Genetic Engineering, the Environment, and Food Production: A Case of Missed Opportunities and Mistaken Assumptions

burgerutterlyBiotechnology

Dec 11, 2012 (4 years and 11 months ago)

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Rebecca Silver

ENVS 610

Final Paper


Taking Sides Issue 14

6/1/06



Genetic Engineering, the Environment, and Food Production: A Case of
Missed Opportunities and
Mistaken Assumptions




Issue 14 from

Easton’s

Taking Sides:
Clashing Views on Controversial

Environmental
Issues

(2005)
asks “Is Genetic Engineering an Environmentally Sound Way to Increase Food
Production?” The opposing viewpoints presented in answer to this question are a carefully
qualified “yes,” offered by a global coalition of scientists g
athered under the auspices of the
Royal Society of London, and an emphatically declared “no,” articulated by Worldwatch
Institute senior researcher Brian Halweil.

Unfortunately, for those concerned with both the
environment and questions of social justice,

neither the kinds of responses elicited by this
question nor the question itself

and the main premise upon which it rests
are likely to lead
in the
long term to

productive, environmentally appropriate, equitably structured agricultural systems,
nor to a l
asting solution to the problem of hunger.


Because t
he
Taking Sides

approach to this

issue

reduces a matter of
some
scientific
uncertainty

(what are the elements of this uncertainty?)

to a
n answerable yes
-
or
-
no question, it
perpetuates

argument
(polariza
tion)
instead of promoting
productive discussion

of how we
can
and should
respond to uncertainty w
hich promises to linger.
The first half of the question asks:

is
genetic engineering environmentally sound?
Here, t
he text
frames discussion of

genetic
engine
ering
as a

simplistic
two
-
sided debate, to which a certain,
correct

answer of “yes” or

“no”
exists
.( redundant)
This framing has two effects: first, it obscures

the crucial question of what
should be done
if the answer is “we don’t know,


(there is a dif
ference between we don’t know
and “we are not completely sure” and that difference is important in the context of the argument
your trying to make)

and second, it pigeonholes critics of genetic engineering as
misanthropic

environmentalists who care little

about the world’s poor and hungry.

If it were possible to answer unequivocally, “yes, genetic engineering is environmentally
sound,” or “no, it is not environmentally sound,” certain actions could logically follow: farmers,
governments and the global comm
unity could consider or reject altogether the use of genetically
modified crops.
Yet within the context of escalating debate over genetic engineering



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reproduced within the format of the
Taking Sides

text


proponents and opponents
have
every incentive
to

emphasize scientific research that bolsters their ideological position
s

and

little reason to

concede uncertainty.

(good statement!)

Thus,

the Royal Society et al. list
the
extensive environmental and human benefits of genetic engineering that some resear
chers have
attested to; likewise, Halweil focuses on the findings of research documenting two
environmentally problematic results of GM crops, the likely evolution of resistance within pest
and weed populations and the possibility of gene transfer to wild
species.

Yet both the Royal
Society et al. and Halweil briefly acknowledge that scientific research on the environmental
effects of genetically
-
modified (GM) crops is, as of now, less than conclusive: the Royal Society,
et al. write that “concrete informat
ion about…[the] actual effects [of GM crops] on the
environment and on biological diversity is still very sparse” (
2005
: 244) and Halweil notes that
“there’s no way to predict what would happen if the Bt [a bacterium with insecticidal properties]
gene were

to escape into a wild flora” (
2005
: 255).

Since answering “I don’t know (and neither does anyone else)”

within
a yes
-
or
-
no
debate
is tantamount to admitting defeat

(why?)
, these authors
must

prove their own cases, while
overlooking a practical and, I ar
gue, more important question: in the face of scientific
uncertainty, what are reasonable courses of action?


(yes)
The “precautionary principle,” a guide
to decision
-
making in cases of uncertainty which has been frequently invoked in discussions of
global
climate change

(is that principle working there?)
, is relevant in the case of genetic
engineering as well. Application of the precautionary principle suggests that “the focus should be
on policies that are aimed at assuring sustainability over as wide a ra
nge of future conditions as
possible”

(yes but this is a completely generic statement

which also doesn’t serve anyone very
well)
(Costanza et al. 1997: 106). If we cannot predict with certainty that GM crops are
environmentally benign, policie
s should not

permit their use

(why? What’s the risk factor?)

