An op ed piece by Mark Lynas has been sitting in my clippings folder for several weeks. He makes the case for genetic engineering (GE) of food crops, with particular emphasis on its positive effects on yields in the developing world. While I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced, the column is persuasive — particularly when you consider that Lynas was once an activist against GMOs.
No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.
At about the same time, Tania Lombrozo posted about the psychology of public acceptance of genetic engineering, or, as she put it rather bluntly in her lede,
Why do so many people oppose genetically modified organisms, or GMOs?
And, again, I’m not sure that her analysis applies to my skepticism, but the effect of the two writings leads me to consider why I am mildly opposed to expanding high tech agriculture. I think the core of my opposition lies in business models and practices, in the troubling consolidation that is taking place in the seed industry—not in subjective assessments of what constitutes a “natural” food. I look to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which offers this pro- and con- assessment:
We understand the potential benefits of the technology, and support continued advances in molecular biology, the underlying science. But we are critics of the business models and regulatory systems that have characterized early deployment of these technologies. GE has proved valuable in some areas (as in the contained use of engineered bacteria in pharmaceutical development), and some GE applications could turn out to play a useful role in food production.
Thus far, however, GE applications in agriculture have only made the problems of industrial monocropping worse. Rather than supporting a more sustainable agriculture and food system with broad societal benefits, the technology has been employed in ways that reinforce problematic industrial approaches to agriculture. Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry public relations campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.
“Public relations campaigns:” does anyone remember when DDT was going to save the world, and Rachel Carson was called a crank?
The Union’s policy recommendations, among other things, call for food labeling laws, “so that consumers can make informed decisions about supporting GE applications in agriculture,” and I am definitely behind that idea.
I would like to think that I can be convinced by reason and evidence, so I could change my mind. But for now, I’m hanging out in the gray area.