positive things about genetic engineering.

Patel asserts that industry influence (money) has changed the very questions we ask in the academic lab. I’ve been at UC Davis for 5 and a half years and I don’t see it. Yes, there is industry money funding projects on campus (including one in my lab) but it would be a disservice to science, the university, and to the biotech industry if that money came with intellectual strings. That’s why it doesn’t. The assertion that academic scientists are bought by industry is upsetting for several reasons, the main two being that it erodes public trust in academic science at a time when it is needed most and that scientific results change depending on funding sources. If I thought this were true and saw evidence of this embedded in university research systematically, I would not be at UC Davis training to become a scientist myself.

Mr. Patel visited UC Davis a couple weeks ago to give a public lecture. I asked him if he thought he was undermining trust in academic science with these assertions in his book. He didn’t exactly back down on the point but instead explained that disclosure of funding sources and peer-review is how scientists can be transparent and their results held accountable. Besides not really answering my question, he must have forgotten that these two things already happen. Funding sources are listed at the end of every research article and peer-review is the foundation of any reputable scientific study. Without it and your results amount to not much more than jargon-filled gossip.

Then it got weirder. As I was listening to his response I got frustrated at how obvious his statements were (see my above point about peer-review). My body language illustrated my frustration. And with a wave of my hand, which from the stage I can only guess must have looked dismissive, he jumped to the conclusion that I have a disregard for peer-review (I don’t) and that I probably shouldn’t be in science or at UC Davis if I held such views. …That escalated quickly. I’ve had my fair share of imposter syndrome in grad school but all in all, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. So I got angry.

But I had a chance to explain myself in the lobby. He penned an apology in the front cover of my copy of his book while lightly questioning me about whether or not I see evidence of industry influencing academic research. I rebutted. He smiled and shook my hand while the next person in line handed him a book to sign. I’m sure I didn’t change his mind but I was glad I got to explain myself. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I have to defend my chosen career.

In summary, there is no question that the food system is flawed. Deeply. It’s not working for everyone. And there must be reasons for this. Some of which are probably in Stuffed and Starved, but I will caution anyone who picks it up to not get lost in the imagery and pathos of Patel’s argument. The effects of a broken food system are devastating to be sure, certainly meriting the feelings of anger and frustration and sadness evoked in reading Patel’s words. But I think that if we are to ever reach and accomplish the solutions Patel lays out in his final chapter, we must first stop demonizing entire sectors of modern life. In my view, we all want the same things: Equal access to nutritious foods produced sustainably and humanely. This is the common ground and I am happy to share it with Patel even if I disagree with some of his points. It’s clear that with as many people as there are to feed, it will take many people from many different areas and disciplines to fix the food system.

I will say that after finishing the book I am more aware of my role in the food system as a student of plant science but also as a consumer. And as frustrating as reading parts of the book were, I think I’m a more conscientious consumer having read how food can be much more than just food. His point that the way to create positive change in the food system is through examining the economic and political structures that underpin it is a valid one, but I think science has a major role to play in solving these problems too. Don’t write me and my career out of the fray. Let me use my abilities to help.


Thanks for reading along with us. Stay tuned for future book club meetings! Email me (Destiny Davis, if you’re interested in leading a book discussion or to get on the email list for updates.

Meeting #2: Chapters 2 and 3

In chapters 2 and 3 we continue working our way through the food chain from farmer to consumer.  We start by examining the farmer. In these chapters, Patel walks us through different scenarios involving farmers in countries Patel calls the “global south”. We are introduced to the plight of the rural farmer in India, Mexico and Korea as examples of the widespread failure to protect and uplift our growers around the world. Particular emphasis (and criticism) is placed on the trade and economic connections between these countries and the economic powers-that-be like the World Bank.

We began the discussion with farmers, the vice of globalization and government inattentiveness that squeezes them.  While capitalism and the pursuit of profit can send many into poverty traps, Patel notes how governments often share the blame in creating them.  Particularly, when governments manipulate statistics (which the Indian government did and does to, as Utsa Patinik says, abolish the poor when convenient) to give the illusion of prosperity or fails to shield losers in the game of international trade, the government becomes complicit in the plight of its most helpless people. This is a point that Patel drives home repeatedly with examples from all over the globe.