U
nfortunately,

the argumentative format of discussion about our understanding of the
environmental effects of GM crops has diverted attention away from this simple guideline

(but
that guideline is not so si
mple)
, and by 2003 GM crops were being grown on 68 million hectares
globally (
Easton 2005
: 233)
.

In addition, the portrayal of genetic engineering as an “environmental” issue creates an
opening for the characterization of environ
mentally
-
concerned critics
as unconcerned about
human welfare.

(I don’t get this connection


you
need to elaborate and better justiry why
environmental issues go along with no concern about human welfare)

In a speech
commemorating his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for agricultural resea
rch, Norman Borlaug, a

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scientist at the forefront of the development of the “modern” agricultural technologies of the
Green Revolution

(such as high
-
yielding hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers)
, capitalizes on
this perception. Borlaug sets the efforts o
f “powerful enviro
nmental lobbying groups” in
opposition to

the work of concerned others in the “donor community” who wish to help the
world’s poor and hungry:

[there is a]
deadlock

between agriculturalists and environmentalists over what constitutes

“sust
ainable agriculture” in the Third World. This debate has confused


if

not paralyzed


many in the international donor community who, afraid of

antagonizing powerful
environmental lobbying groups, have turned away

from supporting science
-
based
a
gricultural

modernization projects still

needed in much of smallholder Asia, sub
-
Saharan
Africa, and Latin

America.

This deadlock must be broken. We cannot lose sight of the
enormous job

before us to feed 10
-
11 billion people, 90 percent of whom will begin life
in

a
developing c
ountry, and probably in poverty

(2000: 20).


In this formulation, genetic engineering is part of a zero
-
sum game in which environmental
concerns and human welfare are mutually exclusive; the possibility of
working to improve both
simultaneously

is, by implication, nonexistent.

(again, your establishing a position withour
proper justification


wh
at factors show that this is indeed a zero
-
sum game?)

Easton’s framing
of
the

debate between proponents and opponents of genetic engineering also force
s consideration
of the issue as an either
-
or proposition. The Royal Society, unsurprisingly, argues that the risks
of GM crops are minimal and tolerable, since the need to feed the world’s hungry is
correspondingly great: “we conclude that steps [including

use of GM technology] must be
taken…if the demands of an expanding world population are to be met” (2005: 237). Halweil

emphasizes

the severity of the environmental risks of GM crops, focuses exclusively on two
heavily
-
studied enviro
nmental impacts
,
the e
volution of resistance among
“the bugs” and “the
weeds”

(2005: 251; 253)
,

an approach which
does nothing to dispel the notion, exemplified by
Borlaug’s speech, of incompatibility between environmental concerns and human welfare.

(yes,
this is a good exampl
e of risk assessment being done by using very local data and then
generalizing that risk globally


I
think this should be the framework from which you use to
attack the current rhetoric on this issue)


By continuing to portray the environmental effects of

genetic engineering as an issue
which can be conclusively and unambiguously answered with a “yes” or a “no,” and by
perpetuating the perception of environmental and human concerns as mutually exclusive,
Easton’s framing of this topic misses opportunities
to re
-
think

agricultural systems. Instead of
the two
-
sided debate seen in
Taking Sides
, an open forum in which each participant’s goal is not

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to “prove” his or her “side” but to contribute knowledge, questions, and a unique perspective
could allow for h
onest discussion of the certainties and uncertainties of genetic engineering and
its effects on the environment.

(well yes, course this is the right procedure; why doe
sn’t it happen
more often?)

In addition, this format could include consideration of the
ways in which
environmental and human welfare concerns are linked can be addressed simultaneously.

Beyond the
se

problem
s associated with the

yes
-
or
-
no debate format
, however, is a

deeply
problematic assumption contained within the second half of the
Taking

Sides

question. The text
asks “
is genetic engineering an environmentally sound
way to increase food production
?”
(emphasis added), implying that
there is a need to do so

in order to feed the world’s hungry.
Conversely, if there were already sufficient foo
d production to feed the world’s population, the
question implies, there would be no need for genetic engineering.

