Five Questions for R. Paul Thompson, Author of Agro-Technology


Corn, soybean, tomatoes—they form the backbone of the modern diet today, particularly in the West, but their unprecedented abundance would not have been possible without genetic modification. Increasingly, however, agro-technology has come under fire: the rise of the slow food, organic, and locavore movements illustrate that a growing number of individuals perceive such technological advancements as a threat not only to the environment, but also to their health.

So which solution is the most sustainable? Or what does sustainable even mean? We talk to R. Paul Thompson, author of Agro-Technology: A Philosophical Introduction (October 11th), for some clarification on this contentious debate.


  1. Why do you take a philosophical approach to agro-technology?’

Philosophical analysis is exciting, intellectually powerful and helpful.  Most controversies benefit from philosophical analysis: analysis which ferrets out the assumptions being made, identifies and examines the clarity and consistency of terms (concepts), examines the logic of arguments offered, identifies points of interpretation, uncovers hidden values, and the like. Moreover, some topics in this controversy are philosophical. Identifying which ethical theory, for example, is being used to support claims that creating novel life-forms is morally wrong.  Can this moral claim be supported by that theory? Also, evidence plays a central role in the claims made by the various factions in the controversy. There is a rich philosophical literature on how to assess evidence and what larger claims specific evidence supports. So, in these ways and others, philosophy is intrinsically connected to many of the topics debated in Agro-Technology.

When related to a science, philosophy of science is the branch of philosophy that encompasses the issues and analyses. This is a robust branch of philosophy and most who work in it have a background in the science on which they work. I, for example, hold an appointment in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and teach biology courses as well as philosophy of science courses; this ensures a close relationship between the science and the philosophical examination of it. Consequently, it was quite natural for me to philosophically examine the GM food controversy.

  1. In your book, you discuss the many advantages of agro-technology: from being more resistant to pests and diseases, to requiring less water and nutrients such as nitrogen. Yet why is it still largely misunderstood?

Opponents have found catchy slogans (Frankenfoods) and cliché’s (respecting the sacred).  Specific explanations will vary from person to person but, in addition to faith-based objections, there are three prominent ones. First, advances in science-based technology have always had benefits and costs.  Sometimes the costs have been high and, imprudently, societies sometimes have been slow to act in mitigating them.  The possible costs, especially unpredictable ones, of new technologies frighten people and swamp their sense of the benefits.  GM crops have been grown and used in a vast array of foods since 1995 (over 15 years); claimed dire risks have not materialized and no unpredicted costs have emerged.  Most of this is not widely known.

Second, molecular genetic modification, like the discovery of nuclear fission, opens up the potential for other technologies that are destructive and ethical problematic, as is the case with nuclear weapons.  Complacency about this is obviously courting disaster but letting it blind us to needed benefits of appropriate technologies is equally imprudent.

Third, to paraphrase Freud, Copernicus/Galileo showed the earth is a speck in a vast cosmos and not at the centre of it, Darwin showed that we were not specially created but descended from animals, and Freud showed that much goes on in our unconscious, which means we do not even control many of our own actions and emotions.  Science, in each case, challenged our sense of self and our place in the universe; in each case, controversy and outright rejection was rampant.  GM crops are yet another blow from science; we have become the creator of novel life-forms.

  1. What’s your take on the rising popularity of local food movements?

In summer I buy produce from our local Farmer’s Market and several local farm-gates, but my reasons for doing so are mostly aesthetic: the ambiance of a Farmer’s Market, sense of community, establishing relationships with farmers and the like.  Beyond aesthetics, four things are frequently cited: local food is fresher, tastier, healthier and more environmentally friendly.  Taste actually depends more on the variety than the location in which it is grown.  Freshness, if it means something like more nutritious, depends a lot on the specific food, and on picking and storage.  Flash-frozen peas consumed 2 months later will be superior to peas that have sat in the sun on a market table and are consumed several days later. Whatever our intuitions, health benefits have been extremely difficult to prove.

On the environment, many studies (such as: Centre for Environmental Strategy (UK), AERU, Lincoln University (NZ) and Mercatus Center, George Mason University (US)) have called into question a naïve assumption that locally grown food is less environmentally degrading.  The Mercatus Center study concludes, “The evidence presented suggests that food miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption and the environmental impact of modern food production and the affordability of food.” I suspect that local food movements have a lot to do with people’s suspicion of large global agribusiness and a sense they can and should shun them by buying locally; it doesn’t seem to have much to do with evidence.

  1. You have an unique professional background that bridges both the humanities and the sciences. What led you to study food in all its facets?

In the popular lingo, I am a foodie.  I love cooking: sourcing ingredients, preparing them for the table, eating them and understanding the science involved.  I have a large vegetable garden but regrettably live in an area with only a four-month growing season.  As a result of my love of food in all its facets, I care about the protection of farmland and was President (volunteer) for 15 years of a not-for-profit registered charity dedicated to the protection of agricultural land.  My interest in the science of food was kindled by reading Harold McGee’s 1984 On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Tina Seelig’s 1991 The Epicurean Laboratory: Exploring the Science of Cooking was the next great find. Reay Tannahill’s 1973 Food in History sparked my initial interest in historical aspects; Sophie Coe’s 1994 America’s First Cuisine opened up the marvels of agriculture in the pre-Columbus Americas.  It was as an undergraduate studying biology and mathematics that I fell in love with philosophy: the exploration and analysis of ideas, the nature of reasoning, the complicated world of beliefs and values, and so on.

In the last twenty years, I have become fascinated with the social and political dynamic – especially in rich nations – in which beliefs seldom rest on available evidence and frequently run completely contrary to it.  These different interests of mine converge on the issue of food quality, security, availability and safety as well as on food science and agriculture; getting this right is critical for the planet and the well being of our own and future generations.

  1. With news about the famine in the Horn of Africa and the rising cost of basic food products, what do you envision for the future of food production? Is it possible to meet the pressing global demand for more food products without relinquishing the aesthetic, health, and environmental benefits of locally grown produce?

As common wisdom has noted, putting all one’s eggs in one basket is precarious.  The Irish potato famine of 1845-49 should be a stark reminder of this with respect to food, notwithstanding the social and political exacerbations of that famine.  And, as philosopher George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Regrettably few people know how fragile the supply and safety of food was in Europe and English-speaking countries before the twentieth-century – before modern agricultural science and technology and the rise of interconnected global agricultural markets.  Meeting future requirements for food – and safe drinking water, for that matter – will require being pluralists, with diverse approaches to food production, storage, processing and transport.  Locally produced food will be a part of that diversified approach but it alone will not be able to meet present or future demand.  Unless one lives in places like the prairies of Canada and the United States, or the Ukraine, wheat will never be locally produced in the quantities needed, and geographical constraints are true of many important foods.  Climate (temperature, sun-days and rainfall in particular), soil composition and economies of scale will determine, for the most part, how much consumption of locally produced food is possible in each region, for how much of the year and which foods.  So, one will be able to eat locally to some extent, the extent depending on the region but diversification and global agricultural markets will become more rather than less, important as demand for foods – even basic foods – increases.

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