2003: When philosophers and biologists get together
to discuss genetically modified food, the focus veers away
from the potential for a production lift from Bt corn - a
genetically modified corn that produces its own defense against
the corn borer pest. The focus shifts to the nature of technology
itself, particularly organic engineering, and the underlying
assumptions of genetically modified food and its relationship
to sustainable food systems.
The stakeholders' conference on agricultural biotechnology
and sustainable agriculture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids,
Michigan at the end of April created just such a discussion.
Maarten Chrispeels, professor of biology at the University
of California, San Diego, talked about biotechnology as a
tool box for agricultural researchers, farmers and consumers.
For Chrispeels, the issue is not biotech "yes" or
"no." Genetic modification technology can help solve
weed, pest, drought and salinity problems that currently lack
any other solution. Sustainable agriculture will benefit from
the growing number of tools in the biotechnology box when
farmers adapt them to local agro-ecologies and subsequent
Gary Comstock, professor of philosophy at North Carolina
State University, talked about "Vexing Nature? Ethics
and GM Food." He criticized industry's prime argument
that GM food will improve agricultural sustainability. According
to Comstock, the argument is unsound: it discounts the opportunity
costs of other choices for research and funding.
Comstock also analyzed and discounted as unsound the main
arguments against GM foods: the potential harm outweighs the
benefits; we are playing God; we are changing the world; and
crossing species barriers is unnatural. He called for a broader
discussion of the ethics of GM foods if their benefits are
to be realized and environmental risks minimized.
Egbert Schuurman, who teaches philosophy at the Agricultural
University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, made the case
for the profound differences between technology that creates
new inorganic tools like metal widgets or electricity, and
technology that develops new organic tools like genetically
modified seeds and bioengineered animals.
He cautioned against the assumption that drawbacks of a new
technology can be fixed by still more technology. The DNA
of organic life is not just a collection of Lego blocks waiting
to be restacked by human ingenuity. Organic life has an inherent
level of uncertainty. Once in the environment, new organic
tools reach beyond our scientific/technical control and will,
given time, develop a life of their own.
Schuurman recommended the development of an ethical framework
specifically for technology that manipulates living organisms
- a framework that admits to uncertainty and protects quality
of life both now and in the long run.
While GM food finds its way to grocers' shelves, its social
and ecological implications remain unclear.
For more on the myths about hunger and the Canadian Foodgrains
Bank, a Christian response to hunger visit
- April 25, 2003: Conference
players agree: Quality, consistency will give edge to local
- April 18, 2003: Complex
land decisions must be based on values, not data
- April 9, 2003: The
emerging managed food chain
- April 3, 2003: Farmer
nominees for the Rural Red Tape Reduction Project
- March 28, 2003: Farm
- March 21, 2003: Myths
- March 7, 2003: Europe
Gets Innovative about Farm Subsidies
- February 21, 2003: Seven
ideas for Strong Rural Communities
- February 7, 2003: An
Action Plan for a Fresh Vision for Agriculture
- January 3, 2003: 2002
ag policy changes to have big impact in 2003
- December 13, 2002: Farmers
know ag’s “multiple-benefits”, but wonder
how to make them profitable
November 5, 2002: Intervening
in farm markets for the public good
- October 25, 2002: Standing
up to commodity agriculture
- September, 2002: Wishes
and dreams for Ontario agriculture
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