What is the meaning and significance of the agricultural biotechnology debate?

Our first assignment in the Debating Science program was to write about “What is the meaning and significance of the agricultural biotechnology debate?” I chose to investigate the controversy and possible ways to move past it. Let me know what you think.

Agricultural biotechnology could encourage so-called factory farming, with its attendant use of chemicals and monoculture, destroying nature beyond the point of recovery. Or, agricultural biotechnology could help lessen the environmental impacts of farming, helping us to feed, fuel, and clothe a growing population while maintaining or even improving the natural world. These opposing scenarios, with their attending cries of horror and exclamations of success, have been the basis for the debate over agricultural biotechnology. The opponents and proponents of agricultural biotechnology are both right, this issue is of grave importance for humanity.

Both sides of the debate can agree that food security is going to be one of the most important issues in the twenty first century. Global population is expected to reach seven billion in 2012, with more than one third of that in the developing world. These areas already see overwhelming hunger and malnutrition, and increasing population will only exacerbate the problem. Allowing this to continue is ethically unacceptable to most people.

In the past, improvements in agriculture, such as the Green Revolution, have increased crop yields enough to keep pace with population, but that may no longer be possible. Many of the techniques used to improve yields have proved to be environmentally unsound. For example, producing synthetic fertilizers releases greenhouse gases and uses fossil fuels. Runoff of excess nitrogen wreaks havoc in river and ocean ecosystems downstream. Producing equivalent yields without synthetic nitrogen is possible, but requires a lot of technical know how to rotate crops and use other methods specific to the soil and conditions in each area. Pesticides have been used to deter insects from consuming the crops and to keep weeds from using up the water and nutrients needed by the crops. Many of these pesticides are damaging to the environment and human health. As with fertilizer, there are non-chemical alternatives, but these methods can be labor intensive and expensive.

Agricultural biotechnology, in the form of genetic engineering, marker assisted selection, and others, can help to bridge the yield gap without the use of additional chemicals. Researchers are developing crops that have enhanced ability to uptake more of the available nitrogen and to use that nitrogen more effectively. Other crops are drought tolerant, flood tolerant, and disease resistant. These developments will be increasingly important as climate change makes weather patterns less predictable and warmer temperatures causes diseases to be more persistent and wide spread. Insect resistant crops containing different varieties of an insecticidal toxin called Bt from bacteria have been on the market from 1995, allowing farmers to reduce insect damage without pesticide sprays. All of these genetically engineered crops have been shown again and again by independent researchers to be safe and effective. Crops that have enhanced nutritional qualities could improve the health of billions of people. Crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical compounds such as vaccines or industrial compounds such as starch could provide a much needed source of revenue to farmers.

One of the biggest problems in the debate is that opponents want to group the diverse products of agricultural biotechnology in the same category, treating them equally. This assessment belies the huge variety of cultural, ethical, environmental, and safety issues presented by the different crops. Each distinct type of genetically engineered food, each individual genetic change, must be considered separately. Some types of GM crops encourage the farming of monocultures on large farms. Others are scale neutral, equally benefiting farmers large and small. Some types of GM crops produce compounds that are inherently food safe, like vitamins and plant oils. Others produce compounds that could be harmful to humans or the environment if allowed to mix with natural plant populations.

Sadly, the dichotomy of views has prevented any real deliberation on the subject. This has resulted in a combative climate where no one is working to achieve the best possible outcome for all. Misinformation and confusion, often encouraged by opponents of agricultural biotechnology, has caused rampant fear in the regions that most need it. Activists have destroyed research that would help determine the safety of the very crops they fear. Corporations looking to protect their interests and increase profits have looked the other way when their products are not used as directed. Governments have ignored the socio-economic implications of patent protected seed.

Instead of debating the science, opponents should cooperate with proponents to solve these very real problems of farming in the twenty first century. Proponents need to listen to the concerns of opponents and make sure that they are addressed. We need to put aside past mistakes once and for all and work to improve the lives of the millions of people who are literally dying in our inaction.

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar is a science communicator and science policy expert with a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Anastasia has had various risk analysis roles in US government and military service. She serves as BFI's Director of Policy and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog.

2 comments

  1. Anastasia,

    To understand the meaning and significance of ‘the debate’ over biotechnology in agriculture, you should consider that the vast majority of opponents of biotech are actually not against biotech itself. They oppose biotech because of what it represents to them–and that could be nearly anything at all. This is why, when you debate with them about the risks and benefits of biotech, you can never reach a resolution–because they’re actually arguing about something completely different. This is also why it’s impossible to ‘address their concerns’ about biotech–their actual concerns are about ‘giant corporations’ and so forth. Nothing else accounts for the fact that all attempts, at academic, political and business levels, to reach an understanding with them have utterly failed.

    The best explanation for the approach of the opponents of biotech that I’ve seen to date is, “Hit where it hurts”, by Ted Kaczynski, found at
    http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/hti.htm

    In that essay, the author (also known as the Unabomber) explains how attacking biotechnology is an ideal means for attacking nearly anything in modern society that you don’t like.

    What I’m suggesting here is that ‘the debate’ over GMOs needs to be understood in terms of what has sometimes been called ‘culture war’.

  2. Thanks for your insight, Andrew.

    At the Debating Science workshop we talked a lot about people’s ethical opposition to biotech (and nanotech, others). As someone who is trained to look at things empirically, and as a utilitarian, trying to even understand this point of view is difficult. Unfortunately, it is one that we must consider. I’m not convinced, though, that the argument that biotech is “unnatural” is really that important to people. The same people who are vehemently against biotech don’t have a problem with genetically engineered medications like insulin. If their opposition was truly against all “meddling with life” then they should reject all sorts of biotech. To follow the obvious, they should reject other plants and animals that humans have meddled with, such as corn, modern wheat, and cows (which wouldn’t exists if not for the efforts of early “genetic engineers”).

    In my “less than two pages” assignment, I attempted to show that the dichotomy between the two sides is a false one. We need to dissect the issues – such as the claim that biotech encourages factory farming. Once more stakeholders consider other stakeholders, I hope some positive movement could be made. My favorite example at the moment is Tomorrow’s Table. Dr. Ronald is working to show stakeholders that their concerns are being heard and addressed. Although, as you say, some people are beyond compromise.

    I hadn’t read anything by Kaczynski before, and frankly, I wish he wasn’t such a compelling writer. I might do a post on it, if I have a little time. I disagree a number of his points, but my main issue is that biotech does not equal the establishment. Young people do not go into science because they want to uphold the system. They become scientists in order to make a difference in the world, to help people, to simply fulfill curiosity. I think a lot of scientists went into it as a form of rebellion – because they wanted to help change the system! They certainly don’t do it for the money. I suppose that any technology is opponent to his philosophy, but he fails to consider that biotech is simply a tool that will actually rectify some of the problems with the current system. Biotech that increases yields in various ways will make farmland more productive, so that less land in total needs to be farmed (assuming constant population). Biotech can give small farmers the ability to keep their farms, to feed their families, to keep their land healthy. I know I am susceptible to praise biotech overmuch, but these benefits need to be considered. To do so, ironically, is very unethical, and has become part of the follower mentality of people in the system.

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