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What’s at Stake with Genetically Modified Organisms

A remarkable set of essays appeared recently in Grist, a nonprofit dedicated to “dishing out environmental news and commentary,” about the warring claims over genetically modified organisms. In the inaugural piece last July, the author, Nathanael Johnson, said his goal was to proceed with humility, “get past the rhetoric, fully understand the science, and take the high ground in this debate — in the same way that greens have taken the high ground in talking about climate.”

The debate over GMOs and GM foods is a pitched, polarized battle, mostly devoid of humility and pretty well loaded with rhetoric. What’s remarkable about Johnson’s essays is simply that he seems to have succeeded at doing what he set out to do. On a variety of contested issues —are GM crops tested for safety,what are the risks of creating new allergens,are GMOs good or bad for the environment— he’s talked to people on both sides and offered the conclusion that GMOs are neither as wonderful as some supports say nor as bad as some detractors say.

Johnson does not quite get to the bottom of things, though, and the problem is that he focuses only on understanding the science. “If there are grounds to oppose genetic engineering,” he writes, “they will have to be carefully considered grounds, supported by science.” The very premise of Johnson’s series, however, suggests that more is going on in the debate than  competing factual claims. That’s why there’s so much rhetoric and fog.

Johnson considers a couple of the issues that might underlie the surface debate about facts. There might, for example, be conflicting values about risk. Some people feel more strongly than others that uncertainty about risks is unacceptable, that a human activity whose risks are not fully known should be halted until we can be very confident that all the risks are known and vetted (with debates around the phrases “fully known” and “very confident”). There might also be different views about how much baseline risk we all already face. Some see nature as a fundamentally safe place; others believe nature already poses all sorts of unknown risks.

But there’s another issue that might be confounding the debate about GMOs, and which Johnson does not consider. This is that there might be different views about the intrinsic value of leaving nature alone. Johnson focuses on the task of understanding the science and weighing the risks, which directs him to consider the instrumental value of GMOs — that is, their values as instruments for producing some other good. Their instrumental value is about risks and potential benefits. But one might also oppose GMOs just because one is opposed to intervening in nature that way.

For that matter, one might also celebrate GMOs just because one values the human ingenuity and industry they represent. Scientists, one might imagine, will tend to line up on that side. Environmentalists are likely to be drawn to the side that wants to restrain human intervention into nature. That is, after all, the basic point of preservationism — to leave nature alone.

Either way — whether you are troubled by the science because it is the somewhat more intrusive way of modifying a plant, or thrilled by the science because it is a somewhat more ingenious way of modifying a plant — your position does not depend just on understanding the science, as Johnson proposes to do in this series. Your position also depends on the values you hold about the human relationship to nature.

That said, Johnson is exactly right that we should approach the debate about GMOs with humility and try to articulate the opposition to GMOs as carefully and honestly as we can. Johnson tries to approach the scientific questions. My impression is that approaching the values questions carefully and honestly could change the debate about GMOs in at least four ways.

First, getting clear on this might actually make it easier to get clear on the science, too. Right now, as I see it, the objection to GMOs rests in good measure on values people hold about the human relationship to nature. But that connection isn’t recognized, or isn’t deemed acceptable — or is just too hard to articulate and defend —  and so the objection gets awkwardly reframed in terms of concerns about the consequences of using GMOs. If we could tease these concerns apart, then maybe it would be easier to attend to the science fairly and accurately.

Second, insofar as the objection to GMOs rests on concerns about the human relationship to nature, we do those concerns a disservice by submerging them in the very different language used to express concerns about consequences. We can affirm them by elevating them to their proper place and attending to them honestly.

Third, they give another way of thinking about whether GMOs should be labeled. The FDA has been reluctant to accept labels because there seems to be nothing in particular to say about whether eating GM foods is bad for consumers. There are not really any health consequences for the label to call attention to. But the sheer fact that foods contain GMOs may be enough to justify labels.

Yet, fourth, when we attend to values about the human relationship to nature, we might decide that, just like the scientific considerations that are Johnson’s focus, they do not provide decisive reasons for broadly banning GMOs. When these values remain unstated, we are incapable of really weighing them. Fully articulating them would allow us to finally consider just how they play out in this context and whether they are genuinely threatened.

Gregory E. Kaebnick is a research scholar at the Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. He is the author of Humans in Nature: The World as We Find it and the World as We Create It.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 02/25/2014 02:42:08 PM |

Published on: February 25, 2014
Published in: Humans and Nature

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