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King of Hearts

The Stanford Paradox: An Oasis Of Scientific Achievement In A Desert Of Political Correctness

Stanford University offers a puzzling paradox. On one hand, hardly a month passes without news of a genuinely significant breakthrough in some field of science or technology. One week it might be the discovery that an unorthodox arrangement of wind turbines increases energy output; the next, the discovery of new healing and antibiotic compounds from scorpion venom.

But for someone like me who does not embrace progressivism, political correctness, or identity politics, the campus’ zeitgeist can be cloying, annoying, and hypocritical.

The day after the November 2016 general election, for example, Stanford’s president sent an email to all faculty, students, and employees, asserting that there was widespread shock, anger, and fear following the election of President Donald Trump. He promised that there would be “safe spaces” and counseling available at various places on campus. (We certainly wouldn’t want any of Stanford’s snowflakes to melt.)

A powerful article in Commentary by a 2018 Stanford graduate describes the grip on the campus of “intersectionality,” which defines how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect,” creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. What that translates to is “more diversity administrators, sexual-assault trainings, money for community centers, and calls for a diverse faculty.”  And relentless, ugly anti-Semitism.

The most recent example of Stanford’s fulminant political correctness overwhelming rationality and a commitment to science is the invitation to malevolent activist Vandana Shiva to present a prestigious lecture. In a 2014 article, “Seeds of Doubt,” in The New Yorker, investigative journalist Michael Specter called into question a number of Shiva’s claims regarding genetic engineering, as well as her ethics and judgment:

At times, Shiva’s absolutism about [genetic engineering] can lead her in strange directions. In 1999, 10,000 people were killed and millions were left homeless when a cyclone hit India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa. When the U.S. government dispatched grain and soy to help feed the desperate victims, Shiva held a news conference in New Delhi and said that the donation was proof that “the United States has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs” for genetically engineered products. She also wrote to the international relief agency Oxfam to say that she hoped it wasn’t planning to send genetically modified foods to feed the starving survivors. When neither the U.S. nor Oxfam altered its plans, she condemned the Indian government for accepting the provisions.

“Strange directions” is a euphemism. Shiva’s actions, further described here, are, arguably, crimes against humanity.

A sacred precept and focus of virtue signaling at Stanford is “sustainability.”  For example, housed in one of its oldest dormitories, Roble Hall, is an initiative called the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS), which includes “undergraduate seminars, a graduate-student speaker series, and activities intended to engage the dorm’s residents in curbing their natural-resource waste.”

So far, so good, but a central part of the initiative is an organic garden – which is not so good, because the students are being schooled in the myth that organic agricultural methods are sustainable and “woke.” That sophistry is by no means limited to one dorm; all eight of Stanford’s major dining halls maintain an organic “dedicated teaching garden.”

Although the organic movement touts the sustainability of its methods, its claims do not withstand scrutiny. For example, a study published in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season. But organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched with plant demand.

The study also found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. Especially with many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought and aquifer depletion – which was the subject of a 60 Minutes” segment – increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a mark of sustainability.

Moreover, although composting gets good PR as a “green” activity, at large scale it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases and is often a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops.

Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but it is hugely wasteful of arable land and water because of its low yields; organic farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified-organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop, state by state.

His findings are extraordinary. Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap” — poorer performance of organic farms — in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61% less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61% less; tangerines, 58% less; and so on.

Those findings are important. As Savage observed: “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states.”

The low yields of organic agriculture impose a variety of stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis that addressed whether organic farming reduces environmental impacts identified some of the stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”

Organic production disfavors the best approach to enhancing soil quality – namely, the minimization of soil disturbance (e.g. no plowing or tilling), combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems offer multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion, the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, and the release of carbon dioxide from tilling. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, often they rely on tillage (or even labor-intensive hand-weeding) for weed control.

One prevalent “green myth” about organic agriculture is that it does not employ pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. Dozens of synthetic chemicals are permitted in the growing and processing of organic crops under the USDA’s arbitrary rules.

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will turn out to be the systematic and absolute exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants – but only those that were modified with the most precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another – often as a result of seeds having been irradiated or via wide crosses, which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.

Therefore, the exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with superior molecular techniques makes no sense; over three decades, the newest, most precise techniques have yielded advances in agriculture, such as plants that are drought- or flood-resistant, that have been more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before.

And consider this irony: The co-discoverer in 1973 of recombinant DNA technology, the prototypic, iconic molecular technique for genetic engineering, was Stanford biochemist Dr. Stanley N. Cohen, who is still a professor of genetics and medicine at the university. I wonder how many of the woke folk involved in the ROLLSS program have even heard of him. (One person who has heard of him is Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who was previously chief scientific officer at Genentech, one of the world’s foremost biopharmaceutical companies. And yet, he perpetuates this organic, anti-science, reactionary nonsense on his campus, and apparently has nothing to say about the speaking invitation to Vandana Shiva.)

As genetic engineering’s successes continue to emerge, the gap between modern, high-tech agriculture and organic methods is becoming a chasm. Genetically engineered, drought-resistant and flood-resistant crops have begun to emerge from the development pipeline, and genetically engineered potato varieties already in the marketplace are bruise-resistant and contain 50% to 70% less asparagine, a chemical that is converted to acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures.

The advantage of lower levels of acrylamide is obvious, but the bruise resistance is important to sustainability: According to Simplot, the developer of the genetically engineered “Innate” varieties, “with full market penetration for its varieties sold in the U.S. … will reduce annual potato waste by an estimated 400 million pounds in the food service and retail industries and a significant portion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers.”

Genetically engineered potatoes that are resistant to bruising and to the late blight fungus represent major advances in sustainability, because every serving of french fries or mashed potatoes made from them represents less farmland used and less water consumed. But none of these can be used by organic farmers, including the Stanford student-gardeners.

How could one of the world’s preeminent research universities, which regularly produces breakthroughs across virtually the entire spectrum of science and technology, embrace and endorse anachronistic, destructive practices worthy of the 19th century? The answer was provided by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen in an article entitled “The Organic Fable,” which offered some pithy observations about the popularity of organic food, including this one:

“Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper-middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.” 

I suggest a new tradition at Stanford: Ditch organic agriculture, begin taking advantage of modern technologies, and commemorate that commitment each year with an event called “Two Carrot Day.”

Sustainable farming is favored by maximizing and capitalizing on the ability of human ingenuity to invent processes and products that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment. In other words, exactly the kinds of things that come from universities’ chemistry, plant science, and molecular biology labs. But organic farmers, including Stanford’s, can forget about using them.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. For 24 years, he was the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was also a consulting professor at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford, and the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

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1 comment

  • As of today with the advent of Pamela Karlan from Stanford Law School, the school’s brand is now dragged deeper into the mud.

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