NAFTA proved a particularly good example of a government failing its people in the eyes of Patel. Patel (and perhaps more notably prominent members of the current political climate…ahem, Trump) harshly criticizes NAFTA, saying that it pits “the livelihood of Mexico’s poorest against the most productive and highly subsidized agricultural sectors in the world” (that of its northern neighbor). Because of the heavy corn subsidies in the US, Mexican corn farmers are unable to compete in the now shared market. This is a problem that was exacerbated by Mexico’s decision to devalue the peso soon after NAFTA took effect. The combination tore through Mexican society and sent a surge of Mexicans from a now bankrupt countryside into cities and into the United States.

In this mode of trade agreements, the consumer benefits while the producer suffers as the price of goods fall. Patel argues that this is particularly problematic in agriculture where most of the producers are poorer than their customers. The overall effect of these trade agreements and without any protection of poor, rural farmers against shifting markets, is increased inequality around the world.

In addition to economic perils, Patel addresses the shifting diets of populations in the global south stemming from globalization and trade. In particular, he discussed the effect of Walmart spreading south of the border into Mexico and the bulging waistbands that came with the move. Patel argues that with Walmart came more processed food, which in turn altered the diet of Mexicans for the worse causing a surge in obesity and other health issues, especially for those living near the US border.

Our main take-away from these two chapters is mostly how little we all know about economics and the intricacies within. Every “fix” seems to create new issues with unforeseen consequences (exactly how unforeseen they are is something about which Patel might argue with us). It helps to take a broad view of the roles things like trade has in agriculture. Patel also urges us to recognize that social issues play an important role in economics and trade at the same time that they are shaped by economics.

In the next two chapters we will explore more deeply how international trade in agriculture has shaped cultures around the world and how food was (and is, Patel would argue) used as a tool by those in political power.

Bookclub Meeting #1: Introductions

As we went around the table introducing ourselves we noted a major theme arising in our motivation to join the bookclub. We all joined to learn more about the entire food system, and how our college major or thesis work or personal background fits in. We are all students at UC Davis. Some of us are in graduate school, a couple of us are undergraduate students. We are studying things like global disease, animal science, cell biology, biochemistry, plant biology and plant breeding (with a minor in Spanish!). All subjects pertinent to the conversation of food on some level.

Following introductions and after establishing expectations of our discussions of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, we went to chapter 1: Introduction.

Chapter one lays the framework for the main issue Patel aims to breakdown in the remainder of the book: Why in a world where so many people (entire populations in fact) are overfed to the point of obesity are there people in other areas dying from starvation? Clearly there is a something wrong with the food system causing this discrepancy, right? At the very least something (or most likely, several things) is not working like it should. And how do we fix it?

Patel lays out the situation in terms that will bring you to tears, anger and frustrate you and, for me at least, make you feel tiny and insignificant in solving the apparent myriad of problems in our food system. You cannot read the first chapter without feeling something. Whether or not you agree with his verdicts and accusations against the causes of such food inequality, the first chapter reminds you that feeding people involves an intricate web of many industries, resources and people. But understanding is the first step in forming a solid game plan to solve a problem, even one as complicated and expansive as making sure everyone on Earth can get a nutritious meal.

It’s no coincidence that Patel chooses the coffee grower as his first example of a failing food system. Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. I was drinking a corporate cup as I read this chapter (gasp). He chooses an evocative example of a food system issue, to which many of us can connect, in order to give us pause in examining how our role as consumer might be contributing to the problem. He wants this to be personal. And it is. We all need nutritious food to survive and lead long, healthy lives. And with scary statistics about farmer suicide rates, correlations between marketing strategies and increasing health concerns, rising undernourished populations in developing countries with climbing obesity percentages in developed nations, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that the way in which we get our food might be causing harm to those who grow it.

With the stage set, Patel aims to explore and dissect the forces that shape the food system in order to get at the causes behind its major failings and offer potential ways out. He will take us from the farm to the distributor to the processing plant to the market and eventually to our plates.

As a bookclub, we will follow Patel through his logic, criticize his points, discuss our thoughts on his conclusions and report back here.

Next up, chapters 2 and 3…farmer suicides, NAFTA and California. It wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your knowledge of economics…