Last week, GreenBiz ran a story about Arcadia Biosciences entitled “Biotech Food as a Necessity in a Warming Planet.” The story describes the California company’s efforts to develop new crops such as rice that has been genetically engineered for improved nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). The idea here is that, according to Arcadia CEO Eric Rey, “When you can grow more food using the same inputs of land, water and fertilizer, everyone — farmers, consumers, hungry people and anyone who cares about CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere — is better off.” Farmers today use $60 billion worth of nitrogen fertilizers, much of which ends up in rivers and oceans causing dead zones as the result of runoff.
So what’s not to like? No one can argue that there are severe shortages of food, water and energy in various parts of the world that are certain to become more widespread and more severe under the triple threats of a growing population, a rapidly warming planet, and the depletion of fossil fuels. Reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer, much of which comes from natural gas, required to feed us would surely be a good thing. Right?
But as Albert Einstein once said “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
This is surely the case here. Indeed, if you think about it, pretty much all of the problems that bio-engineering is trying to solve were the result of mankind’s tinkering with natural systems in the first place.
For example, why do we need so much nitrogen fertilizer? No one needed to add fertilizers to the South American rainforest or on the African savannah or the native prairies of North America. These ecosystems flourish under local conditions without any help from humans. Fertilizer becomes necessary in a mono-crop environment, like our current food system, because of soil depletion. The same is true of insecticides. It’s the monocultures that attract the insects from miles around. If you filled Central Park with nothing but candy from one end to the other, do you think you’d have any trouble getting kids to show up? Herbicides are only required in monocultures, which often consist of plants that are not native to the area. In nature, plants grow symbiotically with other plants.
As Wes Jackson points out, in natural settings these services are provided by cooperation within the ecosystem. We destroyed those services when we plowed up the land and planted monocultures. We did this thinking that we were smarter than nature, when maybe we’re not nearly as smart as we like to think we are.
The mental model that created this mess we are in today was largely developed in the agricultural sector. Remember the Green Revolution? All those fertilizers and pesticides to the rescue. But what is the result? We now have more people than the planet can possibly sustain.
Isn’t it possible that this, like many of the great advances of the past two centuries came about as the result of short term thinking, either solving the problem immediately ahead of us, or finding a way to get rich quick?
So the question that must be asked of these bio-engineered foods, is the same question that must be asked of any proposed solution, be it in the food sector, or the energy sector or any other sector that has a broad impact on both our society and the natural environment that supports us. Does it stand up to the long view? Will our grandchildren and their children be glad that we did this? Will it pass the test of seven generations that the Native Americans used?
Here are some of the concerns that have been raised about genetically modified foods.
- Unintended environmental harm. Because we are tinkering with the innermost workings of life itself, of which we have only a superficial knowledge, we really have no way of predicting what might happen once these modified organisms get loose in the environment. As one example, BT corn, one of the first GMO foods, caused a high mortality rate among monarch butterflies.
- Evolution keeps on working. There is no reason why these organisms won’t contribute to the selection of super-insects that can withstand the pesticides and weeds that will inherit herbicide tolerance and become super-weeds. Then what?
- Cross-pollination occurs. Neighboring plants may take on characteristics that while desirable in one species might be undesirable in another. Plants and animals taking on these characteristics might be less fit to survive in the wild.
- Unknown health effects. Some animal studies have shown substantial physiological changes when compared to animals fed non-GMO versions of the same food. All of these studies have been contested by a very aggressive industry. Effects on humans are nearly impossible to distinguish from thousands of other factors.
- Proliferation of pathogens. Recently, a very serious new pathogen was found in much higher concentrations among GMO crops.
Given the large numbers of risks involved, it is difficult to use the word “responsible” and GMO-foods in the same sentence. This, of course, is the reason why they are largely banned in most European countries. To do the kind of exhaustive testing that would be required before these new species could be released responsibly would be cost-prohibitive. And I’m not talking about the watered-down test protocols that certain government agencies now staffed by former bio-engineering executives have decided to settle for.
Yes, our food system has an excessively large footprint and needs desperately to change. But as a species, I think that arrogance has taken us about as far as it is going to take us, which is to the brink of disaster. It’s time for us to realize that this planet with its spectacular natural resources is not a blank canvas for us to paint upon, but rather an example for us to follow.
[Image credit:Rice: Agrilifetoday: Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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