Engineering Ethics Blog: Biotech in Agriculture: Blessing or Curse?


For personal reasons, I pay
more attention than I might otherwise to doings in Omaha, Nebraska (a niece of
mine lives there).  As I write this,
they’re enduring a blizzard with up to 50-MPH winds, temperatures near zero,
and up to a foot of snow coming down. 
Most of them, that is.  The
governor, on the other hand, a Republican named Pete Ricketts, is at the
Agricultural Outlook Forum outside Washington, DC participating in a panel
discussion of biotechnology in farming. 

In a brief interview that
appeared in the Omaha World-Herald,
Ricketts painted a glowing future of apples that don’t turn brown, salmon that
grow faster, and other developments that will feed an increasing population.  Almost in the same breath, he admitted that
the public’s view of genetic engineering is skeptical, and environmental groups
criticize large-scale farming for the effect it has on climate change.  The panel that Ricketts was scheduled to participate
in at the forum is called “The Evolving Regulatory Landscape and Adoption
of Precision Agriculture.” 

Biotechnology in general,
and genetic engineering in particular, are specialized topics that most people
know a little bit about, but only a few people know a lot about.  In such cases, the few who know a lot have
both the privilege and responsibility to use their knowledge wisely.  But wisdom in one person’s view may be folly
to another.

The tension that Gov.
Ricketts pointed out in his interview with the Omaha World-Herald involves two
camps or lines of thought.  For
simplicity, we’ll call them biotech optimists and biotech pessimists.  The optimists, which evidently include the
Governor and his fellow panelists at the forum (a biotech scientist and two
biotech-firm executives), believe that biotech will improve agriculture and
make good-quality food more available. 
We should bear in mind that increasingly, farming these days is big
farming:  large corporations operating
huge spreads with highly mechanized processes that employ fewer people all the
time per unit of product made.  That’s
just the definition of increased productivity, and it’s a driving force behind
biotech and most other production-oriented businesses these days. 

The biotech pessimists are a
more varied group.  They are no doubt
responsible for a good bit of the regulatory landscape mentioned in the forum’s
title.  Some of the reasons for
regulation are protection of endangered species, abatement of water and air
pollution (have you ever driven within a few hundred yards of an old-style pig
farm?—you’d remember it if you did), and prevention of unlikely but devastating
disasters that might happen from genetic engineering experiments gone
wrong.  The positions of such pessimists
range from mild (horse-trading adjustments to regulations in cooperation with
biotech industries) to extreme (abolishing all genetic engineering from the
planet), but they are united in their opposition to simply letting biotech optimists
do whatever they want, with no restrictions whatsoever.

In a well-running democracy,
these opposing interest groups make their opinions and facts known and reach a
compromise in cooperation with legislative bodies—a compromise that both allows
useful advances in biotechnology and avoids the worst harms that can result
from it.  Whether this democracy of ours
is running that well is a question for another time.

A factor that has to be
added to this mix in recent years is the increasingly international nature of
all trade, including trade in farm commodities. 
One hard fact that Gov. Ricketts mentioned is that Nebraska’s farm
income for 2018 is expected to be the lowest since 2002, and one factor in that
decline is the downward pressure on prices due to international free trade in
farm products.  Adam Smith’s invisible
hand is at work here, making sure that in an ideal world of free trade, the
price for each commodity is established by the most efficient producer
worldwide, leading to an overall maximum efficiency.  Mathematically, the principle is irrefutable,
but mathematics takes no cognizance of nations, cultures, customs, or
traditions.

The biotech optimists tend
to be on Adam Smith’s side, if for no other reason than if we don’t take the
next step in biotech improvements, somebody else will and they’ll undercut us
productivity-wise.  In other words, if we
don’t beat them at their own game, we lose. 
The pessimists would step in and question the propriety of the whole
game. 

Without farming, we wouldn’t
have civilization at all—no universities, no cities, no modern conveniences, no
science, and no people—well, almost no people, by comparison to what the globe
supports now.  Any nation with a
considerable land mass suitable for farming is going to have to deal with the
question of how that farming is conducted: 
whether it is protected from adverse influences such as foreign
competition and excessive regulation that would threaten its existence, or
whether it is left to fend for itself, which in a democracy gets increasingly
difficult as the number of people directly and indirectly supported by farming
dwindle.  If you read agrarians such as
Wendell Berry, you will conclude that in the U. S., we have largely taken the
latter course, treating farming increasingly like we treat the military:  as the sole preoccupation of a few
specialists we need pay no attention to, as long as they do for us what we
want. 

But such neglect is a recipe
for long-term disaster.  Taking any group
of people for granted—farmers, soldiers, engineers, even politicians—is to
treat them as means, and not ends in themselves:  human beings like us who deserve attention,
justice, and mercy.  I do not have all
the answers, or even a few of them, regarding how much biotechnology is
enough.  But farmers perform an
increasingly neglected service to us all, whether here or abroad.  And I hope that we don’t sacrifice farming
communities for the sake of free trade, or freedom from genetically-modified
crops, or any other ideal shibboleth that looks good on paper, but would wreak
havoc among people we may never meet, but upon whom we depend for every bite we
put in our mouths. 



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