Agriculture and Biotechnology

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Among approximately 80,000 types of plants that are known to be edible, only about 100 are cultivated intensively worldwide, and of that number fewer than 20, such as rice, maize, wheat, and rapeseed, provide 90 percent of food crops. This handful of species has been subjected to genetic manipulation for millennia so that even before the advent of gene splicing, they diverged dramatically in genotype and phenotype from their wild ancestors.

The Distinction between Conventional Breeding and Genetic Engineering

For thousands of years human beings have altered the genomes of all major crops radically and constantly to change growth and ripening characteristics, speed maturity, eliminate grain shattering, improve taste and reduce toxins, increase size, and even get rid of seeds, as in grapes and bananas. Pictures comparing the wild and cultivated types of any crop invite incredulity because the differences are so sweeping.

Crops that are very different from each other, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli, derive from the same ancestral stock, whereas other crops, such as bread wheat and canola, are artifacts. Wheat used for bread was created when technologists about 4,000 years ago hybridized tetraploid durum wheat with an inedible goat grass. Canola (Canada oil) was fabricated in the twentieth century by Canadian biologists who assaulted and pummeled by heat, radiation, and other means the genome of an inedible rape (mustard) plant. They selected for mutations that eliminated toxic acids and smelly glucosinolates that had made the plentiful rapeseed oil unpalatable. Every cultivar has a story of genetic manipulation and hybridization that explains its stark differences from its wild ancestors. Some of those stories, such as those of kiwi fruit, strawberry, and tomato, suggest that one can make the agronomic equivalent of a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

To assess ethical objections to agricultural biotechnology one must distinguish concerns that apply to forced mutation, hybridization, and artificial selection generally from those that apply only to the changes—often small by comparison—associated with genetic manipulation (GM). Because conventional breeding techniques have become more sophisticated and in principle may be able to achieve (although more arduously) the same mutations that GM accomplishes easily, the boundary between old and new biotechnologies may be hard to draw. The principal difference may be this: GM performs "outcrosses" that take advantage of the apparent fact that all life has the same origin, whereas conventional techniques cross species that are more closely related or apply pressure to a genome to induce hoped-for changes.

Health Risks and Benefits of GM Food

Critics of GM food present three kinds of arguments to suggest that it may not be good to eat (Thompson, p. 76). First, GM foods may produce allergic reactions because known or unknown allergens could be introduced into products people believe are safe. The food industry should and does take this problem seriously; the liability issues alone are sobering. For example, because many people are allergic to peanuts, it would be risky to introduce into other crops genes that code for a protein unique to the peanut. The fact that GM foods should be tested or screened for allergens—and this may be true of all foods—seems incontrovertible.

Second, critics contend that GM foods are not more nutritious or tasty or otherwise better for the consumer than the foods that traditionally have been available (Kneen). This is largely correct. Although all kinds of crops that promise benefits to the consumer are said to be on the horizon, few have materialized; even the highly touted vitamin A–rich "golden" rice may not be better—or cheaper or more acceptable to target consumers—than simple vitamin pills. As things stand, the benefits of GM crops go principally to farmers; those benefits will be considered below. Time will tell whether GM foods will offer significant benefits to consumers.

Third, critics invoke the precautionary principle to argue that GM is novel and untested: How can one be sure it is safe? (Pence, ch. 5). Defenders of the technology answer that GM crops are hardly new; hybridization, including distant outcrossing, has been the basis of agriculture for millennia (Prakash). The genetic alterations GM achieves are more precise and therefore less extensive than are those associated with conventional breeding. There is no evidence that suggests that genetic material introduced into a plant from more distant relatives is more dangerous than that introduced from closer cousins. The food product, moreover, will not be any less safe because of the placement of a few nucleotides in its DNA. The oil from GM soy or canola, indeed, will not contain in principle any DNA or protein (there could be traces) and thus will be chemically identical to that from the non-GM plant, which is itself an artifact of conventional breeding. Those who study the extent to which genomes of plant crops have been manipulated over the millennia see no reason to think that twenty-first century techniques produce food that is inherently more dangerous (IFT).

Those who make this reply do not contend that forced mutation and artificial selection—whether by conventional methods of breeding, more advanced techniques of hybridization, or genetic recombination—are always or necessarily safe. Instead, they contend that the risks are the same across all these ways of re-creating plant genomes. Techniques of embryo rescue, mutation-forcing irradiation, and wide crosses that transformed varieties of nightshade into the tomato, for example, dwarf twenty-first century's molecular methods in scope and effect.

