Science and more

In 2001, when I served as the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s board president, several of us attended a Shared Leadership Workshop sponsored by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology at the Asilomar conference center in California. Also in attendance at this workshop were other sustainable agriculture proponents and a group of soil scientists.

The event’s purpose was to enhance participants’ leadership and communication skills. The workshops were informative and helpful. It was after the formal schedule for the day, however, that the principles of improved communication were practiced. In less formal settings, real conversations between the farmers and scientists took place.

The scientists talked about their research and the positive possibilities of putting science to work with modern technology, i.e., genetics and genetic modification. The farmers raised questions of safety, monopolization of seed ownership, property rights, ethics and who ultimately will benefit. We listened, and they listened. Eventually several of the scientists told us that they, as scientists, were almost never invited to engage in discussions of philosophy, ethics and morality. They were, according to them, discouraged from asking those kinds of question because they were not “scientifically relevant.”

It is no surprise, then, that Stephen M. Druker’s new book, “Altered Genes, Twisted Truths: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public” has met with negative reviews from the biotech industry. Druker, a lawyer, is criticized for writing a book about science without having a degree in science.

I just got a copy of the Druker’s book and have read the first chapter. The first chapter is interesting and I plan to keep reading. (Lest I be accused of being a Luddite, the book is an electronic version on my iPad.) The first chapter is less about science than it is about politics, something Druker is well qualified to write about.

Often opposition to biotechnology or genetic modification is discredited because it is supposedly based on “bad science.” Sometimes we have even allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of science-only arguments. Science and understanding genetics is an important part of the discussion, but biotechnology and genetically modification of seeds and animals is no longer just science. It is applied science. It is now technology which is used in commerce, has been released into the environment and is consumed by the public. While there are indeed many scientific questions which need to be answered, the discussion cannot be limited to those questions.

The science of inserting genetic material from bacteria into plants, from animals into plants, or from one species to another must be questioned from a scientific point of view. These kinds of genetic exchanges are not possible with normal crossbreeding and hybridization. On one hand, many of the resulting products are deemed safe by the scientifically questionable principle of “substantial equivalence,” meaning they are not significantly different from their safe naturally occurring forms. Yet, the companies using this technology, claim that the modified organisms are unique enough to be patented. Something cannot, by definition, be both the same as something else and unique. Obviously, Bt corn is not the same as non-gmo corn. Without genetic modification, corn is not toxic to root worms. In spite of it’s obvious differences, Bt corn’s safety is assumed because neither corn nor Bacillus thuringiensis is usually toxic to people, therefore substantial equivalence infers that Bt corn is ok.  In spite of what the industry tells us, there are scientists who do not agree that all biotechnology is safe.

When we discuss the regulatory approval of any technology, we cannot limit ourselves to the scientific pros and cons. Too often opponents of GMO’s are stifled by accusations that their arguments are not scientific. Just as a healthy ecosystem is only possible when many parts are in balance, healthy discussion and debate can only happen when there is a balance between all disciplines. We must be able to weigh decisions about the use of modern technologies by using science in balance with economics, ethics, morality, aesthetics, and philosophy. Democracy will not be well-served by elevating the validity of one kind of knowledge over others. The application of science in all cases must evaluated on the interests of the common good. Who will be hurt by it? Who will benefit? What will be the long term effects on the environment, on health, on economic well-being? Will the use of this knowledge enhance the quality of our lives?

I look forward to reading the rest of Druker’s book.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains