Frankenfoods or lifesavers?

By Dennis Rice
web posted November 29, 1999

While almost every new technology brings with it debate over its benefits, the recent introduction of genetically modified, or GM, foods into the marketplace has generated a controversy which seems to intensify almost daily. In Europe, for instance, there is now a moratorium on approval of new GM seeds, and major supermarkets and food retailers there are either clearly labelling or refusing to carry GM food products. Closer to home, some estimate that GM products can be found in 60 per cent of the food on Canadian grocery shelves, a statistic that seriously alarms the North American green movement. Consequently, it is now working to bring the European perspective to our shores, led by cultural heavyweights like Canada's pre-eminent "green" scientist and TV host, Dr. David Suzuki.

The pressures of this debate are nowhere felt as much as they are on North American farms, and within the boardroooms of the companies that develop these products. As a result of the negative publicity over GM foods, many farmers are deciding to cut back, or not even grow, GM crops, apparently believing that if they concede to the greens the controversy will go away. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The attack on GM crops is only a small part of a larger green assault on technological advances, property rights and the freedom to innovate in general. A victory here will only signal to the greens potential weakness on the part of their adversaries, encouraging them to move on to the next "hot" issue, whether that be conventional farm chemicals, livestock practices or whatever.

The controversy over GM food owes much of its life to the innovative way in which GM seeds are developed. Most of us are familiar with conventional plant breeding, in which plants of the same species are selectively crossbred with each other in order to develop new varieties with more desirable genetic traits such as increased yield or hardiness. Genetically modified seeds, on the other hand, gain their desired traits by having genes from often totally unrelated organisms inserted into them. For example, corn varieties have been created that are genetically resistant to certain insect pests, with the help of genes from a particular bacterium. Canola seed and soybeans have also been genetically altered so that the crops can be sprayed with certain non-selective herbicides that will kill all undesired plants at once. Genetic modification has been applied to other crops such as potatoes and tomatoes, and the biotechnology revolution shows no signs of running out of species to modify.

The major advantage of GM technology is that it allows seeds to be tailor made to suit very specific conditions. Spraying a crop with a non-selective herbicide is generally cheaper and avoids having to possibly spray the crop with conventional chemicals several times over. Similarly, corn and potatoes that are modified to resist insect pests do not have to be sprayed with more costly chemical pesticides.

Opponents of GM foods liken these products to a dangerous genie in a bottle. Unless the development process is arrested, they feel that unpredictable chain reactions may occur. Some have claimed that wild GM seeds will soon pollute the countryside with unwanted and unstoppable plants. Others claim that GM plants will spawn "superbugs" that will devastate our environment. Still others suggest that GM crops may kill off beneficial insects. Regarding the first claim, any stray GM plants can be readily killed off with conventional herbicides, and as for choking out native vegetation, most man-made plants are far too uncompetitive to do this. Without careful tillage, fertilization and management, they simply will not flourish in untended wild surroundings. As for the second claim, conventional crop protection products have already generated herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant insects in some instances. The solution? Careful herbicide and pesticide rotation and further product development.

The third claim arose as a result of a Cornell University study which noted some damage to Monarch butterflies feeding off other plants coated with the pollen of GM corn. Nonetheless, the idea of toxic pollen clouds killing off vast populations of butterflies seems ludicrous. Research at the University of Guelph in Ontario showed that nearly all pollen grains travel less than ten metres from a typical corn field. In any case, the criticism seems highly ironic considering that the alternative to GM corn is to spray it with conventional pesticides, most of which could also kill Monarch butterflies.

The other prominent controversy surrounding GM seed is its financial cost. Companies that develop it, often at considerable expense, do so because they are given patent protection for their efforts. Farmers that use their seed sometimes pay royalty fees to do so. Furthermore, they may have to sign contracts (technology use agreements) that may restrict them to using only the company's herbicides on the crop, and prohibit them from saving any part of their crop for use as next year's seed.

Many critics, in the green movement and elsewhere, view these agreements as nothing short of techno-serfdom. In a wider context, however, there is nothing particularly unusual about such practices. The current legal wrangling over alleged unauthorized use of GM seeds is no different in principle from disputes that arise over the unauthorized use of computer software or audio and video tapes. As a possible means of cutting back on the need for litigation, "terminator" genes have been developed which cause seed to become sterile after one season, making them suitable only for processing and not for seed. Ironically, such terminator genes have been roundly denounced as furthering the goal of enslaving farmers.

What is most bizarre about such claims is that this appears to be the first time in history that slavery was adopted voluntarily. After all, no one forces any farmer to use GM products. They are free to use a whole host of more conventional plant varieties and pesticides, or grow crops organically without the use of chemicals at all. When producers choose to use GM seed, it is not because they are deluded, ignorant fools. They make that choice because the cost of GM seed compares favourably with the costs of increased pesticide use associated with conventional seed. In other words, they use it because it adds to the productivity of their farming operation, and would drop such products if the benefits did not materialize.