(this is unclear; genetically
modified crops may have a more efficient distribution system than
current

agricultural practices)
The authors
of both responses reinforce this point by emphasizing that GM crops are a way of
addressing “hunger and poverty” (Royal Society et al.
2005:

234)

and are

a proposed solution to
“the chronic hunger that now haunts nearly 1 billion peop
l
e”

(Halweil

2005
: 249
). However,
neither the text’s editors nor the responding authors question the assumption that an increase
in
food production is necessary, yet

abundant evidence suggests that it is not.

(true, now back up
this claim)

Hunger, the global problem purportedly

addressed by GM crops, cannot be attributed to a
lack of food production at the global scale.
Altieri et al.
argue that

hunger and malnutrition…are not due to an absolute scarcity of food…but to the more
complex issues of who grows food and how and where

it is grown, how it is distributed,
and finally, who has access to it. In this complicated web of causality, inequality is the
outstanding driving force behind hunger (
2000
: 1).


Likewise, Jordan notes that “the problem of hunger…is not caused by lack of
genetic
engineering to produce more food. In most count
ries where hunger is prevalent
there is an excess
of staples” (2002: 527). Lappé et al. write that “the world today produces enough grain alone to
provide every human being on the planet with thirty
-
fi
ve hundred calories a day;” furthermore,
over the last thirty years, food production increases have outpaced global population growth by
16% (1998: 8). Altieri and Rosset add that “enough food is available to

provide 4.3 pounds

for
every person everyday: 2
.5 pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and
eggs and another of fruit and vegetables” (1999: 156).

(okay; reasonable evidence to support
your claim)


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If hunger is not caused by a lack of food product
ion, then the debate over GM crop
s


which are touted as a way to achieve necessary “increases in production” without “further
increasing land under cultivation” (Royal Society et al.
2005
: 235)


becomes irrelevant
.
(agreed
and this might have been a better focal point initially in this
paper)
Environmentalists wishing to
halt the advance of genetic engineering who engage in the back
-
and
-
forth dynamic of the debate
over its environmental effects miss an opportunity to expose the mistaken assumption of
necessity advanced by proponents of g
enetic engineering. More importantly, their participation
in the debate also contributes to the diversion of attention away from the more crucial problems
of poverty and inequality which cause both hunger (the catalyst for the GM debate) and
environmental
degradation
.


Poverty and inequality in access to food, income, political power, and food
-
producing
resources such as land, water and credit are cited as the causes of hunger in a world of abundant
food production. These inequalities, in turn, are connecte
d to a
complex web of

structural
economic and social f
actors
.

As an example, consider the ways in which structural adjustment
programs (SAPs), food aid, and U.S. farm subsidies interact to perpetuate and reinforce
inequality and poverty both in the U.S. an
d in developing countries
, as described below
.

SAPs are the
stringent set of economic conditions
which international lenders frequently
attach
to development loans or debt restruct
uring;

the conditions mandate that poor, usually
heavily
-
indebted countries

prioritize
such things as
the development of export agricultural
production in order to earn funds to
repay their debts. However, the

emphasis on production for
export
rather than for

domestic consumption has contributed to the incredible fac
t

that “the
c
ountries of sub
-
Saharan Africa, home to some 213 million chronically malnourished
people…continue to export food”

(Lappé et al. 10).


As government support (such as credit and
technical assistance) shifts toward export production, small farmers are left wi
th few such
opportunities
, which are often vital to their economic success
. Barry and Rosa
discuss this trend
in El Salvador, writing that “e
l acceso del sector campesino a la asistencia

técnica…
ha sido
mínimo y se deterioro

en los ochenta
.
[the small
-
farme
r (
campesino
) sector has had minimal
access to technical assistance, and this deteriorated in the 1980s]” (1995: 6).
Reinforcing the
precarious position of small farmers in the developing world, surpluses of staple crops such as
grains grown in industriali
zed countries like the U.S. are frequently donated as food aid or sold
cheaply to developing countries. Since overproduction
would otherwise cause

lower prices, this
practice of “keep[ing] large quantities of food off the market at home [in the U.S.]” supp
orts
“prices for…[U.S.] farmers” while the
surplus is sold “
at subsidiz
ed prices overseas or

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donated…
as foreign aid”

(Barrionuevo & Bradsher 2005: n.p.).
However, this floods

markets in
developing countries

with cheap staple foods
,

“undercut[ing]

the price
s of locally produced food,
[and]
drivin
g local farmers out of business


