- Author: Pamela Ronald
Reposted from Scientific America -- Food Matters Blog
Discussions about plant genetic engineering often reflect two starkly opposing narratives. On the one side are the angry mobs who invade research farms to destroy fragile green rice seedlings deemed “GMOs”. On the other, are the scientists who call for calm and respect for publicly funded research. Too often, it seems, there is little mutual understanding.
In a forum on September 5 hosted by the Boston Review Magazine, a group of journalists, activists, plant biologists, and farmers as well as academic experts in food security, international agricultural and environmental policy sat around a virtual table to find common ground. All accepted the broad scientific consensus that the process of GE does not pose inherent risks compared to conventional approaches of genetic alteration and that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment. That agreement allowed the discussion to move forward to a more societally relevant issue- the use of appropriate technology in agriculture....
...What criteria can scientists, farmers and consumers use to assess which type of these genetic technologies is most appropriate for agriculture?
In his 1973 book Small is Beautiful, economist E. F. Schumacher states that an appropriate technology should be low cost, low maintenance and promote values such as health, beauty, and permanence. Environmentalist Stewart Brand used a similar framework to select new technologies for inclusion in his 1969 Whole Earth Catalog. One of the purposes of the Whole Earth catalog was to facilitate a creative or self-sustainable lifestyle.
We can apply Brand and Schumacher’s Buddhist economic criteria to evaluate modern agricultural technologies....
...Golden Rice is an excellent example of how a particular genetic technology can appropriately serve a specific societal purpose – in this case, enhancing the health and well-being of farmers and their families. It is a relatively simple technology that scientists in most countries, including many developing countries, have perfected. The product, a seed, requires no extra maintenance or additional farming skills. The seed can be propagated on the farm each season at no extra cost through self-pollination and improved along the way.
Can we conclude from the example of Golden Rice that all GE seeds fall into the category of appropriate technology? Unfortunately it is not that simple. Each agricultural technology must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It is not informative to group all “GMOs” together without regard to the purpose of the engineering, the needs of the farmer, or the social, environmental, economic, or nutritional benefits.