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Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa [Paperback]

by Robert Paarlberg, Norman Borlaug, Jimmy Carter
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 4, 2009 0674033477 978-0674033474 1

Listen to a short interview with Robert Paarlberg Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.

Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science—including biotechnology—has recently been kept out of Africa.

In Starved for Science Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.

In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.

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Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa + Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food
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Editorial Reviews


Except for South Africa, no African state has legalized the planting of GMOs for production and consumption. While citizens of rich countries have the luxury of deciding what kinds of foods--organic, nonorganic, GMO, non-GMO--to eat, droughts and insect infestations continue to wipe out crops, and rural African children die because they have no choices. Bringing another perspective to the GMO debate [is] Paarlberg's provocative argument. (Joshua Lambert Library Journal 2008-02-15)

Condoning the cultivation of genetically modified crops for food is not, Robert Paarlberg concedes, likely to win him friends in academic circles...But in this timely book, Paarlberg, a political scientist, makes a strong argument: Europeans, who have so much food they do not need the help of science to make more, are pushing their prejudices on Africa, which still relies on foreign aid to feed its people. He calls on global policymakers to renew investment in agricultural science and to stop imposing visions of "organic food purity" on a continent that has never had a green revolution. As governments look for ways of tackling what is now commonly called a "global food crisis" with unprecedented price increases in basic foodstuffs, this book offers welcome food for thought. (Jenny Wiggins Financial Times 2008-04-26)

[An] illuminating book on the state of science and agriculture in Africa...[It] has much of merit. (Jules Pretty Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-05-01)

[This] book ends with an alternative perspective on globalization that will inspire open-minded skeptics to rethink the matter...[Paarlberg is] a pragmatic believer in separating babies from bathwater. The fact that current applications of GM technology primarily benefit a handful of corporations does not deter Paarlberg from envisioning a scenario in which nonprofits and private African corporations might employ GM technology to serve the increasingly dire needs of African farmers...An insightful book that deftly balances the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, all within parameters conforming to the real world, the one in which we live...A clarion call for corporations and NGOs alike to revisit issues that have been ideologically polarized rather than rationally examined. (James E. McWilliams Texas Observer 2008-06-27)

This is an important book...Paarlberg has written extensively about smallholder agricultural development and genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa. Here he goes much deeper than just the GM debate to suggest that the anti-GM arguments are part of the currently fashionable trend in many international institutions such as the World Bank and leading NGOs to push organic agriculture and a European-style regulatory system in Africa--instead of promoting increased production...The author says that although well-intentioned, and perhaps appropriate in countries which have already experienced major scientific advances in agriculture, including India, China, and Brazil, these policies are leading to food shortages and agricultural disasters in Africa. Well argued and documented, if controversial. (C. W. Hartwig Choice 2008-12-01)

About the Author

Robert Paarlberg is the Betty F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College.

Norman Borlaug is Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Jimmy Carter is Former President of the United States and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (September 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674033477
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674033474
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #443,740 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
I though this was an interesting and informed look at topical issues with real consequences. The fact that both Norman Borlaug and President Carter (both generally agreed to have been decent guys, not evil corporate stooges) saw fit to recommend it by writing an introduction each, further recommended the book to me.

But i understand that others may have a different opinion. I respect that.

But PLEASE, people - can we leave the conspiracy theories out of the reviews? I'm interest in what you thought of this or any other book, but not in your theory that a big bio-tech company, in association with multi-national Oil and under the protection of the lizard men, acting through the Royal Family are secretly introducing GM food to Africa to control the world, or whatever the latest story doing the rounds of the conspiracy fringe is.

Reviews - good, bad and indifferent. Yes. Paranoid mutterings about bio-tech companies planning to rule the world - no thanks.
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Truths beyond popular culture June 16, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008 - Feminist

As a mom who does what I can to buy organic food for my family, I completely understand the general distaste most of us have for genetically modified (GM) foods. The very thought of vegetables altered by scientists in labs seems creepy and somehow inherently wrong, doesn't it? But when I read Starved for Science, I quickly realized that such a romanticized and emotional standpoint in such a critical debate as starvation is not only uninformed, it is just plain irresponsible. I also realized that, whether we like it or not, most of us are already eating GM foods on a daily basis.

In plain language and with plentiful sources to back up his positions, Paarlberg describes how in first world countries, where food is plentiful and obesity more of a problem than starvation, people can afford to pine for the days of small neighborhood farms - and can turn up their noses at the agribusiness and subsequent science that has allowed us to take for granted having not only enough to eat, but a wide choice in what and where we get our food. In Europe, the negative public opinion toward genetically modified organisms (GMO's) has led to labeling and bans on imports suspected to be "contaminated" by genetically altered seeds. Greenpeace and many NGO's are working actively to keep African farmers on small plots of land using techniques that date back thousands of years, but to the detriment and hardship of those very farmers.