As expert panels typically find, "Crops modified by modern molecular and cellular methods pose risks no different from those modified by earlier genetic methods…" (IFT, p. 23). Similary, a FAO/WHO (1991) report stated: "Biotechnology has a long history of use in food production and processing. It represents a continuum embracing both traditional breeding techniques and the latest techniques based on molecular biology. The newer biotechnological techniques, in particular, open up very great possibilities of rapidly improving the quantity and quality of food available. The use of these techniques does not result in food that is inherently less safe than that produced by conventional ones."

GM and the Farmer

Farmers eagerly adopt GM varieties, especially herbicideresistant soybean and insect-resistant cotton and corn, for several economic reasons. Farmers like to rotate soy with corn, for example, because soy, a legume, nourishes the soil corn depletes. However, soy is sensitive to the residues of glyphosphate herbicide that control weeds in corn. A glyphosphate-tolerant (Roundup-Ready) soy allows rotation; an insect-resistant corn goes far toward eliminating that risk. As farmers produce a more predictable crop—and are able to plant more closely because they do not have to cultivate it—their harvests increase. This is a mixed blessing, however, because the resulting surpluses drive down prices. As the risks decrease, moreover, farms become a target for vertical integration by agribusiness.

In the developed world GM crops represent the latest turn in the technological treadmill, with the usual consequence: glut. According to the pure theory of the treadmill, as overproduction causes crop prices to fall, farmers adopt new technology to increase yields and lower cost. The early adopters of the new technology eke out a profit by underpricing the competition, thus driving farm prices down farther. Those who are late to adopt the technology go broke and sell their land to those who still operate, leading to ever-greater concentration in the industry. The survivors must adopt increasingly more efficient technology, and so the cycle continues (Cochrane, p. 429).

In the twenty-first century, although about 593,000 Americans identify farming as their principal occupation, most of those farmers produce less than $100,000 in annual sales; only about 172,000 farmers produce the bulk of American crops. Demographers expect these numbers to continue to fall; for every full-time farmer under age thirty-five, three are over sixty-five years old. The majority of the nation's crops, many experts predict, will in a few decades be fabricated by computer-run systems overseen by engineers and other technologists directing huge machines over a vast unpeopled landscape covered with grain (Berardi and Geisler). Whatever services are not automated will be provided by contract labor, as is presently with hogs and chickens.

Farming in the traditional sense may become a "cottage" industry like glassblowing, or there may be two different kinds of agriculture: one method utterly industrialized and efficient and the other a "craft" system responsive to aesthetic, cultural, landscape, and noneconomic concerns. Large corporations may integrate food production vertically by absorbing farms. Those companies also may make and market "craft" food products, as General Mills manufactures organic foods through its subsidiary, Cascadian Farms.

Critics protest with good reason that industrial farming by megacorporations—genetic manipulation of seed is only one aspect of the industrialization of agriculture—undermines the cultural, aesthetic, ethical, ecological, and landscape values and commitments that are associated with pastoralism or with the traditional farming of the agrarian past (Comstock). These critics contend that the products of industrial agriculture, even if they are technically safe, are so manipulated, artificial, and unnatural that they are inherently disgusting, distasteful, demoralizing, and repellent. Even if food safety is not the issue, one can argue that food is more than nourishment; it is part of a way of life and has symbolic and aesthetic value. GM undermines nature and, with it, the value of food.

These are credible criticisms, but there is a rub. The people who make these charges generally are unwilling to grow their own food. They expect other people, such as farmers, to do it for them. Farmers do the best they can against nearly impossible economic odds. They find that they cannot provide the variety, quality, and abundance of food people demand at anything close to the prices people pay unless they take advantage of the efficiencies offered by technology. Farmers will absorb the relatively higher costs of raising GM-free crops, however, if people are willing to pay a large enough premium for them. Just as members of religious communities—Jews who keep kosher, for example—pay a little more for food that meets their requirements, so too may people who prefer non-GM foods. Consumers should have an "exit" option with respect to GM foods; presumably, the market for "organic" food provides that option.


Critics of GM foods may agree that they have to send a message not only through political advocacy but also through the consumer choices they make. For consumers to send a message through their choices, they must know which foods contain GM ingredients. No one questions the right of the consumer to make informed choices. Why not require that GM food be labeled to guide consumer choice?

