A new book explores this “fallacy of transferable ‘essence’”: Bruce Hood (2009). SuperSense. HarperOne.

For the stark contrast between the GE positions of scientific organizations versus environmental organizations, see the tables compiled by Nature Biotechnology here and here.

Rachel Carson (1962), Silent Spring. Mariner. p 278

Steering committee of 1975 Asilomar conference: Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, Paul Berg

James Watson at Asilomar Conference

“Remarks on Recombinant DNA,” James Watson, CoEvolution Quarterly, Summer 1977. pp 40-41

Horace Freeland Judson (1996), The Eighth Day of Creation. Cold Spring Harbor. p 598

“Recombinant DNA, Paul Ehrlich, and Friends of the Earth,” CoEvolution Quarterly, Spring 1978. pp 24-26

“Round 2 for Biotech Beets,” Andrew Pollock. New York Times, Nov. 27, 2007

I added Raven’s sentence about beer and cheese from email he sent me in 2009.

“GM Crops Face Heat of Debate,” Ricki Lewis and Barry Palevitz. The Scientist, Oct. 11, 1999

“The Real GM Food Scandal,” Dick Taverne. Prospect, Nov. 25, 2007

Pat Thomas, editor. The Ecologist, Feb., 2008. p 5

“More than a Food Fight,” Julia A. Moore. Issues in Science and Technology, Summer, 2001

Nina Federoff (2004).  Mendel in the Kitchen. Joseph Henry. p 140

Jonathan Gressel (2008).  Genetic Glass Ceilings. Johns Hopkins. p 3

Pamela Ronald, Raoul Adamchak (2008).  Tomorrow’s Table. Oxford. p 92

Julian Morris, Roger Bate (1999).  Fearing Food. Oxford. pp 25-26

Nina Federoff (2004).  Mendel in the Kitchen. Joseph Henry. p 168

GE food can apparently defeat non-food allergies. According to a 2009 report, “A team of researchers from Japan’s National Institute for Agrobiological Sciences has successfully developed a genetically modified rice variety that fights Japanese cedar pollen allergy.”

Roger Bate(1999).  What Risk? Butterworth-Heinemann. p 173

Carl Zimmer (2008).  Microcosm. Random. p 190

“Study finds humans still evolving, and quickly,” Karen Kaplan. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 11, 2007

“Humans Are Evolving Faster than Ever Now!” Stefan Anitei. Softpedia, Dec. 7, 2007

J. Craig Venter (2007).  A Life Decoded. Viking. p 125

Green Genes

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

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All of evolution, all of agriculture, and all of selective breeding of any kind is genetic modification and always has been. GE specifies genetic engineering, a finer-grained practice. Instead of selecting for traits, which breeders do, GE identifies the genes behind the traits and works selectively and directly with those genes.…

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(The fishy strawberry story happens to be wrong, but that doesn’t affect its legendary impact. As usual with good stories, it’s partly a conflation—in the early 1990s there was a tomato called Flavr-Savr with a bacterial gene to slow ripening, and it was popular, but it was too hard to ship after all and didn’t taste great, so it disappeared; and there was an attempt in 1991 to duplicate a flounder gene in a tomato to make it frost tolerant, but it failed to work. There never was a strawberry with a fish gene in it.)


The whole GE controversy was foreshadowed—and should have been settled—in the mid-1970s when recombinant DNA hit the fan.…

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That was the atmosphere that led to the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules in California in February 1975. Coming from all over the world, some 146 genetic scientists and related professionals convened for four days to regulate their research. They instituted an array of laboratory containment practices and mandated the use of organisms that could not live outside the lab.…

In 1977, two years after Asilomar, the California legislature was threatening to regulate recombinant DNA research in the state, so James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA and director of the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, came to visit. Watson had been an early supporter of the moratorium on recombinant DNA research and had helped to organize Asilomar.

In a short talk to a group including Brown, the governor’s staff, and some legislators and press, Watson said:

My position is that I don’t regard recombinant DNA as a major or plausible public health hazard, and so I don’t think that legislation is necessary.…

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Watson was right, it turned out. The authoritative book on the history of molecular biology is Horace Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation (1996). A year after the Asilomar conference, Judson reports, “scientists’ fears were receding fast.…

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One particularly ingenious early adopter of the new genetic technology was Bruce Ames, a biochemist at the University of California-Berkeley. The problem he wanted to solve concerned the tens of thousands of novel chemicals that industry routinely creates and releases into the environment without much testing for their toxicity. An animal test for carcinogenicity using rats or mice would take two years and cost up to $750,000 per chemical, and a thousand new chemicals were being introduced every year.

