Science or technology

While participating in a North Dakota Senate committee hearing on glyphosate tolerant wheat more than a decade ago, a proponent of GMO technology compared opposition to tinkering with organisms’ cellular building blocks to a car. He claimed opposing the technology of GMOs was similar to the opposing the development of the automobile. He was trying to disparage GMO opponents by calling us Luddites. The result of opposing development of the automobile, according to him, would have resulted in our continued walking or use of a horse and buggy. We, he smirked, were guilty of asking plant breeding to travel in metaphorical horse and buggy. Then he made several references to good science and bad science.

Ten years later, the same flawed analogies are still being made. My response to the automobile analogy then was and remains, that if we had used better science in how we had developed and used the technology of the internal combustion engine, we could possibly have saved ourselves many problems. Perhaps we would not now be facing global warming, smog, freeway gridlock. We might not need to have debates about drilling for oil in the arctic and national parks. We might not need to stay awake at night worrying about energy independence and security. We might have even saved ourselves billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in unnecessary wars fought to secure oil sources. I am not advocating the abandonment of automobile travel just yet. My point is that adopting the technology of cars and trucks has led to far-reaching and serious negative effects which Henry Ford could not have imagined.

Genetically modified organisms are an example of a relatively new technology. These plants and animals are not themselves “science.” Like the car, they are the application of science. They are the result of applied genetics. The car achieves the goal of moving people from one place to another and paying profits to the corporations’ executives and shareholders. Likewise, GMO organisms appear to achieve the goals set out by the companies selling them. They resist insects or they tolerate applications of herbicides. Just as sales of cars make money for Ford, GM and Chrysler, these products generate profit to the owners of the technology.

Just as cars have created unforeseen problems, GMOs are creating problems. Even though GMO wheat has never been approved for commercialization, glyphosate resistant wheat has been found growing in a field in Washington. This is not a surprise to the organic farmers in North Dakota who tried to raise the possibility of such contamination with researchers more than a decade ago. If more wheat fields are tested, my guess is it will be found that this is not an isolated case. Weeds are developing resistance to glyphosate because of the overuse of this single pesticide. Recent research hints that GMO corn and soybeans are having negative effects on the livestock which eat them. Proponents of the technology continue to maintain that no one has ever gotten sick from eating foods containing GMOs, but no one has done any epidemiological studies to back that up.

Scientists, at least those practicing “good science,” do not become so enamored with a hypothesis that they stop testing their ideas. Even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is constantly being checked for validity. For proponents of GMOs to claim that science is on their side and has proven that their products are safe is a misuse of science. It is not good science to stop asking questions, to withhold seeds from independent researchers, or to claim no one has ever gotten sick from eating an altered food. The real answer is that no one knows if anyone has gotten sick. Investment in a technology changes the research questions being asked if those doing the research are paid by those profiting from the application. Science influenced by money is not good science.

Neither is science which asks questions based on an ideology good science. We need to make sure that those of us who oppose the use of GMOs are not falling into the same trap. If our scientific arguments are to have credibility, we must be sure the research we cite is just as rigorously designed and just as free from the bias.

I learned just enough from the genetics class I took forty years ago to understand that I know almost nothing. I did learn enough then and in my study since then to know that we have just touched the very surface of what there is to know about genetics, genes, chromosomes, not to mention what we don’t know about all the interactions between genes, hormones, and the world around us. Genetic modification is far more complex than souping up your car.

If a piece of mechanical technology like a non-self-replicating car can cause so many changes in our environment, health, economy, politics and culture, what kinds problems might we not see in the application of a technology that alters chromosomes of living organisms and reproduces on its own? It seems foolhardy, in this case, to put the technology before the science.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains