"No genetic engineering means people die"

Prof. David Zilberman  photo: Eyal Izhar
Prof. David Zilberman photo: Eyal Izhar

Prof. David Zilberman insists that agricultural policy must see the whole picture - he even talks to farmers.

"One day, when my son brought his new date to our home, I heard him tell her, 'I made a salad for you. It's organic!,'" relates Prof. David Zilberman, holder of the Robinson Chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. "He knows that organic fruits and vegetables don't mean much as long as they are washed, and  sometimes they are less healthy than regular fruits and vegetables. But I understood that what he meant was, 'See how cultured I am, how clean I am, how healthy I am, how rich I am.'"

Zilberman is not enthusiastic about the organic food trend, as you have presumably realized. "If someone in the West wants to pay six times more for each leaf, there's nothing wrong with that," he says. "Organic food is like riding on horseback. It's not more efficient, it doesn't really pollute less, but it's fun. The problem starts when people try to force this attitude on the rest of the world.

"Europeans go to Africa or poor countries in Asia and say, 'Don't use pesticides' or 'Don't use genetic engineering on fruits and vegetables,' 'Don't make the same mistakes we made.' But isn't it because of those 'mistakes' that our life expectancy has become so much longer that the pension funds are collapsing? Without pesticides and genetic engineering, the environmental damage would be enormous. Who will suffer as a result? Not the people living in the city and eating organic food; it will be the people who will have no fruits and vegetables at all. What about people who have no money? In Africa, Albania, the Hatikvah neighborhood in Tel Aviv, in the Gaza Strip? You call what they eat 'junk food;' for them, it's food."

"People go blind because of a fine agenda"

Zilberman is not an unquestioning advocate of pesticides and genetic engineering, but he wants us to stick to the facts and balance different needs. "The challenge is to understand the whole system. Regulation can do this, sometimes more successfully than people think," he says.

He cites the example of golden rice in Bangladesh. "500,000 people around the world go blind every year because of a lack of Vitamin A. Golden rice, which has been genetically engineered to contain a larger concentration of this vitamin, can prevent this, because rice is a basic nutritional item in the nations with people at risk," Zilberman argues. "The opponents of genetic engineering also opposed golden rice, because they thought that it was a slippery slope that would lead to more genetically engineered crops, a takeover of rice crops by giant companies, and a reduction in the diversity of rice strains in the world. Meanwhile, however, people are going blind because of this opposition. As a result of an article of mine, which analyzed the risks and benefits of approving golden rice, 100 Nobel Prize winners signed a letter supporting this crop. That happened in 2017, and in 2018, several countries finally approved golden rice."

Golden rice was developed by the Philippine Rice Research Institute and distributed free, at the same time as it was marketed by the big companies. Monsanto announced that it would give it for free for repeat use as seeds to any farmer earning less than $10,000 a year from it.

"People say, 'Genetic engineering belongs to the giant companies,' but genetic engineering belongs to humanity, not to them. There is genetic engineering at the universities, or as general knowledge. A Bangladesh research institute, in cooperation with a US university and the UN, recently developed a new pest-resistant eggplant for Bangladesh. This product doesn't belong to big companies at all.

"The anti-genetic engineering agenda sounds fine, but if you apply a logical economic agriculture model to it, the result is always that people die. Many more people die than when the alternatives are applied. How can you grow food organically in a humid place with mosquitos the size of a Boeing airplane? I don't know what kind of person thinks that he can decide that tens of millions of people in Africa have no right to exist. A rich person with a full belly can say, 'I prefer not to take a chance.' Someone who is starving has to take risks.

"Africans aren't stupid, but when Europeans tell them not to use genetically engineered food or pesticides because we're sorry we used them, it does worry them. What was the big miracle in Israel? That every time our so-called patrons told us, 'Don't do this,' or 'Don't do that,' we did it anyway. The Chinese too didn't listen to the Europeans. The Africans won't necessarily listen, either."

"They turned science into politics"

When Zilberman began researching pesticides, he adopted a multidisciplinary approach. "Economists said that pesticides could be used any way people want in order to increase output, until you reach a critical level at which the material is no longer healthy. Sustainability people, on the other hand, wanted to eliminate pesticides completely. I learned a new model from insect researchers, based on insect biology. We saw that certain insecticide regimes encouraged resistance of the insect to them less. On the other hand, if you kill off one pest completely, another pest is liable to come along. If you don't put biology into the model, you lack understanding, and when you build the economic models without understanding, poor people almost always wind up with the short end of the stick."