Proposing that any chemical that would cause cancer would also cause genetic mutations, Ames engineered a strain of bacteria so that it would provide a quick test for mutagenicity as a stand-in for the carcinogenicity test. He took Salmonella bacteria and elegantly tailored them so they would starve in a petri dish filled with a particular nutrient unless they mutated the ability to eat it. He would drop a sample of the chemical to be tested in the dish. If, two days later, colonies of Salmonella were prospering in the dish, it showed that the chemical caused mutations and probably caused cancer. Though it took Ames ten years to develop the test, he gave away his Salmonella strain and his technique free of charge or patent to any who wanted it. Instead of the two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars required for an animal test, the Ames test took two days and cost $250 to $1,000. It became the world standard test for carcinogenicity and continues in use today.…

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Two prominent members of the FOE advisory council argued against the campaign and then resigned in protest when their advice was ignored. They were Lewis Thomas, the celebrated author of The Lives of a Cell and head of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Paul Ehrlich, then the most influential of Green-activist scientists. I happened to get a copy of Ehrlich’s protest letter and printed it in CoEvolution Quarterly.

What Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1977 still applies:

Dear Friends:

As a professional biologist, I have become increasingly concerned about the opposition to recombinant DNA research expressed by FOE and some other environmental groups.…

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Thirty years after Paul Ehrlich resigned in protest, Friends of the Earth and all the other environmental organizations I know of still oppose genetic engineering. Most of all they oppose transgenic food crops; thus the great coinage “Frankenfood.” Since pickiness about diet and loathing of the “wrong” food is such an ancient cultural practice, maybe that’s the heart of the matter. I suspect that if environmentalists felt OK about eating genetically engineered food, their other complaints would fade away, so let’s start there.

The most massive dietary experiment in history has taken place since 1996. One enormous set of people—everyone in North America—bravely ate vast quantities of genetically engineered food crops. (Some 70 percent of processed foods in the United States now have GE ingredients, mostly from corn, canola, and soybeans; nearly half of the field corn that goes into our corn muffins, corn chips, and tortillas is GE; and half of our sugar comes from GE sugar beets.…)

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Peter Raven sums up the outcome: “There is no science to back up the reasons for concern about foods from GM plants at all. Hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM foods, and no one has ever gotten sick.  Virtually all beers and cheeses are made with the assistance of GM microorganisms, and nobody gives a damn.”

(Who’s Peter Raven? The head of the Missouri Botanical Garden for the last four decades, he is usually described as “one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity.” He has won nearly every environmental prize there is, as well as the National Medal of Science; Time declared him a “Hero for the Planet.” )

Raven is hardly alone in his conclusions. In 2004 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported:

The question of the safety of genetically modified foods has been reviewed by the International Council of Science (ICSU), which based its opinion on 50 authoritative independent scientific assessments from around the world. Currently available genetically modified crops—and foods derived from them—have been judged safe to eat, and the methods used to test them have been deemed appropriate.…

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Here’s one more overview, from a 2007 article titled “The Real GM Food Scandal,” in Britain’s Prospect magazine:

The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world’s leading experts—the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue—has confirmed this.…

The science is in. The question then is, what do anti-GE environmentalists do with it? Some just deny the science exists. In February 2008 the editor of a UK magazine inaccurately named The Ecologist wrote, “[Politicians] can truthfully say that they have never seen any data showing that eating GM is harmful to humans, because, of course, the research has never been done.” Others say the science is irrelevant. Joschka Fischer, a leader of the Green Party and Germany’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2005, said in 2001, “Europeans do not want genetically modified food—period. It does not matter what research shows; they just do not want it and that has to be respected.”

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The weird fact is that GE foods, because they are so exhaustively vetted, are safer to eat than the products of conventional and organic farming. In the United States, new GE crops are tested by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency, whereas new crop varieties created by breeding go through no such process.

Consider the kiwi. Arrived at by traditional selective breeding of the Chinese gooseberry and marketed aggressively by New Zealanders, it has become popular worldwide. Yet, as Israeli plant scientist Jonathan Gressel points out, “If the kiwi fruit had been genetically engineered, it would not be on our tables. A very small proportion of the population develops severe allergies to kiwi fruit with a wide range of symptoms, from localized oral allergy syndrome to life-threatening anaphylaxis, which can occur within minutes after eating the fruit.” (Peanuts, shellfish, wheat, dairy products, and other common foods also cause allergies; they—and the kiwi—could some day be made nonallergenic with genetic engineering, and should be.  A nonallergenic GE peanut is already being developed at the University of Georgia.)

Toxicity is normal in plants because they can’t run from their predators and competitors. They have to stand and fight. They use spines against the predators, shade against the competition, and poison against everybody, including us. Organic farmer Raoul Adamchak reports, “I have discovered that green potatoes make pretty good rodent poison. One day I went into the certified organic hoophouse to find three dead mice near some freshly eaten green potatoes.” His wife, geneticist Pamela Ronald, comments, “So far, compounds that are toxic to animals have only cropped up in foods developed through conventional breeding approaches. There have not been any adverse health or environmental effects resulting from commercialized GE crops.”

