Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 4) Earth: Food
In his intro, Mann said he borrowed the structure for the third part of the book from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma
. The mythical four elements are each the subject of a chapter. The "Earth" chapter is about food that comes out of the soil. Mann narrows the Wizard/Prophet debate over resources, begun in chapters 2 and 3, to a debate over how to feed a still-rapidly expanding population. Wizards have now gone far beyond Norman Borlaug in their capabilities to engineer plants for greater productivity. They currently are trying to alter the way rice plants photosynthesize water and CO2. As is well-known, Vogtians object to genetically modifying plants, not entirely rationally, Mann says, pointing to much less concern over genetically modified e coli
and baker's yeast used in medicine. When it comes to common foods, produced by large corporations, however, the perception is different. Prophets have little faith that corporations will prioritize public safety over profits. GMO foods have been banned in several countries, and in the U.S., where they are allowed, the GMO-free label appeals to many consumers for whom "natural" and "organic" also confer reassurance.
Mann continues to portray the Wizard/Prophet conflict as philosophical or spiritual as much as scientific. There was a book long ago called The Soul of Soil
, a title that sums up some Prophets' view of soil, imbued with spiritual essence, or pneuma
. Less mystically, others emphasize the complex community of microbes, fungi, and animals that needs to be nurtured in order for the soil to produce good food. Prophets accuse wizards of lacking reverence for soil and an understanding that it is not simply a medium for roots and needs more to function well besides the addition of chemical fertilizer and water.
Well and good to have such affection for soil, say the Wizards, but if the choice is between hunger and a chance at real life, what system is the practical one? Organic agriculture is more expensive due to more labor needed, so its constituency is those of us with disposable income and less true need.
Mann is evenhanded, giving each side its due. This is how he sums up with soaring language the achievement of mass production of fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process, :