Paarlberg describes how rich countries have come to fear and dislike GMO's, stopping funding and support easily where food is in no shortage, and yet when it is convenient, still continue to fund their use in the pharmaceutical industry where a longevity benefit can be gained.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This isn't just about GMOs December 15, 2010
I read the same book as everyone else here and I read it from cover to cover. Do not be misled, Paarlberg deals with more than GMOs. The puzzle is why Africa has been starved (or, in many cases, more accurately stated, has starved itself) not just for GMO science but for all aspects of agricultural science for the last couple decades. GMOs are the most prominently controversial aspect of this, but not the only one. Paarlberg's analysis of the non-embrace of GMOs by advanced Western countries is an interesting one and seems the best explanation I have yet seen. Essentially, he states that advanced Western countries have rejected GMOs because they do not deliver a compelling benefit to these countries. After all, we are far from starving; if anything, agricultural OVERPRODUCTON is more of an issue in the developed West. Consequently, GMOs, no matter how much increased productivity they might bring to Western agriculture, are solving a problem that does not exist. On the other hand, Western countries have wholeheartedly embraced medicines manufactured by genetically modified organisms. We recognize the benefit delivered in the form of better and cheaper medicines so we don't even notice that GMOs are a critical component in the production chain of these same medicines. We accept it. The problem is that African agriculture is not facing the same problems that Western agriculture faces. There IS a need for increased productivity in African agriculture, and, perhaps, GMOs is one technology - not the only one - that would help. The truth is that Europe, to a great degree, and America, to a lesser degree, are pressuring Africa to follow their old traditional agriculture rather than incorporating technologies that would improve agricultural productivity. Read more ›
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36 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Feels like half of the story July 19, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Robert Paarlberg (RP) seems sincere in his desire to help solve the problem of African hunger. Even though he advocates doing so using technologies owned by Monsanto, Synergen or Du Pont/Pioneer, he's candid that these companies aren't likely to win popularity contests. If, as some might suspect, the book is propaganda for those companies, it's unusually sophisticated. Nonetheless, I'm troubled by some of the book's argumentative techniques, and especially by its failure to engage with some pertinent issues. Even if sincerely motivated, it comes across less like a balanced book about policy and more like a legal brief, a style of writing in which you skate over or even ignore the weak points of your argument rather than confront them.

1. RP's argument focuses on the health and environmental aspects of using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food. Europeans consumers don't see much benefit for those foods, and, according to surveys, are even more ignorant than Americans about the science behind them. Moreover, the EU has adopted an unusually rigorous precautionary approach to regulating the foods, contrasted with the American one, which is more welcoming. Europe is much closer in psychological as well as physical distance to Africa than is the US, is more commercially connected to African agriculture, and also supplies 3x as much aid as the US. Consequently, the European approach to impeding the spread of GMOs by regulation has been the role model for African governments -- even though, in RP's view, African countries (i) need GMOs to feed their people and (ii) are pretty lax in regulating everything else. NGOs that are opposed to Green Revolution-style agriculture, which uses a lot of fertilizers, make things worse.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening
It is well documented and explains many reasons why public opinion is not always correct. Even though other people have a different view, he builds a strong case for getting to... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Eleanor Pershing
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read
Time and time again the public are stating, well if GMO's are so good for us, why are they being banned! ( they're not). Read more
Published 9 months ago by jessika stringer
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a fantastic book
Robert Paarlberg's Starved for Science is a beautifully crafted and fair exposition of the agricultural situation in Africa. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Michael Buratovich
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Review
It is a very interesting book presenting the social controversy around Agricultural Biotechnology and the effect of the political decisions taken in Europe in the welfare of the... Read more
Published on April 7, 2012 by DIMITRIOS DRISIS
5.0 out of 5 stars Useful for history teachers
As a high school history teacher, I picked up Dr. Paarlberg's book with the intention of reading the first chapter to supplement my knowledge on contemporary Africa to use in my... Read more
Published on April 22, 2011 by Linda
1.0 out of 5 stars Craptastic and factually flawed
Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa was one of the most riveting works of fiction I have read all year! Oh wait... non-fiction, you say? Read more
Published on March 6, 2011 by Rui Jie
5.0 out of 5 stars It's about the results and how to improve farming productivity
Many of the reviewers who give this book a three star or below rating seem to be obsessed with how Paarlberg omits certain factors or accusing him of being paternalistic. Read more
Published on November 13, 2010 by D. Zhou
3.0 out of 5 stars Starved for Science or Hungry for the Truth?
Robert Paarlberg provides his panacea for global poverty and hunger in his latest book Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa. Read more
Published on December 11, 2009 by J. Newton
1.0 out of 5 stars Very narrow and pro-corporate view of science
The central premise of this book is that those who oppose the wholesale conversion of the world's vast agricultural biodiversity to a small handful of genetically modified... Read more
Published on June 2, 2009 by David Kennedy
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