Thursday, February 07, 2008

Notes On The Impending Calamity Facing Our Food Supply: Apparently There Is A Middle Ground

From the New York Times Op-Ed page the other day: Food politics, Half-baked. The author, James E. McWilliams, is a history professor, whose upcoming book is hopefully better thought out than his Op-Ed piece. McWilliams argument is a call to find a middle ground in the debate over agricultural biotechnology, genetically modified foods (GMO's), and cloning, an argument which is either just an attempt to stay on the good side of hippies or just a complete lack of understanding when it comes to science.

Without a hint of doubt, pro-biotech forces insisted that genetically modified crops would end hunger and eliminate the need for pesticides. Genetic modification was supposedly a harmless panacea that would save the planet. Industry not only promoted this fiction, but it scoffed at the prospects of product labeling, insisting that it was the product, not the process, that mattered.

This arrogant attitude spurred the anti-biotech forces to promote their own distortions. “Frankenfoods” became the term of choice for genetically modified crops. Chemical companies engaged in “biopiracy”; they were killers of monarch butterflies, engineers of future “superweeds,” and according to Jeremy Rifkin, the prominent biotech opponent, monopolizers of an insidious technology that posed “as serious a threat to the existence of life on the planet as the bomb itself.”

So the fact that biotech companies promote their products with some high-minded hyperbole (We'll end world hunger) somehow excuses the fact that the anti-biotechers accuse these products of being dangerous, without having any actual scientific evidence to back up their claims? In a piece designed to take a middle ground, McWilliams struggles to put any weight to the concerns of anti-biotech activists.

But the middle ground also confronted the dangers that could arise through genetically modified crops. Indeed, it is possible for cross-pollination to “contaminate” wild varieties of food, decreasing biodiversity. Likewise, it is possible (if very unlikely) that animals fed modified crops could pass genes to humans that render antibiotics ineffective.

As my father, who has worked as a microbiologist and a chemist for the past several decades put it when I showed him the piece, "I don't really think that makes any sense." Yes, plants can and do cross-pollinate (I think that's sort of basic biology), but seeing as that's occurred since, I don't know, as long as plants have been on the planet, I hardly see the danger. And even if that statement about the antibiotics actually made any sense, the author admits that it's unlikely. In a piece designed to take a middle ground, that's all he can come up with to defend the anti-biotech activists.

McWilliams goes on to make a point about the precautionary principle, but that point is lost on me. There's a difference between caution and insanity. It's one thing to say say "science warrants further studies" and quite another to say "my own fear of biotechnology warrants further studies." What's more than a bit troubling today is how completely ingrained politics and emotions have become in the discussion of science. Whether or not this is a break from past perceptions of science, I'm sure the information age has not helped things. I remember back in the 90's during an episode of the X-Files, the Cigarette Smoking Man claimed science was the new religion, and he wasn't all that far off. People have faith in science, buoyed by a standard of living that comes in part to science. Yet a great many people forget the very basics of the scientific method that they learned when they were a kid- science is supposed to be a process, but most Americans would rather look to science for answers, that, in reality, science usually can't provide.

So what we end up with is several generations of pseudo-scientists who claim to speak with both scientific and moral authority on issues like biotechnology, the link between childhood vaccinations and autism, and global warming. Science doesn't always provide answers and it rarely provides answers of the specificity we need when it comes to emotions and politics. And that, I suppose, is my BIG point. Talk of finding a middle ground in the debate over agricultural biotechnology sounds nice, but there's no "middle ground" when it comes to science ... and when it comes to science, anti-biotech activists don't have any.


Post a Comment

<< Home