Genetically modified seeds no more "enslave" farmers to biotech companies than modern tractors "enslave" farmers to the tractor producers, as opposed to the allegedly carefree days of farming with horses. Indeed, the arrival of the farm tractor long ago probably sparked widespread fear of a loss of independence by farmers in the area of motive power. After all, most farms were self-sufficient in horses. Their food could be grown on the farm, and if you needed another horse all you had to do was breed one. Conversely, tractors could not be made very easily by farmers, and if you bought one you were compelled to purchase repair parts from the company that made it and gasoline from the oil companies. Slavery? Hardly. The enormous productivity gains made possible by the advent of mechanized farming easily justified the higher capital costs. Should the green movement succeed in their goal of forcing GM crops out of existence, farmers will suffer enormously by being denied access to such tremendous productivity tools.

To the greens, however, such considerations are immaterial. The attacks on technology use agreements and the freedom to develop and trade genetically altered crops are part of a much more comprehensive vision for the greens. They see property rights and private, consensual contracts as dangerous institutions that are inherently incompatible with the goal of preserving the environment, despite the fact that the nations with the least respect for property rights, such as the former Soviet Union, generally have the worst records on environmental protection. This is a principle reason why the green movement will not be appeased and silenced with a ban on GM products. For them, GM products are only round one.

Unfortunately, it must be conceded that at present the green movement is winning that round, and largely by default. The reason is that proponents of biotechnology, while able to marshall excellent economic arguments in favour of their position, rarely focus on the moral issues at stake. Until they do, average citizens are very unlikely to defend a product that they feel might make sense economically, but about which they feel ambivalent about or hostile to on moral grounds.

The primary moral issue centers mainly around public safety. As noted in this discussion, the green movement seriously lacks any sound evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful, and what concerns they do have are either contradictory or seriously misplaced. Their proposal to ban GM products thus rests on a skepticist argument: the notion that GM products might be dangerous to public health, and that even the most rigorous testing could never prove otherwise. After all, they might point out, a lot of scientists thought thalidomide was safe, and they turned out to be wrong.

Philosophically speaking, an appeal to skepticism is an invalid argument. The green movement relies on acceptance of its skepticist view to allow them to make any claim they want, no matter how outrageous or speculative, while hoping that their opposition will burden itself with the unenviable, and impossible, task of proving them wrong. Rather than accept this burden, and find themselves pointlessly trying to explain how GM foods are not like thalidomide, proponents of GM products should insist that the greens provide evidence for their claims before the debate proceeds any further. If someone accused you of stealing their car on the premise that you might be a thief, what would you do? Demand proof of the allegation, or waste your time trying to prove you didn't do it? The grave danger with granting skepticist arguments even a shred of validity is that they could potentially stonewall any and all technological innovation depending on the technophobe flavour of the day, depriving society of countless life-enhancing technological improvements that better our lives.

As for evidence of the benefits of biotechnology, not to mention synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, we need look no further than the fact that these products have made possible vast increases in the quantity and quality of food grown on a shrinking agricultural land base. The health of the world's population has been dramatically improved by the fact that more nourishing food is more widely available now than at any time in the past. That in itself should give pause to calls for banning GM foods, or, as many green activists ultimately desire, banning foods grown with any synthetic products.

Having farmers return to the crop production methods, and therefore the yields, of fifty years ago would be immoral from the perspective that human beings deserve the opportunity to develop, market and purchase innovations that steadily improve their health and nutrition. Ironically, not only would such measures wreak havoc with the ability of world to feed itself, they would ravage the very ecosystem so precious to the greens. As biotech researcher Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute points out "...mandatory organic farming worldwide would cut yields in half and force people to plow down at least ten-million square miles of today's habitat...".

A final, critical element in the defense of GM products is a defense of property rights. The relatively new idea of owning a plant variety, and setting conditions and prices for its use is no more abominable than owning a house, a car, or a herd of cattle and doing the same thing. In fact, should the process of unencumbered bargaining in the marketplace for GM crops be interrupted, the result will inevitably be that the products will no longer be made available, for the reason that there is no financial incentive for anyone to do so. Taking away this financial incentive is key to the green strategy against GM crops.

If we care about steadily improving the quality of our lives and, indeed, about the legitimate needs of the environment, we need to be forthright, and not apologetic, about the tremendous value that agricultural technology creates. We cannot allow the green movement, with its chaotic fog of ideas, to silence that source of progress with hysterical claims and ill-considered prescriptions for change.

Dennis Rice farms near Starbuck, Manitoba. He is the leader of the Libertarian Party of Manitoba.




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