Industry representatives offer three responses to this question. First, they observe that any manufacturer can state on a label or in advertising that its product is GM-free as long as this is true; indeed, the "organic" label implies as much. If the label does not say that a product is "GM-free" or "organic," the consumer can assume that it is not. The label "May Contain GM Ingredients," if stamped on food products, would add no information. In international forums U.S. representatives have appeared to be ready to accept this type of universal label or symbol. The label would underscore the fact that a product not labeled as being GM-free may contain at least some amount of an ingredient from a GM plant (USDS).

Second, to segregate commodity flows would be enormously costly. If a drop of soy oil from an engineered plant is mixed into a tank of oil—chemically identical to it—from conventional soy, would that taint the whole lot? How well would the tanker have to be cleaned to remove the taint? Those who observe religious restrictions have over the centuries worked out rules to determine, for example, how milk and meat are to be separated and how plates are to be washed. Are the resources available to segregate and trace through the entire food industry flows of commodities, such as canola oil, to segregate by source substances that are nearly indistinguishable chemically? No one objects if those who wish to observe aesthetic, ceremonial, or religious distinctions do so, but this must be done at their own expense. At present purveyors of "organic" food pay to assure its identity and history. Those who produce, sell, and buy ordinary products do not want the burden of that expense (IFT, pp. 124–136).

Third, so many methods of genetic manipulation enter into the production of food at so many levels—bacteria that produce enzymes that catalyze fermentation are genetically engineered but are not found in the cheese, for example—that it would be a nightmare to write regulations that determine what is or is not manipulated. By comparison, to set up rules to define "organic" food was an exercise as difficult as squaring the circle; in a literal, biological sense all food is organic. Virtually all foods are genetically manipulated as the products of artificial selection; to say which ones are not manipulated in a relevant sense is not easy. Worse, megacorporations design for the label; lawyers and engineers find ways to make the products of industrial processes comply with any set of regulations. This is the way the food industry works. This situation frustrates those who want to get food from Mother Nature rather than from Consolidated Agribusiness (Pollan).

Biotechnology and the Developing World

From a global perspective, increased production of food, however efficient, will not relieve the principal causes of famine and hunger, for these forces involve powerlessness, destitution, civil war, and oppression. The road to food security lies in making governments less corrupt, reducing ethnic and racial rivalries and hatreds, ending civil wars, improving education, providing employment, and halting gender discrimination. Food security is a function of social justice. With or without the latest advances in genetic engineering, a peaceful and just world could feed its people easily.

Farmers can and will plant and harvest as much as they can sell. As the economist Amartya Sen has written, "food output is being held back by a lack of effective demand in the marketplace" rather than by ecological constraints on production. In other words, food is not scarce but demand is because many people are too poor or powerless to purchase food even at the twenty-first century's historically low prices. As Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation points out, however, even if global production is ample, "there could still be nearly a billion people who lie outside the market and are chronically undernourished." Conway believes that agricultural biotechnology can benefit peasants who depend on local, subsistence farming. In Kenya, for example, scientists funded by Monsanto have developed a recombinant sweet potato that resists a devastating virus. Edible vaccines may be engineered into crops such as bananas. A rust-resistant cassava could make a huge difference in Africa. There is no general economic theory that shows why or how biotechnology can benefit people in developing countries. A long list of examples can be supplied, however, of the nearly miraculous potential of genetic engineering to relieve malnutrition and hunger on a crop-by-crop, problem-by-problem basis.

However, as an article in Foreign Policy observed, biotechnological innovations that create "substitutes for everything from vanilla to cocoa and coffee threaten to eliminate the livelihood of millions of Third World agricultural workers." Vanilla cultured in laboratories costs a fifth as much as vanilla extracted from beans and thus jeopardizes the livelihood of tens of thousands of vanilla farmers in Madagascar. A rapeseed (canola) engineered to express high levels of laurate, an ingredient in soaps and shampoos, allows growers in Canada to take markets away from producers of palm oil in developing countries. In general, genetic engineering of crops leads to biosubsititution, biorelocation, and bioreplication, enabling industrialized countries to produce the equivalent of traditionally tropical products and thus cease importing those commodities from developing countries. Developing nations by virtue of the same technology may flood world markets. The technological treadmill is poised to increase commodity surpluses, especially of commodities, such as cocoa and coffee, which sustain the developing world, and therefore, ironically, result in further impoverishment and further declines in demand. Rather than tending by its logic to make everyone better off, biotechnology may make wealthy countries more wealthy while taking from poor countries the monopoly on the few export commodities that once were exclusively theirs.

