During my undergraduate studies I met a religious philosophy scholar that I clicked with instantly. We would often chat after class and I remember telling him the history of my own faith: that I was once deeply religious, but it was a conspiratorial and anti-intellectual strain of Christianity, and when I came to disbelieve I went completely in the other direction and became a militant atheist. It took a few years to nuance that path to where I now consider myself almost militantly agnostic – going from absolutely knowing that God did or did not exist to clearer understanding of the limits and abilities of reason and science, which offer no real answers to those questions. He nodded his head and said, “the opposite of shallow is still shallow.” Touché. It wasn’t surprising that a shallow religious faith made way to an equally shallow reactionary atheism. A misguided faith led to misguided critique.
I’m reminded of that truism while listening to Mark Lynas’ new no-holds-barred defense of genetic engineering of food (GMO). He spoke for thirty minutes and I don’t recall hearing a single warning or criticism of anything related to genetically engineering our food supply. Why? Because, he says, “he learned to read science.” And this is what science says. Those who argue against GMO have “views [that] are not supported by science” like he does. Take a moment and think of any social policy issue that involves scientific research where the research comes down completely in favor of one side of an issue – especially an issue so complex as to involve every member of our species, either through producing or consuming.
This new defense arose because he was almost religiously opposed to GMO a few years ago – meaning the opposition was based on a received faith and was shelled off from critical inquiry. Like my Southern Baptist faith acquired in the deeps of rural Georgia, it’s not surprising that his defenses fell quickly once he allowed himself to hear critiques of his absolutist position. To which I’ll stop for a moment to agree with him: banning the selling, growing, and and development of GMO is both anti-science and potentially harmful to the world. He was wrong then.
But he’s not correct now, because Mr. Lynas has simply switched from being anti-GMO to pro-GMO, from shallow to shallow. I believe instead that the ‘real’ debate has significantly more nuanced parameters. Just I am not pro- or anti-war – I can be for some wars and against others- I am in turn not against genetic modification in general, but I find the the techno-hunger messiah public relations campaign for it specious. I am against arguments that wrongly claim that genetically modified food poses an as yet unidentified health risk. I’m also against arguments that ignore the more troubling aspects of the rise of super-pests/weeds, intellectual property rights on genetic sequences, and the socio-economic externalities that have arisen with the arrival of ‘improved varieties.’ Mr. Lynas provided us with no such nuance, indicating that sees none.
The better path is one of skepticism and moderation, which is more typically associated with “science” Mr. Lynas wants to rest his pro-GMO convictions on – the sort of agnostic moderation towards pro/anti arguments that doesn’t try to cloak social policy with the veneer of science. This, of course, is exactly what Mr. Lynas is trying to do.
The truth is that there simultaneously co-exist problems, promises, and false hopes with GMO:
- Ideas like C4 rice are long-horizon projects worth every penny of research. But even IRRI directors told me it was decades away, at best.
- There is no known health risk from consuming GMO food. The risk of future discoveries is unlikely.
- Enormous sums of money are spent on research on products like ‘golden rice’ that will have very likely have minimal impact on health and stand as PR products for the GMO industry.* There is an active effort to get the public to associate environmentally friendly and/or extra-nutritious food when they hear about GMO, when Roundup Ready maize is probably the best representation of the GMO market.
- Many GMO plants do cross-pollinate and this has caused problems, particularly when it intersects with intellectual property rights on genetic material. It’s worth noting that some plants – like bananas – don’t cross-pollinate.
- There are serious issues with pest-resistant crops like “Roundup Ready” corn, with peer-reviewed evidence both that farmers are using more pesticides and that this is creating super-weeds. Super-pests can’t be far behind, as they came part-and-parcel with the first Green Revolution.
- There is a real concern about a lack of safety standards with GMO research, both privately and in large international groups like CGIAR.
While Mr. Lynas might have once been anti-science and anti-technology, I am not. While Mr. Lynas might not have read academic literature before he took his position, it’s not fair to assume that others failed to too. These are projections. At worst, they are ad hominem attacks and a continuing failure to understand the nature and role of science in society and policy making.
– – – – – –
What’s at issue is that nearly every displacive technology we’ve invented and adopted has come at a cost. There are always externalities. The Green Revolution played a large part in destroying our rivers and estuaries. In an argument that I’ll make another time, I’m fairly convinced you can trace the rise of urban slums in the South to the Green Revolution. Pollution, poverty, and inequality came with new seeds – and even more powerful seeds will likely continue this trajectory.
People on my side of the fence aren’t cautious about specific technologies for the sake of opposing the technology (I’m writing this on an online platform and a laptop that I truly adore). We’re against it as a means of glossing over social problems. The real problem isn’t that we’re running out of food, it’s that we’re wasting it. I’d invite him and other readers to explore Amartya Sen’s Nobel Prize winning work on the political economy of hunger, wherein his condensed argument is that the problem is rarely that there’s not enough food – hunger is almost always a distribution issue. What Mr. Lynas is offering, as so many do, is essentially a trickle-down theory of food supply. If we just grow enough, food will be cheap enough for 99¢ bag of Cheetos in a Jacksonville supermarket and a bowl of rice in a Manila slum.
Mr Lynas drops quotes like, “increasing yields per hectare is probably the most important environmental variable” – he must know, as I do, that there really is no such thing as sustainable intensification of much of anything. Or, if there is, I haven’t seen it. We can’t treat the land like a factory and not expect massive environmental externalities. It’s the same sort of thinking that led a horticulturist to ask me, “why would you need healthy soil?” in reply to a question about whether organic wasn’t better for the land. Technology, for him, removed the need for maintaining healthy soil. I think when we arrive at a point when a question is posed like that uncritically by those deepest in the field, it’s time to start looking backwards a little for a point in time when we didn’t think like that – when healthy land was roughly synonymous with prosperity.
* Mr. Lynas and I have discussed this story on Twitter. While the technology has improved since this article was written, I completely agree with Michael Pollan’s point that a much more effective campaign would simply encourage eating more vegetables rather than relying on a single grain for all vitamins. Further, even if it were technologically feasible it’s doubtful it would even ‘take off’ commercially in Asia. Asian consumers generally want the whitest possible rice, even though this correlates with less nutritious rice. Try to order a bowl of hearty brown rice with a meal in China or the Philippines – how will they feel about yellowish-orange rice?