Bruce Ames once did animal carcinogenicity tests on 27 of the 1,000-plus natural chemicals in a sample of roasted organic coffee. He and his colleague Lois Gold found that 8 of the chemicals were not harmful, but 19 caused cancer in the rats—acetaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzene, benzofuran, and on through styrene, toluene, and xylene.  “On average,” they wrote, “Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products.”

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Geneticist Nina Federoff elaborated in Mendel in the Kitchen (2004):

Lima beans contain a chemical that breaks down during digestion into hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous. Toxic psoralens in celery cause skin rashes. Moreover, psoralen cross-links the strands of DNA to each other, which can cause cancer.…

Bruce Ames found that one of the major causes of cancer is dietary imbalance: “The quarter of the population eating the least fruits and vegetables has double the cancer rate for most types of cancer compared with the quarter eating the most.…”

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Science journalist Carl Zimmer notes: “Scientists have identified more than 98,000 viruses in the human genome, along with the mutant vestiges of 150,000 others. … If we were to strip out all our transgenic DNA, we would become extinct.”  (More on that matter in the next chapter.)

Human evolution has been accelerating ever since we left Africa seventy thousand years ago, and it sped up even further once we began co-evolving with agriculture. Races emerged only twenty thousand years ago. With the larger population that agriculture permitted, our rate of evolution increased a hundredfold. Seven percent of our working genes are recent adaptations. “Nobody 10,000 years ago had blue eyes,” says anthropologist John Hawks. “Why is it that blue-eyed people had a 5 percent advantage in reproducing compared to non-blue-eyed people? I have no idea.” (My blue-eyed hypothesis would be that a number of males and females decided that blue eyes were sexy.) Gregory Cochran, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah, says that “history looks more and more like a science fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arose and displaced normal humans—sometimes quietly, by surviving starvation and disease better, sometimes as a conquering horde. And we are those mutants.” Thanks to globalization and urbanization, races everywhere are mixing more, and that gives evolution even more variability to work with. We are becoming a world of smart mutts.

Craig Venter, the leading cataloger of the human genome, notes that only 3 percent of our genome consists of protein-producing genes, and the rest is “regulatory regions, DNA fossils, the rusting hulks of old genes, repetitious sequences, parasitic DNA, viruses, and mysterious stretches of who-knows-what.” (Venter is careful never to use the term “junk DNA.”) One truly selfish gene has made a million copies of itself, taking up 10 percent of our genome; it seems to have no function other than self-replication.… 

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Sing their praises!—the crops of the Americas: squash (first domesticated 10,000 years ago), corn (9,000 years), potatoes (7,000 years), peanuts (8,500 years), and chilis (6,000 years); the crops of the Mideast: rye (13,000 years), figs (11,400 years), wheat (10,500 years), and barley (10,000 years); the crops of China: rice (8,000 years) and millet (8,000 years); the crops of New Guinea: bananas (7,000 years), yams (7,000 years), and taro (7,000 years); and the crops of Africa: sorghum (4,000 years) and pearl millet (3,000 years).…

Botanist Klaus Ammann points out that good old wheat, fashioned through good old breeding, has modifications that include “the addition of chromosome fragments, the integration of entire foreign genomes, and radiation-induced mutations.”

Transgenic blending is an old story in agriculture. As philosopher Johann Klassen argues, “We don’t feel revulsion at the thought of a mule, an unnatural cross between horse and donkey; at a rutabaga, an unnatural cross between cabbage and turnip; at triticale, an unnatural cross between wheat and rye.”

Organic farmer José Baer (son of solar pioneer Steve Baer) offers perspective.

We have been creating weird crop species for millennia. First we simply selected the ones we liked and planted them again, then we used chemical mutagenesis to speed up mutations and arrive at the ones that weren’t likely to appear anytime soon. Then we discovered radiation mutagenesis was even more effective.…

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As a certified organic farmer, Baer grows several crop varieties that come from radiation mutagenesis—blasting seeds with intense radiation to get more mutations in the seedlings—widely used by breeders since 1927 and common on organic farms, but he is not allowed to grow any genetically engineered crops. A comparison study published in 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences showed that rice lines resulting from gamma radiation mutagenesis caused more disruption of “non-target genes”—more unexpected consequences—than occurred in transgenic lines of rice.

The precision of GE, writes Jonathan Gressel, lets you control “in which tissue, under what circumstances, and how much a gene will be expressed. This is done without introducing all the extraneous genetic baggage brought by crossing with the related species. Genetic engineering is like getting a spouse without in-laws, whereas breeding is like getting a spouse with a whole village.” The traditional method for removing the extraneous genes is with many generations of backcrossing—a blind, random, painstaking process.