(Lappé et al. 1998: 136).
As more small farmers lose
their land,

inequality in landholding patterns increases
, with corresponding rises in poverty and
hunger, since the

landless and l
and
-
poor “make up the majority of the rural poor and hungry”
(
Rosset
2001: 3). In Guatemala, for example, the number of very small farms (less than 3.5
hectares) doubled between 1964 and 1979, and the average size of small farms (less than 7
hectares) to 1
.8 hectares. By 1979, 88% of all farms were less than the 7 hectares deemed to be
the minimum amount of land needed to support a family, while 2% of farms known as
haciendas

(large estates) controlled 65% of all arable land (Sydow and Mendonca n.d.: 26
-
29)
. Ironically,
as these trends of increasing inequality, characterized by factors such as SAPs, influxes of cheap
or donated food, and land concentration, take place in the developing world, small farmers in the
U.S. are also struggling. T
he
U.S.
“farm belt

h
as been mired in recession” for a reason connected
to the hardships of small farmers in the developing world whose crops are undercut by cheap or
donated U.S. imports:
because of subsidies which en
courage overproduction
, more farmers
produce too much and

price depressions result
. This is

a “no
-
win situation”
for farmers (Jordan
2002: 523), and occurred among Illinois corn farmers in 2005, when

farmers, encouraged by
government subsidies and high
-
yielding GM corn varieties produced

a

“bumper crop” of “16
p
ercent more per acre than expected
,
” resulting

in

“economic pain in farm regions” (
Barrionuevo
& Bradsher
2005: n.p.)
. Nor are the estimated 30 million Americans who s
uffer from hunger
helped by U.S. food aid
donation
s

of millions of metric tons of grains
annually (Lappé et al.
1998: 14).


In
Taking Sides,

however, hunger is not treated as the complex phenomenon linked to
various economic and social factors.
(correct)
Instead, hunger is related simplistically to the
aggregate quantity of food produced

(yes)
; there is no consideration of the mechanisms of
distribution of that food, nor of the complicated economic and social systems which mediate who
produces it and who eventually consumes it. In this calculation, GM crops purported to produce
more food are a
simple answer to a simple problem: grow more food to fe
ed more people. Yet
not only is the assumption of a lack of food mistaken, there is also clearly more to the problem of
hunger than

discussion within

the
Taking Sides

framework
is able to consider
. Mor
eover, the
same problems of poverty and inequality which cause hunger, the catalyst of the debate over
genetic engineering, are causes of environmental degradation worldwide
. Therefore,

even the
most misanthropic of environmentalists (those caricatured by
Borlaug) should consider the

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alleviation of poverty and inequality as environmentally
-
beneficial objectives. Those concerned
with both environmental and human welfare could find, in efforts to alleviate poverty and
inequality, a starting point for transfor
ming perceptions of “environmental issues”
away from the
model of mutual exclusivity described by Borlaug and towards an acceptanc
e of the possible
compatibility between environmentally
-
sensitive and hunger
-
reducing agricultural systems.


Blaikie and Broo
kfield (
1987
) describe the cyclical connection between rural poverty,
manifested as the economic and political marginalization of a “land manager” and/or the land
manager’s consignment to ecologically marginal land, and the degradation of that land. For
ex
ampl
e, a farmer who farms steeply sloped land prone to erosion and
cannot afford to

take soil
conservation precautions has a choice between farming the land in a way that leads to soil
erosion or not farming it at all, and probably starving. As the soil lo
sses continue, the farmer
reaps
progressively

smaller harvests, sinking deeper into poverty. Rosset

explains how

this cycle
of degradation and marginalization
can take place in connection to the emphasis on export
production mandated by SAPs:


The expansi
on of agricultural production for export, controlled by wealthy elites who
own the best lands, continually displaces the poor to ever more marginal areas for
farming. They are forced to fell forests located on poor soils, to farm thin, easily eroded
soils
on steep slopes, and to try to eke out a living on desert margins and in rainforests.
As they fall deeper into poverty…they are often accused of contributing to environmental
degradation….[Meanwhile] t
he products harvested from…more fertile lands flow
over
whelmingly toward consumers in wealthy countries. Impoverished local majorities
cannot afford to buy what is grown…The overall result is a downward spiral of land
degradation and deepening poverty in rural areas (
2001
: 3)


