On campus this past quarter there was a public seminar series on the complex issues surrounding the use of GMOs. The purpose of the series was to explain what GMOs are, how they are currently used and “what the risks of using GMOs are, including the risk of not using them.” Two of the three lectures, it turned out, were in favor of using GMOs, and one was fairly objective. After each lecture I came away with mixed feelings, unable to decide how I felt about the use of GMOs. Finally, I realized why I had such mixed feelings. To me, this is not really a debate about whether GMOs are good or bad or whether they should be used or not. This is simply one issue about a much larger ethical and ecological dilemma: Is modern agriculture ecologically sustainable, compatible with a land ethic, and morally, culturally, and anthropocentrically justifiable? For me, the answer is a resounding no. Modern agricultural practices do not allow the farmer to see his land as part of the biotic community of which he is a steward. Instead it forces him to see his crops as a product, his land as an economic commodity, and his role as a mechanic. For the farmer, it is right and correct to maximize his yield regardless of the extraneous costs – even to his soul.
One of the lecturers, a very prominent scientist, stated that, “The less focused and productive this agriculture is, the more destructive its effects will be.” I think that this statement sadly demonstrates how entrenched in ideas of modern agriculture we have become. Monoculture is the rule, not the exception. Insect pests and plant diseases are a problem, not a symptom. Maximization of growth is a goal, not a tradeoff. I can imagine a world where most produce come from local and ecologically sustainable farms. Words like crop rotation, buffer zones, and process become commonplace instead of inputs, industry, and production. The bottom line is that modern agriculture is approached from an extremely mechanistic point of view and GMOs simply represent one tool that is now being used the keep the gargantuan agricultural machine running at peak efficiency. It is not sustainable. Bit by bit the pieces are going to start falling off faster than we can put them back on and perhaps only then will we have realized the downside to such limited thinking.
Given that I am obviously not in favor of current agricultural practices, do I feel like there should be an outright ban on GMOs? No. Instead I think that GMOs can play a useful role in society both today and tomorrow. Some GMOs will be able to uptake toxic chemicals and pollutants and convert them in to less harmful products, while others will be able to produce important medicines and drugs – at least until we figure out less invasive ways of doing so (which should be a priority not an excuse). In terms of agricultural use, I think that the Union of Concerned Scientists states a responsible, larger picture position on their use:
Conversion from industrial agriculture to sustainable systems that depend less on chemicals would eliminate the need for many of the currently projected products of biotechnology. This is not to say that there is no place for genetically engineered crops in sustainable systems; there may well be. But before such crops are introduced to sustainable agriculture systems, those systems must be more fully developed than they currently are. The specific products engineered for sustainable agriculture would be different from those that are being developed to fit into industrial agricultural systems and their development should probably await the wider adoption of such systems.
I disagree, however, with their position that their development should await the wider adoption of such systems. I think the development of GM crops should continue in small scale integrated research settings so that by the time we are ready to use GMOs in a new context we will have a vastly superior knowledge of the effects of gene manipulation at a whole range of scales from the inner cellular workings to the effects on the marketplaces to the ecosystem as a whole.
In conclusion the use of the GMOs is a very important and complex issue. Better quality education of the public is crucial and sorely needed. GMOs come with a wide variety of costs as well as benefits, and the tradeoffs that inevitably come with using them should be carefully regulated and continually monitored by objective agencies. As the use, function, and complexity of GMOs continues to grow, there is an obvious need for more comprehensive guidelines and regulations that are based on values that are grounded in objective science and not driven entirely by economics. Additionally, GMOs are only a small part of a much larger debate over modern intensive agricultural practices and sustainable process-based agriculture. The controversy over GMOs is a subset of a broader debate that inherently involves people’s worldviews and environmental values.