Unwelcome traits still get through. In the 1960s the Lenape potato was developed by crossing the popular Delta Gold potato with a wild relative to increase insect resistance. The Lenape was delicious and indeed insect resistant, so it was released to public use, distributed as popular potato chips and used by other breeders. But after one breeder found that Lenapes made him nauseous, analysis showed that they were high in a natural glycoalkaloid toxin from the wild potato. The Lenape was formally withdrawn, but it was too late. Thirteen varieties of potatoes still remain on the market with Lenape toxins bred into them.…

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In 1999 Amory Lovins made a public statement against GE that puzzled me. (I’m using Lovins as a foil more than he deserves because his statements have such clarity that they offer good purchase for argument.) “Shotgunning alien genes into the genome,” he wrote, “is like introducing exotic species into an ecosystem.…”

I think Peter Raven nailed what it’s really all about. “When people talk about taking genes from one distantly related organism to another,” he told an interviewer in 1999, “they talk as if every gene in a mouse had a little mouse in it and putting it somewhere else would be bizarre.” Genes, he said, are nothing but “strings of bases which, in triplets, specify the amino acids that make up proteins. A lot of different organisms use similar or nearly identical genes to do the same job.…”

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In 1982, a human gene was introduced into the bacterium E. coli so that “bioreactors” of trillions of the engineered organisms could generate vast quantities of human insulin in a way that is safer and far cheaper than the old technique using the pancreases of calves and pigs. These days about a quarter of all new drugs are made by genetic engineering—130 so far in the United States, 87 in Europe—and the rate is accelerating.…

To an ecologist, or to a Gaian for that matter, agriculture is one vast catastrophe. The less of it, the better. Thus Peter Raven: “Nothing has driven more species to extinction or caused more instability in the world’s ecological systems than the development of an agriculture sufficient to feed 6.3 billion people.” Thus Jim Lovelock: “The fact that at least 40 percent of the land surface is used for food crops is hardly ever taken into account in our current approach to climate change. A self-regulating planet needs its ecosystems to stay in homeostasis. We cannot have both our crops and a steady comfortable climate.” (That 40 percent of the Earth’s land breaks down to 5.8 million square miles in permanent cropland, 13.5 million square miles in permanent pasture. The remaining 31 million square miles is ecological.…)

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About 40 percent of crop yield in the world is lost to weeds and pests every year. The spectacular success of GE crops in lowering those losses is why Science magazine could report in 2007, “Over the past 11 years, biotech crop area has increased more than 60-fold, making GM crops one of the most quickly adopted farming technologies in modern history.” Just two GE traits are responsible for most of that success—herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

The herbicide in question is glyphosate (pronounced GLY-fo-sate), discovered in 1971 and marketed since 1974 by Monsanto as Roundup. It’s a pretty miraculous compound. Sprayed on a plant’s leaves, glyphosate disables an enzyme in the chloroplasts so that the plant starves to death over a week or two. It has no proven effect on any animal—insects, fish, birds, mammals, or us.…

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“With no-till,” says Jim Cook, a plant pathologist and sustainable-agriculture evangelist at Washington State University, “you improve soil structures, stop erosion, sequester carbon, improve water filtration rather than letting it run off the land, and store more water in years of drought.”

There are also major climate benefits. Soil holds more carbon in it than all living vegetation and the atmosphere put together. (Earth’s soil holds about 1,500 gigatons of carbon, versus 600 gigatons in living plants and 830 gigatons in the atmosphere.) Tilling releases that carbon. Jim Cook explains: “Carbon disappears faster if you stir the soil. If you chop the crop residue up, bury it, and stir it—which is what we call tillage—there’s a burst of biological activity, since you keep making new surface area to be attacked by the decomposers. You’re not sequestering carbon anymore, you’re basically burning up the whole season’s residue.”

Plowed land is the source of gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Cultivated soil loses half of its organic carbon over decades of plowing, but sustained no-till farming can bring the carbon content back to a level the equal of wildland soil, such as in tallgrass prairies, according to soil microbiologist Charles Rice, who has done extensive comparative studies at Kansas State University. More and more of GE agriculture is shifting to no-till—80 percent of soybean acreage, for example—because it saves the farmer so much time, money, and fuel. Saving the fuel also helps save the atmosphere. “About 5 percent of all fossil fuel use is by agriculture, and most of this goes on weed control,” writes geneticist Jennifer Thomson in Seeds for the Future.…

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Some weeds, if they’re related to the crop plants, may borrow helpful genes from them. That has happened historically with rice, millet, sorghum, sunflowers, and sugar beets, and it is legitimately something to worry about with new GE crop genes.

