Monday, March 11, 2013

Another deathbed conversion

A recent story in the Guardian tells of an interview with infamous anarchist and GMO activist, Mark Lynas,  who recently decided that his past life was based on a lie, and that not only are GMOs really not the evil things that these whacko environmentalist-types are making them out to be, they are in fact the best thing since sliced bread (no doubt we’re talking industrial white bread made with nutritionally-sterile bleached flour that has to be artificially enriched).

It is interesting that this story popped up right after Whole Foods has decided to make information available about which products on its shelves do and do not include GMOs.

But even more interesting to me is how the Guardian article might be used as a case study for how discussion about any innovative technology is invariably biased in favor of corporate interest in a way that downplays—or completely ignores—the potential dangers. 

First off, there are thousands of ways that organisms are being genetically modified, and hundreds of purposes to which these modifications are directed (the vast majority of which are guided solely by considerations of corporate profit). Despite this, the discussion of "GMO" is limited to those specific genetic alterations that have a potential positive benefit for humanity as their driving purpose. The article talks about fighting global hunger and malnutrition through the development of “golden rice” which has been modified to contain high amounts of beta carotene, for example. But there is no mention of the mass production of sterile seed, or the widespread distribution of this seed to developing countries where the use of these impotent Frankensteins force local farmers into corporate dependency. Nor is there any discussion of the untested long-term health consequences of GMOs for humans or livestock or birds—or honeybees.

It is the nature of all technological change that for every improvement there will be negative consequences that cannot be predicted ahead of time. But the evaluation of any new technology is invariably focused on the specific set of problems the technology has been designed to solve. The set of problems that innovation brings into existence can be entirely external to this evaluation process even when the problems are well known. For example, the evolution and proliferation of virulent strains of bacteria as a function of antibiotic innovation has in no way slowed the development of even more powerful antibiotics. 

Back to the flip-flopping anarchist. I can’t decide whether this story is a simple anecdote about an intelligent and passionate writer who discovered a way of selling more books (50 Shades of Derrick Jensen), or if his present pro-GMO stance results from  simple ignorance about the limits of science, a story of yet another victim seduced by the myth that technology is a mode of human progress.

No comments:

Post a Comment