The same applies to climate change. "Although average global warming on Earth won't be so great, in certain regions, especially those that are already hot and dry, warming will be very significant, and food can't be grown there as a result. In regions that are cold now, on the other hand, it will be possible to grow much more food as a result of the change.

"We therefore believe that the big problem caused by the change will not be a general worldwide shortage of food; it will be migration. The food that can't be grown in excessively hot regions can be grown elsewhere; that's not so terrible. But will people living in places where agriculture becomes difficult be able to move as they wish to a place with a more comfortable climate? Will the US open its gates to the Mexicans? Will the Europeans embrace the Africans? Will the Russians welcome the Chinese?" Zilberman says, "The solution lies in the development of technology that will enable farmers in the hot and dry countries to continue growing enough food, despite the change."

According to Zilberman, genetic engineering of rice, for example, can make it possible to grow enough rice to serve as environmentally friendly biological fuel without food prices rising. Use of genetic engineering can help cope with global warming without burdening farmers or hungry people.

"Today, there's a split. If you're a Republican, you're in favor of genetic engineering and skeptical about climate change. If you're a Democrat, you believe in climate change and should oppose genetic engineering. They've turned science into politics, and that's the worst thing. It eventually kills people, but not the politicians' children."

"Berkeley saved my life"

Zilberman, whose papers and op-ed articles won over Nobel Prize winners, is a former Israeli who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley in the agriculture and resource economics department. Over the years, his unique perspective and multidisciplinary knowledge of dilemmas in economics, agriculture, and sustainability have earned him great credibility among policy-makers. He managed to balance economic needs against agricultural and environmental needs, and his research is very influential. A month ago, he was awarded the Wolf Prize in Israel, one of the strongest predictors of a Nobel Prize.

"I was born in Jerusalem and studied at Hebrew University High School," he says. "As a result of serving in the Nahal (Fighting Pioneer Youth) Brigade, I went to Kibbutz Kfar HaHoresh, where I engaged in farming, of course, because the kibbutz is essentially a very diverse and modern agricultural unit. I worked in the chicken sheds and irrigation and harvested apples. This experience taught me that I didn't want to be a farmer. I realized that I was a city boy."

"Globes": What did you prefer in the city?

Zilberman: "I like the anonymity, meeting new people. The kibbutz is a very nice place to live when you're married with a few kids."

Zilberman served as a combat soldier in the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War, and wanted to study after being demobilized. "My family wasn't so rich, so I started working as a sales agent, and then at Koor Computers. That was actually my breakthrough, because they made me responsible for salaries. From a shy child, I became a manager responsible for thousands of salaries, but I saw that this wasn't life. As a kid, you earn money and go to all sorts of restaurants and impress girls, but it's a lot of work and isn't very interesting. I had two cousins who did PhDs in the US, and it seemed more attractive to me."

While he was working, Zilberman studies economics and statistics at Tel Aviv University. "I was always late, I always slept during lessons, and I nevertheless left a good impression," he says. He was accepted to a doctoral program at several leading universities. "I had to choose. It was cold at Cornell, and there were gangsters in Chicago. The weather in Berkeley was good, and Prof. Eithan Hochman, my advisor in Israel, was there.

"I just missed the Yom Kippur War. My entire unit went to the Suez Canal. I offered to join, but I wasn't an outstanding soldier, and I didn't feel that they would miss me. Berkeley saved my life."

"There are economists who don’t know the difference between a chicken and a cow"

Zilberman says that he took up agricultural economics because Berkeley was a leader in it. "My first project, which I worked on in order to get my doctoral scholarship, dealt in animal waste, in other words, cow shit. I researched what was more effective in preventing pollution: taxing every additional cow or an inflexible limit on the number of cows per land unit.

"We discovered that the tax was more effective in preventing pollution than reducing the number of cows, but the inflexible limit had less of a negative impact on output. We suddenly understood why policy-makers sometimes choose an inflexible limit instead of a tax: they are balancing different interests."

Following this research, he published his first paper, "which appeared in an excellent periodical, and was a pretty good achievement for a kid newly arrived from Israel who barely spoke English," he says.

