World View From a Sweet Potato

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I’m a fan of Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times op ed columnist. I like his insights into human rights issues. He writes with the authority of one who has lived in the field and he does so with courage, caution, a straight-forward style and usually with a sense of urgency.

Kristof has been called “the moral conscience of our generation of journalists.” Bill Clinton said in 2009, “There is no one in journalism, anywhere in the United States at least, who has done anything like the work he has done to figure out how poor people are actually living around the world, and what their potential is….So every American citizen who cares about this should be profoundly grateful that someone in our press establishment cares enough about this to haul himself all around the world to figure out what’s going on…”

Somehow I missed his Thanksgiving column last year. I came across it two weeks ago while doing some research on, of all things, the sweet potato. Kristof begins by promising “a happy column about hunger” and concludes with a solution to starvation in Africa based on the sweet potato. It is the middle of Bless the Orange Sweet Potato that nearly made me choke on my organic coffee.

Although Kristof says that “there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical,” his solution is biofortification, including genetic engineering that will create such products as “golden rice” using genetic material from daffodils and corn. Kristof’s skepticism seems to come more from his impatience with the resistance he’s seen in Europe to “scientific tinkering with crops” than concerns about the possible catastrophic results from the “new seeds.”

I don’t really know the biology behind any of this well enough to counter the urgency in Kristof’s writing. He offers a bright picture in a bleak world if he and Monsanto are correct. He says, “These new seeds may finally help end the scourge of starvation in this century, on our watch.” Others feel that this same urgency may lead to irrevocable genetic damage, also done on our watch.

As I plant my sweet potato slips this spring I’ll have a vivid reminder of this issue. Do I blindly continue hostility towards genetic engineering only to “make it harder to save children from blindness and death?” It’s difficult to argue with Kristof’s heart. I just hope science doesn’t betray him and all of us. -Bill

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