The Ecological Implications of Biotechnology

Critics contend that GM crops are likely to have deleterious environmental effects. For example, they will lead to greater pesticide resistance among weeds and insects because genetic material from GM organisms will drift into wild varieties; plant leaves and pollen that contain Bt or other insecticides will kill nontarget species; drought tolerance, salt tolerance, cold-hardiness, and other feats of genetic engineering will permit farms to expand into wild areas that formerly were not arable; and animals, particularly fish such as salmon, will hybridize with wild stocks, domesticating all of nature (Graziano). Nothing will evolve free of human influence.

Although all these concerns are credible, defenders of biotechnology respond that these objections are not specific to genetic engineering but apply to agriculture and aquaculture generally. Indeed, GM technologies may only increase slightly—or indeed decrease slightly—the relentless, total, and overwhelming impact of agriculture on the natural world. Even before the discovery of the structure of DNA, the entire midsection of the United States had been turned from prairie or savanna ecosystems to amber waves of grain. To restore the prairie, ecologists searched for native species in abandoned cemeteries and railroad rights-of-way. Modern agriculture roots out nature literally and figuratively and replaces it with monocultures that cover millions of acres. Nature is equally devastated whether those monocultures consist of conventional hybrids or GM plants.

Insecticides promote resistance whether they are sprayed on or bred into a plant. When they are sprayed from airplanes over large areas, these chemicals may kill nontarget species more extensively than they would if they were engineered into the leaves of crops. Weeds subjected to dousings of glyphosphate eventually must evolve to withstand the herbicide; the addition of herbicide resistance in crops may hasten this inevitable process somewhat. Crops that are the products of conventional breeding are no more "natural" than GM crops are; indeed, human-caused mutation and selection have just taken longer to achieve the desired properties. These conventional hybrids—both crops and animals, including fish—can intermingle their genes with wild types if and when wild types are found.

The effect of farming on nature can be seen best in Europe, where agriculture counts as "nature," with the alternative being urban or suburban development. Americans think of nature as wilderness, although the wilderness that remains is managed, designated wilderness—a kind of botanical garden maintained in national parks. To estimate the extent to which GM plants threaten nature, one must ask what "nature" is, whether it is more than the smile of the Cheshire cat. Environmental historians such as William Cronon state that agriculture and industry have transformed the landscape so thoroughly so many times over that it is hard to say what people are trying to protect. Also, the pressure of Homo sapiens on other organisms has directed their evolution for millennia; humans are the "keystone" species that structures the natural environment that people consider wild (McKibben).

Human Biotechnology

Many of the most controversial technologies bioethicists study in medicine—artificial fertilization and cloning are obvious examples—originated in the barnyard. The genetic manipulation of animals will be the proving ground for the genetic manipulation and enhancement of human beings. What may be most interesting in the ethical study of agricultural biotechnology, therefore, may lie in its effort to identify something "natural"—some essence, condition, history, or pedigree—that makes an animal characteristically itself and that can be lost as a result of genetic engineering. If this essence proves elusive in the agricultural context or if it turns out that everything physically possible is equally natural, by analogy, it may not be possible to identify any limits in the nature of humans (e.g., mortality) that people may not try to transcend. Human beings may be tempted, then, to improve human qualities through germ cell engineering just as they have improved the qualities of plants and animals.

The distinction between the "natural" and the "artificial" may not survive the advance of biotechnology because everything, including the human genome, may become both. This makes the human species responsible for everything, or it greatly diminishes the "given" or contingent in nature. The ability to manipulate the human genome—as people have manipulated the genomes, say, of salmon and chickens—for many technical reasons is a long way off. Indeed, it still may be considered science fiction. Someday human beings may cultivate themselves as they do other organisms. The idea that people eventually may apply to the human genome the same techniques by which they have changed crops and livestock could be the ultimate irony of agricultural biotechnology.

mark sagoff

SEE ALSO: Animal Research; Animal Welfare and Rights; Cloning; Environmental Ethics; Environmental Policy and Law; Technology


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