In 1979, after several more such successes, he got a job at Berkley in agricultural policy. "I didn't know anything about this field at the time, but the truth is that no one knew very much about it. The problem with economists is that they don't smoke, don't drink, and don't do drugs, so they don't die; they just become obsolete. That's why economics is often out of touch with new trends."

Zilberman decided that he would not be like the healthy and out-of-date economists. "I traveled all around California talking to farmers, and that was the best thing I ever did. There are agricultural economists who don't know the difference between a chicken and a cow. Some of the people in this field in the US come from agricultural towns in the Midwest, but they're sometimes the teacher's son or the preacher's son. A second category is the saints - the ones who want to save the developing countries and those who want to save the Earth, and the two don't always exactly correspond. A third group consists of commodity investors." Zilberman says that they all could benefit from more regular and systematic exposure to people working in agriculture.

"When there's no drought, you don't learn anything"

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Zilberman asked farmers about adoption of technologies. "The sociologists dominated the field of innovation adoption at the time, and their theory was that adoption takes place by imitation. They built statistical models for the rate of spread by imitation. I thought that people weren't monkeys. They can learn by imitation, but only after they choose to do so.

"I built a model that took into account a clutch of decisions by individuals, that change with time. For example, it is possible that their attitude towards technology will change if the price falls, or if the product is already well-known and the risk drops. Furthermore, there are different levels of adoption. Small farmers are more sensitive to risk, so they adopt technologies slowly, but when they do adopt them, their use of technology is sometimes more extensive and intensive, because it's more important for them to make back the investment.

"At that time, small farmers complained that they didn't have enough finance  for investment. Economists didn't accept this, because perfect market theory prevailed at the time, according to which every venture with a positive return will necessarily find the capital for investment. We detected market failure in this case, and one of the most important things that the government did was to provide financing that enabled small farmers to expand."

Zilberman then became a well-known name in agricultural economics, and was enlisted in a promising Israeli project - drip irrigation systems. According to Israeli agricultural folk tales, it sometimes seems that a hungry and dry world was just waiting for Israeli drip irrigation systems, but the truth was a little different.

"For purposes of the project, I decided to study irrigation," Zilberman says. He decided to delve deeply into plant biology. "You have to understand the basis; that's my main theme in the profession," he says. "I saw that the contribution of drip irrigation depended on many factors. On sandy or sloping land, drip irrigation is effective. In places where the land holds the water well - less so. If the fruit being grown is expensive and the price of water is high, there's an incentive to use drip irrigation. There was no water market in California at the time; there were water rights, so what interest did a farmer have in using drip irrigation, even if it saves water, unless it was a drought period in which the water rights were insufficient? In a market like that, if you want to motivate people to save water, you have to put a price on it. With some land in which excessive irrigation floods the land, on the other hand, there's no need for incentives - it's already worthwhile for a farmer to adopt drip irrigation.

"The inventors of the Israeli product told me, 'Why didn't you write that everyone needs drip agriculture? What kind of Israeli patriot are you?' But the product was gradually accepted in places in which it was really useful, thanks to work by Netafim, the agricultural lobby, and the government.

"The most important think I learned in the US was that what makes the US great is not the private sector; it's only the combination of the private and the government sectors. Who invented the Internet? The business sector? No, the universities did, with the help of a lot of public funding. Did Monsanto invent genetic engineering? No way. Without universities, Monsanto would have had no seeds. Without the publicly funded universities, there will be no business sector."

Another lesson that Zilberman learned in the US was that necessity is the mother of adoption of invention. "When there's no drought, you don't learn anything," he says. "In 1992, when the fish in California began dying from drought, we succeeded in opening the water market. The farmers could sell the water to the fish ponds, and they save water by using drip irrigation."

Zilberman now does a great deal of work with international organizations, scientists from Africa, and commercial companies. He says that the Mars chocolate company employed him to help improve cocoa crop yields. "I go to the fields to talk with the farmers, who sit in the jungle with a computer in the middle of a cocoa field. Every kid in Africa now has a bicycle and a mobile phone. The children don't want to stay in the village. If you want agriculture to continue in Africa, it has to be modern agriculture, and that's something that I'm working on."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 18, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Prof. David Zilberman  photo: Eyal Izhar
Prof. David Zilberman photo: Eyal Izhar
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