These dynamics have been observed

in many countries.
(correct


and an issue to consider is
whether or not genetically modified croups might help to alleviate this dy
namic. For instance, if
it were possible to genetically engineer some grain to have the same yield, but with say 1/3 less
s
oil nutrients, then this dynamic would be mitigated to some extent. Now one doesn’t know yet
if this is possible, but it is part of the equation)

In El Salvador, for example, Barry and Rosa
describe the increasing economic marginalization of farmers of b
asic grains due to falling prices,
and their consignment to steep, ecologically marginal lands because of historic patterns of
landholding in which an elite group of large landowners has controlled the best agricultural
lands; due to these factors
, basic g
rain farming often causes further land degradation and the
persistence of rural poverty (1995).


The linkage between poverty and population growth also has environmental implications.
Both neo
-
Malthusians

(what’as a neo
-
malthusian?)
, such as Ehrlich (
1971
), who echo Thomas

8

Malthus’ eighteenth
-
century writings and argue that the growing global population is causing
environmental devastation as the human population overshoots its limits, and their critics, who
disagree with various aspects of the neo
-
Malthus
ian logic, agree that larger human populations
have greater impacts on the environment.

If population growth hurts the environment, then the
question of what causes high fertility rates becomes central.

(an even more complex social and
moral issue)

Lappé
and Schurman’s power structures analysis of the causes of population
growth reveals that
addressing the underlying causes of poverty


including guarantees to “rights
to education [especially for women], medical care including contraception, old
-
age securi
ty, and
access to income
-
producing resources”


results in lowered fertility rates. Thus, the
“antidemocratic structures keeping fertility high” are those that “play a central role in
environmental destruction” via poverty (1990: 70
-
71).


Given that povert
y and population growth both cause environmental degradation, and
share underlying causes


“antidemocratic structures” such as lack of access to land, education,
health care, employment, and political power (especially for women)


environmental concern
s
hould logically include these issues. However, in the debate over genetic engineering, as
presented in
Taking Sides
, issues of povert
y and populat
ion
are
invoked in the context of hunger


GM crops will either meet the “demands of an expanding world popula
tion” (Royal Society et
al.

2005
: 237)
or fail to “feed the world’s billions” (Halweil
2005
: 257)


but are not treated as
causes of environmenta
l degradation resulting from similar causes
. On the other hand, once
poverty and population growth are perceive
d as problems which share common root causes


Lappé and Shurman’s “antidemocratic structures”


and which both contribute to hunger, it
becomes clear that solving the problem of hunger cannot be accomplished only by technological
advances such as genetic
engineering of crops. Furthermore, environmentalists concerned with
genetic engineering would do well to concern themselves with not only the potential
environmentally
-
harmful effects of GM crops but also with the

driving forces behind the
persistent world

hunger that GM proponents claim to be solving: namely,

issues of pover
ty and
population growth, and the shared set of inequalities that perpetuate them both.

Further argument
about the environmental risks of genetic engineering, based on the mistaken assu
mption that
more food is the answer to the problem of hunger, undermines understanding of the real causes
of hunger and the ways in which these problems also cause environmental degradation, and
represents a missed opportunity for environmentalists to join

forces with others concerned about
poverty and inequality to work towards an environmentally
-
sensitive, socially
-
just system of
food production.

(good summary of the problem in this last sentence)


9


10

References

Altieri
, M.
A
,

Rosset,

P
.
, &
Thrupp, L
.
A
.

(2000
).

The potential of Agroecology to Combat
Hunger in the Developing World
.

Retrieved May 30, 2006, from

http://www.emater.tche.br/docs/agroeco/artigos/agroecologia2.pdf
.


Barrionuevo
, A. &

Bradsher
, K (2005, December 8). “Sometimes a Bumper Crop is Too Much

of a Good Thing.”
The New York Times
, online edition.


Barry, D. & Rosa, H. (1995). “Crisis de la economía rural y medio ambiente en El Salvador.”
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Blaikie
, P
. &

Brookfield
, H. (1987).
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“The Green Revolution Revisited

A
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The Road Ahead.”

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-
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(1997).
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52(6): 523
-
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World Hunger: Twelve Myths

(2
nd

edition
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York: Grove Press.


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Sydow
, E. &

Mendonca
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