Robert Paarlberg

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Robert Paarlberg is an American academic and author who lobbies for GM crops and foods.

Hyping GM for Africa

Paarlberg's book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press, March 2008), claims that poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly GM seeds, which he says offer improved resistance to insects and drought. He claims that Northern NGOs are responsible for depriving Africa of GM crops out of ideological resistance to the technology.[1]

This is in spite of the fact that as of 2009, GM companies have patented plant genes involved in tolerance to drought, heat, flooding, and salinity — but have not produced a single new crop with these properties. This is because these functions are highly complex and involve many different genes working together in a precise way. It is beyond existing GM technology to engineer crops with these sophisticated gene networks for improved tolerance traits.

Conventional natural cross-breeding, which works holistically, is much better adapted to achieving this aim, using the many varieties of virtually every common crop that tolerate drought, heat, flooding, and salinity. This conclusion is backed by the IAASTD report on the future of agriculture (April 2008)[2] and many individual studies across the world[3].

An article for Voice of America, "US Academic makes Fiery Argument for Africa to Embrace Biotechnology", punts Paarlberg's book, Starved for Science.[4] In the article, Paarlberg is cited as blaming activists in rich countries for inadvertently denying "improved agricultural techniques" (read: GM) to millions of poor farmers in Africa. Paarlberg says there’s no “scientific evidence” of health risks posed by GMOs – ignoring the large body of evidence that has accumulated showing such risks.[5] As a result of what he calls a “misinformed” anti-GM movement, he says crops that could eventually allow Africa to feed itself are being kept out of the continent.[6]

Paarlberg does acknowledge that

foods derived from genetically engineered seeds don't look any better or taste any better or store any longer or prepare any better; they're not any more nutritious and they're not noticeably cheaper.

But he

repeatedly emphasizes that the chief benefit of GM technology for Africa is the production of more food.[7]

The problem with this is that there isn't any convincing evidence that GM crops do, in general, produce more food, let alone that they would in the particular circumstances of Africa. As the 2500-page IAASTD report, based on peer reviewed publications, noted, yield gains in GM crops are "highly variable" and in some cases, "yields declined". That's why the report concluded GM was not essential to meeting the problems of food security.[8]

Paarlberg also calls on policy makers to stop imposing visions of "organic food purity" on Africa - "a continent that has never had a green revolution".[9] But Africa did have an attempted green revolution - and it failed.[10]

Meanwhile, as the IAASTD report notes, innovative IPM (integrated pest management)/agroecological approaches have proven highly successful in Africa. The IAASTD report says that they can deliver effective crop protection and pesticide reduction and yield advantages. In fact, their yield advantages have been particularly strong in the developing world, increasing productivity for poor farmers while enhancing sustainability. The IAASTD report also says that the community-wide economic, social, health and environmental benefits of these approaches have been widely documented.[11]

After the publication of one study looking at a large number of projects in the developing world, New Scientist commented:

Low-tech 'sustainable agriculture', shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more... The findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century... A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and work... It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution.[12]

Paarlberg, however, is unwilling to acknowledge this science-based revolution, preferring instead to promote GM's unproven silver bullets. And the Voice of America fails to mention that Paarlberg is "a member of the Biotechnology Advisory Council to the CEO of the Monsanto Company."[13]

Review in Nature journal of Starved for Science

In August 2009 the journal Nature published a measured review by two development specialists of Robert Parlberg's polemic Starved for Science, a book which essentially claims Northern NGOs are starving Africans of life-saving GM crops.

The reviewers, Ian Scoones and Dominic Glover, comment:

In its narrow focus, Starved for Science dismisses a slew of scientifically validated approaches to agriculture, including integrated pest and soil-fertility management, 'low-input' techniques that reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and even other forms of biotechnology. Yet such methods have performed well in African contexts.[14]

Paarlberg's sin is over-confidence in the new – reviewer

In a review of Paarlberg's book Starved for Science for nonprofit news agency, the South African Civil Society Information Service, Saliem Fakir writes:

This is Robert Paarlberg’s sin: The absolute confidence, the over-enthusiasm that alternatives or older agricultural sciences must give way to the power of the new. Paarlberg traps himself in a strange and circular logic... He says others shouldn't speak on behalf of Africans but he nominates himself as a spokesperson for the technology-fix saviours.[15]

Gates Foundation

According to his Wellesley College profile, Paarlberg has "recently completed major studies of regional policy harmonization toward biotechnology in eastern and southern Africa, for the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) on the politics of accepting biofortified food crops in developing countries, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation."[16]

Paarlberg's role as Monsanto CEO's Advisor would seem to tie in very neatly with the 2009 $5.4 million award[17][18] by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the heavily Monsanto-funded Danforth Center[19]. An article in the St Louis-Post Dispatch, Monsanto's home-town newspaper, baldly says that the Gates money will go towards getting round Africa's GM regulations: "The $5.4 million will go to developing the crops in the field, to safety assessments and overcoming regulatory hurdles" to the adoption of GM biofortified food crops in Africa.[20]

It should not be forgotten, of course, that Rob Horsch, a senior Monsanto executive, is now part of the Gates Foundation, as is Lawrence Kent of the Monsanto-funded Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Both Horsch and Kent are working for Gates on the funding of projects aimed at the developing world.[21]

The Danforth Center's president, Roger Beachy, said of their appointment that it "won't hurt to have two people familiar with St. Louis researchers holding the strings to the Gates Foundation's large purse".[22]

Biographical information

Robert Paarlberg is the Betty F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and a Visiting Professor of Government at Harvard University. He received his B.A. in government from Carleton College in Minnesota and his Ph.D. at Harvard. He has served as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate, and as an officer in the U.S. Naval Intelligence Command. Paarlberg's principal research interests are international agricultural and environmental policy.