New glyphosate-resistant weeds are turning up, not so much through gene borrowing as through the usual evolutionary response to the increased selection pressure of any highly successful, overemployed, deadly technique. When only glyphosate is used to kill weeds, some weeds will evolve a workaround all too soon. The main countermeasure is to employ the full arsenal of integrated pest management—crop timing, crop rotation, biocontrols, etc.—so the weeds face too many simultaneous obstacles to evolve around. Genetic engineering also can “stack” genes for resistance to other effective herbicides such as Dicamba along with the glyphosate resistance, and the genes can be parked in the maternal portion of the genome so they can’t spread to the world through the male pollen.…

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What about superbugs? Here the questions are raised around the hugely popular engineered crops Bt corn and Bt cotton. The Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium with a unique toxin lethal to the larvae of the butterflies and moths that normally feed on the now-GE crops. Organic farmers have long sprayed dried Bt bacteria on their crops because they are considered a natural pesticide; they are very effective; and they kill only the target insects, with no harm to beneficial insects or human customers.…

The main ecological effect of Bt crops has been a drastic reduction in pesticide use. Cotton is especially pesticide-intensive. The introduction of GE cotton has dropped pesticide use by half. In one GE crop region studied, a tenth as many farm workers are being hospitalized for ailments caused by farm chemicals. And, astonishingly, no insect pests significantly resistant to Bt crops have evolved yet, even though some five hundred insect species have developed resistance to sprayed pesticides.

Thus GE crops help mitigate greenhouse gases and are more ecologically benign than non-GE crops. “GM corn, cotton and soybean have been in commercial use for over five years now, and millions of hectares have been grown without any field reports of adverse ecological impacts,” said a 2001 study in the peer-reviewed journal EMBO Reports. “Substantial environmental benefits,” it continued, “have been established for some of these products, such as Bt cotton, because of the resulting reduction in the use of chemical insecticides. … Indeed, populations of predatory arthropods that help to control secondary pests like aphids are found to be consistently higher in Bt cotton fields than in sprayed fields of conventional cotton.”

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Peter Raven sums it up: “To assert that GM techniques are a threat to biodiversity is to state the exact opposite of the truth. They and other methods and techniques must be used, and used aggressively, to help build sustainable and productive, low-input agricultural systems … around the world.” 


“Mapping a clan of mobile selfish genes,” Holly Korschun. Innovations Report, Dec. 24, 2008

“Seeking Agriculture’s Ancient Roots,” Michael Balter. Science, June 29, 2007

Klaus Amman (2007), “Reconciling Traditional Knowledge with Modern Agriculture: A Guide for Building Bridges,” in Intellectual Property Management in Health and Agricultural Innovation. p 1546

Johann Klaassen (2007). “Contemporary Biotechnology and the New ‘Green Revolution,’ in Social Philosophy Today, Vol. 22.  p 104

Email from José Baer, Oct. 8, 2007

“Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation,” William J. Broad. New York Times, Aug. 28, 2007

“Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomatic changes than transgene insertion,” Rita Batista et al. PNAS, March 4, 2008. pp3640-3645

Jonathan Gressel (2008).  Genetic Glass Ceilings. Johns Hopkins. p 132

Nina Federoff (2004).  Mendel in the Kitchen. Joseph Henry. p 171

“A Tale of Two Botanies,” Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. Rocky Mountain Insitute, July, 1999

“Peter and the Wolf” Jeannette Batz. Riverfront Times, Nov. 3, 1999

Robert Paarlberg (2008).  Starved for Science. Harvard. p 35

Nina Federoff (2004).  Mendel in the Kitchen. Joseph Henry. p 315

Email from Lovelock, July 30, 2007

Jonathan Gressel (2008).  Genetic Glass Ceilings. Johns Hopkins. p xv

“A Growing Threat Down on the Farm” Robert F. Service. Science, May 25, 2007

Nina Federoff (2004).  Mendel in the Kitchen. Joseph Henry. p 278

Mendel in the Kitchen. p 272

“Storing Carbon in Soil: Why and How?” Charles W. Rice. Geotimes, Jan., 2002

Jennifer Thomson (2006).  Seeds for the Future.  Cornell Univ. p 39

Jonathan Gressel (2008).  Genetic Glass Ceilings. Johns Hopkins. p 88

Jennifer Thomson (2006).  Seeds for the Future.  Cornell Univ. pp 15-18

“Is opposition to GM crops science or politics?” Anthony Trewavas and Christopher Leaver. EMBO Reports 2 6. 2001

Nina Federoff (2004).  Mendel in the Kitchen. Joseph Henry. p 315

The family farm idea is a bucolic fantasy based on selective memory, songs from musicals (“Howdy, neighbor! Happy harvest!”), and the marketing images used for organic produce. It recalls what the world was like in 1900, when half of all Americans lived and worked on farms. One percent of Americans now work on farms. You can’t have a family farm if all the children light out for the city, and that’s what they do. The average age of American farmers is fifty-five.

