Comments - My 2013 Pledge

I love plants. So should you. Plants are the intersection between life and the universe. All* the energy that enters the living world does so via photosynthesis, the mechanism by which plants use the energy from sunlight and electrons from water to produce sugars. Humans, and approximately the entire rest of the living world, depend on those sugars. We depend on plants, but they don’t need us at all.

Just to hammer this home a bit more: human food is plants. Grass seeds such as maize, rice and wheat are the staple foods of almost our entire species. Roots such as potatoes, cassava and yams are the staple food for the remainder. The meat we eat is itself grown by feeding plants to animals. Our fibres, building materials and medicines are derived from plants. Plants produce the oxygen we breathe and cycle the carbon dioxide we emit by burning fossil fuels, which are themselves decomposed plants. The rapidly growing human population depends on our understanding of plants in the most fundamental way possible. No other aspect of science is so crucial to providing for our basic needs, but this fact is completely overlooked by science education. Physics, medicine and modern technology are luxuries for a well-fed society, and a large portion of the world is not well-fed.

Recent events, in particular the rise to prominence of the debate about the safety, regulation and labelling of ‘GMOs’, have prompted me to reevaluate the way I think about plant science and society. It has become evident to me that it matters deeply whether the general public understands how plants work, how we work with them, and what the implications are. It’s not enough for people to be intelligent and reason from first principles - the intricate details of biology can completely overturn intuitive reasoning. You have to understand plant biology to take part in the debate.

The internet and traditional media are minefields of misinformation on this. It’s easy to find websites making stark claims in completely opposite directions, factions taking sides based on their emotional preferences or social groups, and then staunchly defending them either without regard to fact, or by cherry picking their sources (usually unconsciously). It scares me. There is only one right answer, and we need to make sure enough people reach it that we can manage to feed the world. Billions of lives depend on that.

I want to examine my own biases, try to overcome them, and then start trying to chart a way through the minefield. I want to start from scratch, providing all the sources and doing everything humanly possible to avoid taking sides except where the evidence is very clear. So this year, I’m pledging to write at least weekly about plant science, starting from February. I’ll write about the fundamentals, the small stuff that is the basis of everything, but also about how it all ties together and what it tells us about the issues we all need to care about. That will sometimes mean extending my research and reasoning beyond plant science to politics, intellectual property law, history and sociology.

If you care about this stuff, I very much welcome your input. I want this to be a discussion, not a series of lectures. Whether you’re a scientist, an activist, or just someone who cares about their food, please take part in the discussion.

Richard Smith

* By all, I mean approximately 100%. There’s also a relatively miniscule bit of geothermal stuff going in in deep sea vents.