Paarlberg is a member of the Emerging Markets Advisory Committee at the United States Department of Agriculture, and has been a consultant to USAID, the World Bank and the National Intelligence Council (NIC) - the centre for midterm and long-term strategic thinking within the United States Intelligence Community.[23]


Donald Danforth Plant Science Center | Monsanto | National Intelligence Council | USAID | World Bank


Website: Robert Paarlberg

External resources

More on the Danforth Center

How the Danforth Center is heavily financially dependent on Monsanto

Bill Freese, "Biotech snake oil: a quack cure for hunger", Multinational Monitor, Vol. 29, No. 2, Sept-Oct 2008

Doug Gurian-Sherman, "Genetic engineering – a crop of hyperbole", San Diego Union Tribune, 18 June 2008

Daniel Howden, "Organic farming 'could feed Africa' – report", The Independent, 22 October 2008

Lim Li Ching, "Is ecological agriculture productive?", Third World Network, November 2008


  1. "Robert Paarlberg", Wellesley College website, accessed January 2009
  2. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Summary for Decision Makers (IAASTD); Beintema, N. et al., 2008.
  3. Applying Agroecology to Enhance the Productivity of Peasant Farming Systems in Latin America. Altieri M.A. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1: 197-217, 1999; More Productivity with Fewer External Inputs: Central American Case Studies of Agroecological Development and their Broader Implications. Bunch R. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1: 219-233, 1999; Can Sustainable Agriculture Feed Africa? New Evidence on Progress, Processes and Impacts. Pretty J. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1: 253-274, 1999; Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Environment Programme, 2008; Ecologising rice-based systems in Bangladesh. Barzman M. & Das L. ILEIA Newsletter, 2: 16-17, 2000; Genetic diversity and disease control in rice. Zhu Y et al. Nature, 406: 718-722, 2000.
  4. Darren Taylor, "US Academic makes Fiery Argument for Africa to Embrace Biotechnology", Voice of America, 15 January 2009, accessed January 2009.
  5. Some such studies are referenced at "Genetically modified (GM) foods - renewed threat to Europe" banGMfood website, accessed January 2009.
  6. Darren Taylor, "US Academic makes Fiery Argument for Africa to Embrace Biotechnology", Voice of America, 15 January 2009, accessed January 2009.
  7. Darren Taylor, "US Academic makes Fiery Argument for Africa to Embrace Biotechnology", Voice of America, 15 January 2009, accessed January 2009.
  8. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Summary for Decision Makers (IAASTD); Beintema, N. et al., 2008.
  9. Darren Taylor, "US Academic makes Fiery Argument for Africa to Embrace Biotechnology", Voice of America, 15 January 2009, accessed January 2009.
  10. Joy Asiema, "Africa's Green Revolution", Biotech Monitor, No. 19, June 1994, accessed January 2009
  11. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Summary for Decision Makers (IAASTD); Beintema, N. et al., 2008.
  12. Editorial, "The greener revolution", New Scientist, 3 February 2001, accessed January 2009.
  13. Interestingly, this factoid has disappeared from the most recent incarnation of the Wellesley College website, accessed January 2009. But it can be seen in an archived version, updated 6 December 2006.
  14. Ian Scoones and Dominic Glover, Africa's biotechnology battle, Nature 460, 797-798 (13 August 2009) doi:10.1038/460797a; Published online 12 August 2009
  15. Saliem Fakir, Does Africa Really Need Biotechnology for Agricultural Development?, SACSIS (South Africa), 5 October 2009, accessed 10 October 2009
  16. "Robert Paarlberg", Wellesley College website, accessed January 2009
  17. Eric Hand, "Gates Foundation taps a second St. Louisan", St Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 January 2007
  18. Evan Binns, "Danforth Center teams with Gates", St Louis Business Journal, 19 December 2008
  19. "Partners", Donald Danforth Plant Science Center website, accessed January 2009.
  20. Georgina Gustin, "Gates grant will help Danforth Center fight hunger", St Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 January 2009, accessed January 2009.
  21. Rachel Melcer, "Scientist to humanitarian", St Louis Post-Dispatch, 26 November 2006, accessed January 2009.
  22. Eric Hand, "Gates Foundation taps a second St. Louisan", St Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 January 2007, accessed January 2009.
  23. "Robert Paarlberg", Wellesley College website, accessed January 2009