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Environmentalists keep insisting that GE crops are bad for farmers, especially small-scale farmers. That position is tough to maintain as the reality emerges that even in the face of opposition, GE crops are tremendously popular. “Every time a GE crop has been approved for use,” notes Pamela Ronald, “farmers have embraced it and the GE acreage for each crop has quickly grown to 50 to 90 percent of the total acreage.” A 2008 study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation reported:

Two million more farmers planted biotech crops last year, to total 12 million farmers globally enjoying the advantages from the improved technology. Notably, 9 out of 10, or 11 million of the benefiting farmers, were resource-­poor farmers. . . . In fact, the number of developing countries (12) planting bio-­ tech crops surpassed the number of industrialized countries (11), and the growth rate in the developing world was three times that of industrialized nations (21 percent compared to 6 percent).

In the developing world, nearly all farms are smaller than five acres, and most are one acre or less.

Farmers want GE technology for their crops; nonfarmers want them not to want it. I’ve seen a classic case of that standoff play out between Marin and Sonoma counties in California. Our tugboat home is in nonagricultural Marin, close to San Francisco and its attitudes. Marin outlawed GE agriculture in 2002. The defunct dairy farm where we spend week-ends is in Sonoma, the next county to the north, still primarily agricultural. In 2005 Sonoma voted on an ordinance to abate all GE agriculture in the county. The official argument for the measure evoked the standard language: “Measure M will protect Sonoma County’s family farmers, gardeners and environment from irreversible genetic contamination by GE organisms. Our children should not be used as guinea pigs for genetic engineering.…”

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Nine local farmers’ organizations, including the Sonoma Country Farm Bureau, opposed the ban. “In contrast,” Pamela Ronald notes, “urban residents, food processing companies, and wineries support[ed] it, hopeful to include ‘GE-free Sonoma’ on their label, as a new way to market their products.” They lost: Measure M was defeated, 55 percent to 45 percent. Wherever farmers rule, GE wins. All the major agricultural counties in the state defeated similar resolutions.

In 2006, when two hundred French anti-GE activists destroyed fifteen acres of GE corn near Toulouse, eight hundred local farmers marched in a nearby town to protest the attack and petition the government to support GE research. In 2000, GE soybeans were legal in Argentina but outlawed in Brazil. The difference in productivity was so obvious that Brazilian farmers smuggled the seeds across the border, until their government relented and legalized GE agriculture.

Why do environmentalists want to deny the advantages of GE crops to farmers in the developing world, who need it most? Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa (2008), theorizes that rich countries have the luxury of debating the nuances of economics and perceived risk around GE crops, whereas poor countries don’t:

The technology is directly beneficial to only a tiny number of citizens in rich countries—­soybean farmers, corn farmers, a few seed companies, patent holders. Consumers don’t get a direct benefit at all, so it doesn’t cost them anything to drive it off the market with regulations. The problem comes when the regulatory systems created in rich countries are then exported to regions like Africa, where two thirds of the people are farm-­ ers, and where they would be the direct beneficiaries.

Florence Wambugu puts it baldly: “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?” (A Kenyan plant pathologist educated on three continents, Dr. Wambugu did a three-year postdoc in genetic engineering with Monsanto, developing a virus-resistant GE sweet potato. She heads the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation, based in Nairobi. In 2008 she won the Yara Prize for a Green Revolution in Africa.…)

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When, despite fierce lobbying by Indian pesticide companies, farmers in India adopted Bt cotton in 2002, the nation went from a cotton importer to an exporter, from a crop of 17 million bales to 27 million bales. What was the social cost of that? The 2008 Rockefeller-funded report says:

A study of 9,300 Bt cotton and non-Bt cotton-growing households in India indicated that women and children in Bt cotton households have slightly more access to social benefits than non-Bt cotton growers. These include slight increases in pre-natal visits, assistance with at-home births, higher school enrollment for children and a higher proportion of children vaccinated.

The main event was that Bt cotton increased yield by 50 percent and diminished pesticide use by 50 percent, and the Indian growers’ total income went from $840 million to $1.7 billion.

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The story: A May 1999 issue of Nature included a one-page note— “Transgenic Pollen Harms Monarch Larvae”—by Cornell entomologist John Losey and colleagues. They reported a four-day lab experiment in which monarch caterpillars were fed an unspecified amount of pollen from Bt corn, and 44 percent of them died. The story made the front page of the New York Times and was broadcast widely by GE opponents. It still is.

