Permaculture teacher and author Patrick Whitefield has just limked on Twitter to a blog by Chris Smaje in response to the widely discussed talk by Mark Lynas on genetic engineering.
Entitled Five Reasons Why Mark Lynas Is Wrong About GM Technology it is really five green herrings of the sort we have seen continually by GE detractors.
His first is that Lynas makes a false comparison between the “science” for climate change (AGW) and genetic engineering. Greens accept the science on the former but not the latter says Lynas, which Smaje challenges as a false comparison.
I agree that there is a false parallel here, but not for the reasons that Smaje gives. Greens don’t accept the “science of climate change” any more than they accept the science regarding the safety on GE: what they do generally is point to the agreed science that CO2 is having a warming effect, and translate this into the same pseudo-religious rhetoric that they use to discuss GE: humans are Bad, technology is not to be trusted, we are hurting Gaia and the Sky Gods will unleash retribution in the form of storms and famines.
Smaje is at least half-way correct on this issue- Science can show that AGW is real (although how much warming is actually anthropogenic is not so clear..) but “What it hasn’t shown – and what it can’t show – is what, if anything, we should do about it…” – exactly the point that climate skeptics have been making for years.
Smaje goes on to say “By contrast, nobody has ever questioned that GM is a viable, implementable technology – the question is whether we should in fact implement it, on which “the science” is equally as impotent in its ability to answer as in the case of climate change.”
This is not quite true. The anti-GE movement does indeed routinely make the argument that the actual implementation of the technology has been a complete failure. Smaje himself goes onto reference Vandemeer and the IAASTD report as examples of scientists who question the efficacy of GE.
Nonetheless, Smaje’s point is a valid one: science is good at testing specific hypotheses, such as the relative safety of a new technology, or temperature trends, but policy is not an issue for science alone. The inconsistency amongst the Greens is more that while scientists are used as authorities with regard to policy on climate change all the time, and we are told we should follow specific (or all-to-often unspecific) policy actions to deal with climate change because the science is settled, on the issue of genetic engineering- as also with nuclear power- scientist’s policy recommendations are ignored, because they are assumed to be industry shills directly or indirectly, and not to be trusted.
This is evident in Smaje’s later comment that “I accept that some people genuinely think GM does solve problems – though I suspect biotechnologists are heavily overrepresented in this particular category “- of course, biotech scientists have vested interests, in perpetuating their careers and finding and justifying their existence! Just like climate scientists, no? I mean, funny how most scientists warning about the dangers of climate change are, you know- *climate scientists* isn’t it? Even more odd, many of the most vocal proponents of small-scale organic farming are… small scale organic farmers!
Smaje accepts that GE is probably safe but links to a fine Green Herring on an activist site to sow the seed of doubt that “maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty”.
The “OMFG Viral Genes!!” story is just the latest anti-GMO meme to be doing the rounds. It is complete bunk, and the failure of Smaje to recognise this does rather bring into question his scientific understanding of the issue.
He also links to other Green Herrings, such as the super-weeds issue: but weed resistance is not an issue only of GE, and have been with us since the 1970s at least. As with so many objections to GE, the arguments apply to farming in general, including often organic farming, not just GE.
Smaje’s second point is Lynas’ comparison with GE as a technology and the invention of the wheel. “Turning a question of practical science (‘how can I solve this problem’) into a social ideology (‘the scientific solution of problems inherently constitutes social progress and is therefore a good thing’) is nothing more than an act of faith. If we adopt GM it should be because it solves a particular problem, not because it represents ‘progress’ ” he says, and I agree and I think most of the scientists who point to evidence that does support the usefulness of GE would also agree: support for a technology should be based on whether it does actually solve problems and make things better, not on some vague abstracted idea of “progress”. So this seems to be a straw-man argument, and Smaje seems pretty muddled about what point he is trying to make.
(As an interesting aside with regard to the invention of the wheel, Mann writes the Olmec Indians of South America apparently invented the wheel but never actually found a use for it except in children’s toys. And look what happened to them!)
