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May 20, 2009

Dr. Shah and the Quest for the Magic Seed
I ran across this bit of puffery about the USDA's new chief scientist, Raj Shah, the former director of agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, who starts work June 2. Being puffery, it doesn't provide all that much insight into the kinds of science Shah will pursue at the USDA. But what little is there, isn't promising. On the one hand, he believes that science must show demonstrable results and that "sustainable development and preservation of the environment" are crucial elements in his worldview. But when asked to explain "what science can contribute to sustainability," he pointed to the Gates Foundation's work "to develop stress-tolerant strains of rice that can survive in drought conditions and saline soils."

Sigh. Again with the Magic Seed. It'd be one thing if this was stuff that actually existed. But no. The Gates Foundation web site expects to have it by 2018 while the group actually creating this Franken-rice, the International Rice Research Institute, declares it to be project destined to take "a decade or more." How's THAT for results?

It would be nice if Dr. Shah's message was instead something like "I don't care about promises. I want to figure out what works right now." If he was that kind of scientist, you might soon see the USDA paying more attention to places like the Rodale Institute (or the UN, for that matter), with its 20-year-long yield studies that have organic techniques beating conventional GMO-based agriculture. I am mystified as to why perfectly good science can be so easily dismissed. I suppose the siren song of the Magic Seed is too powerful for most scientists -- once you've been promised the moon, it's apparently hard to accept anything else.

Photo courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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