The rest of the story: Subsequent exhaustive field research showed that the actual effect of Bt corn pollen would kill, at most, three monarch caterpillars out of ten thousand, a minute fraction of the hazards monarchs face from other impacts of civilization. Six detailed papers on the subject (with thirty authors) appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in September 2001 but got no secondary press because their news was lost in the media din created by 9/11.

Superenvironmentalist Peter Raven cowrote a July 2000 paper in PNAS, which concluded that, because the major real harm to monarch populations is from habitat loss and the use of pesticides in Mexico and the United States, and “considering the gains obviously achieved in the level of survival of populations of monarch butterflies and other insects by eliminating a large proportion of the pesticides applied to the same crops, the widespread cultivation of Bt corn may have huge benefits for monarch butterfly survival.”

(Monarchs are bright orange for an interesting coevolutionary reason. The larvae feed on milkweeds, having developed the talent to endure the poison, a cardiac glycoside, with which the plants repel most other bugs. The monarch caterpillars not only tolerate the poison, they incorporate it into their brightly colored bodies and pass it on to their brightly colored, slow-­flying adult form. The brilliant colors are advertising: “I’m really poi-­ sonous!” Birds learn to shun monarchs. Another somewhat poisonous but-­ terfly, the viceroy, which gets its poison from eating willow leaves, adapted to look exactly like the monarch so that birds would efficiently lump all vile-­tasting prey into a single orange avoidance image. It’s one of the clas-­ sic just-­so stories of coevolution. The concept of coevolution, by the way, was coinvented in 1964 by botanist Peter Raven and lepidopterist Paul Ehrlich—­before his population bomb fame. Their paper, “Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution,” is one of the most cited in biology. When Peter Raven says Bt corn is good for monarchs, he probably knows what he’s talking about.)


The story: In November 2001, Nature published “Transgenic DNA Intro-­ gressed into Traditional Maize Landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico,” by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela. The paper’s impact was immediate and wide-­ spread, because landraces are important to agriculture. They are reser-­ voirs of genetic diversity, maintained by traditional, small-­scale farmers who save and select their seeds for optimization to local tastes and local conditions. Particularly worrisome is anything suspicious happening with corn landraces in Mexico, where the crop was first created and first diversi-­ fied; landraces comprise two thirds of all the corn grown in Mexico.

The Nature paper suggested that genes and gene fragments from GE corn were turning up in landrace genomes, uninvited and through untraceable pathways. “This is the world’s worst case of contamination by genetically modified material because it happened in the place of origin of a major crop,” said Jorge Soberón, secretary of Mexico’s National Bio-­ diversity Council. “It was as if someone had gone to the United Kingdom and started replacing the stained-­glass windows in the cathedrals with plastic.”

The rest of the story: The anti-­GE world exploded with outrage about transgenic genes “polluting and degrading one of Mexico’s major treasures” and the “Gene Giants . . . insulting the socio-­cultural rights of Mexican farmers.” Greenpeace called for a ban on GE corn in Mexico.

Then Nature published two letters criticizing the methodology of the original Quist and Chapela paper along with an editorial discrediting the paper and regretting its publication. Four years later, in August 2005, Jorge Soberón was one of six authors (four in Mexico, two in the United States) of a paper in PNAS titled “Absence of Detectable Transgenes in Local Landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico (2003–­2004).” The authors, “convinced we were going to verify Quist and Chapela’s results,” examined 153,746 seeds from 125 fields in the same region and found nothing. Despite the ongoing presence of GE corn in Mexico, there were no GE genes in the landrace corn crops. The authors speculated that if GE genes had been present in 2000, they had diluted to undetectable levels by 2003. (Science marches on: A researcher in 2008 reported finding traces of transgenes in 1 percent of 2,000 landrace samples.)

The whole episode was good for crop science because it set in motion important research into what is called “gene flow,” and corn is a fine subject for study because, unlike most crop plants, it is a promiscuous outcrosser. The maize landraces, it turns out, have been swapping genes with com-­ mercial crops for decades with no loss of diversity; GE genes are expected to be no different in that respect. Landrace farmers are well aware of the problem of “inbreeding depression” (as they say, the maize “gets tired”—­se cansa), so they routinely blend in other varieties, and also vagrant genes on the pollen are always blowing from cornfield to cornfield. Israeli plant sci-­ entist Jonathan Gressel describes the customary situation in Genetic Glass Ceilings: Transgenics for Crop Biodiversity (2007):

There has been gene flow from commercial varieties of crops to/from landraces growing nearby, only to the betterment, at times, of one party or the other. The farmer preserves the land-­ race, morphologically, tastewise, but actually (inadvertently) selects for individuals that have also picked up genes for dis-­ ease or stress tolerance, or higher yields. This is especially apparent with the steadily improving maize landraces selected by Mexican farmers. The landraces of a century ago are not genetically identical with those two centuries ago or today, even if the farmers think they are.

