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A Conversation With Nina Fedoroff

Nina V. Fedoroff, Ph.D., Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID
Interview With Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times
Washington, DC
August 18, 2008

QUESTION: When you gave a recent speech at Columbia University advocating genetically modified foods, someone sitting near me said, “Oh great, our State Department is pushing G.M. food. She’s the Ambassador from Monsanto.” What’s your response?

DR. FEDOROFF: How do I answer him? My answer is: There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.

Things change because our planet is subjected to a lot of radiation, which causes DNA damage, which gets repaired, but results in mutations, which create a ready mixture of plants that people can choose from to improve agriculture.

In the last century, as we learned more about genes, we were able to devise ways of accelerating evolution.

So a lot of modern plant strains were created by applying chemicals or radiation to cause mutations that improved the crop. That’s how plant breeding was done in the 20th century. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.

QUESTION: Why do you think there is such fierce opposition to genetically modified foods?

DR. FEDOROFF: This is an unintended consequence of our success. We’ve gotten so good at growing food that we’ve gone, in a few generations, from nearly half of Americans living on farms to 2 percent. We no longer think about how the wonderful things in the grocery store got there, and we’d like to go back to what we think is a more natural way.

But I’m afraid we can’t, in part, because there are just too many of us in this world. If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the earth’s current population — maybe half.

QUESTION: You believe that environmentalists should be embracing genetically modified foods. What’s your argument?

DR. FEDOROFF:  If we put more land under cultivation to feed the world’s growing population, we’re going to pull down the remaining forests.

And if that happens, it will contribute tremendously to desertification. The more we can grow on already cultivated land, the better. Europe, North America, Australia, Japan — we’ve been extremely successful in applying science to agriculture and we can afford to say, “Let’s go natural.” But there’s collateral damage.

When I went to Rwanda, you saw farmers with holdings of less than an acre.

If their population doubles again, we’re looking at more strife. Arguably, Darfur isn’t about politics, it’s about water. Many of the conflicts in the poorest countries are about too many people chasing too few resources. Do we have time to transition something that looks like Rwanda to a more efficient agriculture and to do it wisely enough to absorb the people?

QUESTION: Why does the Secretary of State need a Science Adviser?

DR. FEDOROFF: Because science and technology are the drivers of the 21st century’s most successful economies.

There are more than six billion of us, and the problems of a crowded planet are everyone’s: food, water, energy, climate change, environmental degradation. Other nations, even those that have lost respect for our culture and politics, still welcome collaboration on scientific and technological issues.

QUESTION: Representative George E. Brown Jr., once the head of the House Science Committee, worried that because Science and Technology Agreements with other countries were not financed, the United States was hurting itself with empty gestures. Was he right?

DR. FEDOROFF: That’s a great question and a very current one. Yes, the State Department opens doors by negotiating government-to-government S&T agreements. It also takes the first step in fleshing out such agreements by bringing scientists, ministers and agency representatives together to explore mutual interests. But actually supporting collaborative research on problems of mutual interest, that’s just beginning to be recognized as important.

George Brown was right — without the resources to support collaborations, it’s much less than it could be. There are members of Congress who are keenly interested in science diplomacy.

But Congress will have to make a bigger investment for science diplomacy to flourish.

QUESTION: Can you name a situation where science diplomacy changed history?

DR. FEDOROFF: History isn’t like a science experiment. You can’t go back and rerun it “without science diplomacy” to see what happens.

Nonetheless, some historians credit ongoing relationships between Soviet and American scientists, particularly physicists, with preventing a flash-over of the cold war.

Today scientific interactions exist between the U.S. and certain countries with which we have no formal diplomatic relations. We’re promoting scientific interactions to address water and health issues among the countries of the Middle East. Our recent interactions with Libya had science and technology as a centerpiece, ranging from a major international astronomical event around a solar eclipse, to addressing issues of health, water desalinization and agriculture.

Another example of science diplomacy is a small group, the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization. A project they’re doing that I’m enthusiastic about involves genetic assessments. There are some diseases unique to the region that may have a genetic basis. The question is: Which genes and how do you identify them? With that group, I see how science is a real force for bringing people together.

QUESTION: Why can science create cooperation in places where everything else fails?

DR. FEDOROFF: Because science is more collaborative than other types of endeavors. It aspires to more democratic principles than many political systems because we have an external reference.

People can have different theories, but we form an experiment to test it. It’s the evidence that matters. So in science, we can have differences of opinion, but we can’t have two sets of facts.

There is an in-built process that says, “You and I may have different religions, different politics, but we can talk about science across chasms.”

Released on August 18, 2008

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