It gets worse: “Maybe, just maybe,” says Smaje, “cultures that deliberate actively about the paths they wish to take (like the Amish, for example, an easy target for Lynas’s derision) have something to teach cultures like ours that obsess over every new toy in the store.”
But perhaps Lynas is also wrong here, because- irony of ironies- it turns out that although the Amish are in many ways stuck c.1850 with the horse and cart (well at least they adopted the wheel…) some Amish are sufficiently open-minded and progressive about technology to have embraced …Genetic Engineering.
Seriously. Amish farmers in Pennsylvania are growing GE nicotine-free tobacco, and BT corn. (They also feature in the excellent documentary Jimmy’s GM Food Fight.) Why? Because it helps improve yields that would otherwise be compromised by their eschewing of other technologies in farming such as tractors. This ties in with Professor Ronalds’ suggestion that Rachel Carson would embrace GE technology, precisely because it represents a biological rather than a chemical approach.
Point three is where Smaje’s real ideological colors shine through and where I start to get angry: with regard to Vitamin A -enhanced Golden Rice he uses to Green-colonialist “Let them eat broccoli” argument: Vitamin A deficiency is all a result of injustice and inequality, therefore Golden Rice is the wrong solution- by which he means of course, it is not the solution that suits his ideological view of the world.
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes some 670.000 deaths and another 350,000 to go blind every year, with tens of millions more suffering from other effects from VAD in developing countries. Golden Rice could really help this problem, but Smaje just wants to ask to same old tired leftish question:
” why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place? Could it be because their income or land access is so attenuated that they can’t afford to grow or buy the fresh vegetables that could otherwise provide the Vitamin A they need? And if so, whose interests are being served by promoting GM rice rather than, say, land reform? ”
It is extraordinarily naive and ignorant to think that the scientists and researchers concerned about VAD, and those working on the Golden Rice project, are not fully aware of these issues. The implementation of a new technology such as Golden Rice is not instead of land reform or other political change, but in fact might be a pre-requisite for this change: populations where VAD or other conditions are prevalent are trapped in a situation where malnutrition makes any other kind of self-help extraordinarily difficult. For rich-world small-farm advocates like Smaje this is incomprehensible: he might as well say, why dont they just go to their local organic wholefood shop and buy some Vitamin A pills?
His near-paranoid emphasis on “who would benefit from Golden Rice” shows his concern is not for those who would benefit the most- the children who might otherwise die or go blind- but for his ideology, and ideology that rests firmly in a retro-romantic view of agararian life that takes no account of the need for industrial development in general. Asking why are these people suffering from VAD in the first place is only possible for someone who assumes that everything was great in the old days until evil capitalism came along and robbed the poor from their ability to nourish themselves.
I am not saying that new agricultural technology does not and has not lead to new problems, and the dislocation of rural communities, and in some cases the at least temporary destruction of subsistence-farmers’ livelihoods. I am sure this has and does happen. But the reality is that technology in farming has in general benefited the world’s poor and staved off hunger; in the old days, VAD, starvation, high infant mortality and many other diseases and nutrient deficiencies were very often the norm. It is not that Lynas ignores the political context of land access etc, but that Smaje ignores the context of political environmentalism, which Lynas targets with his comments on Greenpeace’s despicable and inhumane activism against this humanitarian project, something which Smaje revealingly has nothing to say about.
Smaje’s fourth point is addressed to the idea of “sustainable intensification”- using technology to improve yields, which could allow more land to be returned to wilderness, which Smaje dismisses out of hand: “The stupidity of this idea really needs a whole book to unpick.” While I agree that every aspect of this issue requires careful analysis and evidence, Smaje does not make the case for dismissing it: the obvious facts are that we cannot feed the world without industrial agriculture, and the hope is that genetic engineering may be one tool that will help this become more sustainable. For the milions of city dwellers to go back to the land and run small farms like Smaje’s would be a disaster for nature.
Again, Smaje misses the point by claiming that Lynas “imagines an ideal world in which per hectare crop yields can expand limitlessly in lockstep with increasing demand from populations untethered to any sense of local resource limitation.” The whole point about genetic engineering is that it should result in lower demands for fertilisers and other inputs, because it is a biological approach. For example, blight-resistant potatoes could add 20% to EU potato yields, with no other inputs at all, simply by saving con crop-losses. Flood-tolerant rice the same.
Smaje asks, will the urban populations care about increasing and preserving wilderness? I would point him to the ideas of the environmental transition, mentioned in my last post. The legions of supporters for Greenpeace are clearly not mainly culled from the tiny number of small farmers left in developing countries, but from highly educated and relatively affluent young urban dwellers, just the kind of young radical like myself in fact whose first act of rebellion was to become vegetarian.
The final point seems self-contradictory: first he makes it clear(er) that his main issue is with corporate control of the seed supply; then he attacks Lynas’ support for a more open-source environment for GE seeds, while at the same time acknowledging that this is not an issue for GE alone but for seeds and plant breeding in general.
“One good reason for concentrating control of seeds – in fact, the only good reason I can think of – is that without it the world of seed sales fills with hucksters, con men and snake oil merchants.”
This misses the point that one of the main arguments against the anti-GE movement is that it has raised the bar for licences way beyond the reach of anyone other than giant corporations like Monsanto- who then become the principle focus of the campaign, a self-reinforcing feedback if ever there was one. So Smaje moves the goalposts from “we can’t trust these eveil capitalists and their scientist shills” to “we need regulations to keep us from snake-oil salesmen”. Snake-oil like homeopathy for animals perhaps, such as is still promoted by his beloved Soil Association, or magic-beans such as those promised by Biodynamics perhaps, also promoted by the S.A.
Smaje concludes “I could go on – I could mention Lynas’s embarrassingly ignorant attack on organic farming, his selective uses of statistics that are every bit as unscientific as those of the anti-GM zealots he excoriates,..”
Well he will actually have to write that post if he wants to be taken seriously, but for now yes this muddle of green herrings and straw men is more than enough. The problem with this kind of analysis of GE – and there is nothing here we have not seen dozens of times before- is that there is an inherent assumption that underlies the whole subject that GE is something we should be uniquely suspicious of, that GE is guilty in every which way until proven innocent. Smaje fails to give us any insight into what GE is really for, or any examples of how it is being used and what other traits might be coming down the line.
Most of all, he fails to show why GE is not just another technology that can be used for plant breeding, which is fundamental to all successful farming, whether small-scale or large scale, organic or otherwise. And he falls into the trap of the false dichotomy, that these things can be reduced to “big-scale industrial/GE” and “small local organic” when in reality we need both. At the same time, at then end of the article he undermines everything he has been saying by admitting ” I suspect in the future the whole hoo-hah about GM will be seen as a diversion from the real political issues about the food system, and GM technologies will be seen at best as just another tool in the box, not some kind of global saviour.” Noone that I am aware of who advocates for GE would see it as anything else, although it clearly is a technology that has real potential to address issues other methods cannot, and we cannot do without it.
For a more nuanced and useful look at global food issues and technology I would point to this fascinating talk by Professor Louise Fresco.
Smaje is an advocate of small farming and I support that also for those who choose it. The movement underpinning small farms, organics and permaculture is underpinned by an ideology rooted more in nostalgia for a non-existent past where everyone lived on Happy Farms that provided nothing but abundance and joy, rather than in anything resembling reason and science. There is a world of difference for those in the rich world to choose this, when they have industrial farms as a back-up and are never likely to go hungry and have access to other technologies to help make their farms more efficient such as anything from polytunnels to tractors and pumps- not to mention computers to write about it on- compared to the poor who have no choice, no supermarket back-up and who struggle to meet basic nutritional needs from lack of development. Nor has he attempted to explain why GE would not be as useful to the small farmer as other plant breeding methods which he presumably is happy to use himself.
Maybe, just maybe, advocates of small farming like Smaje would have something to learn from the more forward-thinking Amish.