Gressel deplores “politically laden terms such as preserving ‘genetic purity,’ which has the same connotation as preserving ‘racial purity.’ ” The real threat to landrace diversity everywhere in the world is urbanization—­the young leave for better jobs in the city, and the local crops die out. Then the one remaining hope for abandoned landrace genomes is seed reposito-­ ries like the famed International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, near Mexico City.

Gene flow is the norm, in agriculture and in nature. Transgenes will flow, causing no more harm than any other commercial crop genes, and no less. There are three common solutions for the gene-­flow problem, one easy, two tricky. One tricky technique involves making sure the implicated genes can’t flow because they’re engineered out of the pollen. Another approach involves surrounding the GE crops with “refugia” of non-­GE plants, which isolates the transgenes. The easy fix simply makes sure that the GE plants are sterile, incapable of reproducing. Zero gene flow: com-­ plete solution. GE opponents hate that one. Read on.


The story: In 1998 a patent was awarded to the Delta & Pine Land Company for a technique they called GURT—­genetic use restriction technology—­which would engineer sterility into GE crop plants. The idea was to prevent farmers from cheating on their legal agreements with seed suppliers to always buy new seeds rather than keeping some for replanting. The agritech giant Monsanto, which owned a piece of Delta & Pine Land, indicated that it might buy the whole company to obtain a better stake in cotton seed supply. This raised fears that Monsanto might apply the GURT sterility technique to its GE crops.

A cry went up worldwide from GE opponents. “The ultimate goal of genetic seed sterility is neither biosafety nor agronomic benefits, but bioserfdom,” declared Pat Mooney, coining a term that stuck—­terminator technology. (Mooney was then head of Rural Advancement Foundation International, later renamed ETC Group.) “This is an immoral technique that robs farming communities of their age-­old right to save seed and their role as plant breeders,” said a Chilean official. “This is the neutron bomb of agriculture.” The roar grew for a year, especially in Europe and the developing world. Eventually Monsanto announced that it would not pur-­ sue the technology. (Sir Gordon Conway at the Rockefeller Foundation and Florence Wambugu in Kenya were among those who urged Mon-­ santo to back off.) As of 2009, there were no sterilized GE crops anywhere in the world, handy as they would be for stopping unwelcome gene flow.

The rest of the story: Score one for impoverished environmentalists outmarketing rich corporations with great scare language like “termina-­ tor” and “suicide gene.” (More accurate would have been “maiden aunt technology,” but good luck selling that one.) There was some overreach though, such as this remarkable sentence: “The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet.” When I read that line somewhere, quoting Vandana Shiva, the antiglobalization activist in India, I figured it must be a misquote, so I looked it up in her book, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (2000). There it was; check it yourself. On page 83, you’ll find her warning of humanity’s doom from heritable sterility—­a biological impossibility. Shiva usually describes herself as having been one of India’s leading physicists.

(By the way, the line is not originally hers. It was borrowed verbatim and unattributed from a 1998 essay privately published by Geri Guidetti, who runs the Ark Institute, a survivalist seed supply service in Oregon. According to one online description, Guidetti “has taught the biological and biochemical sciences at universities across the US for 20 years. She has authored hundreds of science and research articles.” Maybe so, but all I could find online by her were interviews and essays about the dangers of Y2K, bird flu, terrorists, and terminator technology.)

The fear that GE sterility technology would require the annual pur-­ chase of seeds is less novel and less alarming when viewed in the context of standard agricultural practice. Most farmers buy vigorous new hybrid seeds every year and have for decades. Hybrid seeds don’t “breed true”: the next generation is a chaotic mix. “From the seed company’s point of view,” explains Raoul Adamchak,

this is great, for each year the hybrid seeds have to be cre-­ ated anew by the seed company. They are expensive, but most organic growers buy them, because the hybrid vigor, uniformity, disease resistance, yield, and sometimes taste, are deemed to be worth the extra cost. And, most farmers are unwilling to create their own inbred lines by cross-­pollination each year. Few have the time to be both a breeder and a farmer.

Following the development of hybrid corn in the 1920s, by 1970 some 96 percent of U.S. corn crops were hybrid, and yield went up from 20 bushels an acre to 160 bushels an acre. In China, hybrid rice is taking over, reach-­ ing 65 percent of the crops in 2007. Quite apart from GE crops, buying new seed every year is the norm in the developed world and is becoming so in the developing world.

As for the “age-­old right to save seed,” Jonathan Gressel has a sharp reply:

Many of the [GE] detractors justify their antibiotech tirades by reasoning that farmers will have to buy seed and have turned “farmer-­saved seed” into a holy mantra. Almost all those well experienced in agriculture know that there is nothing worse for farming than farmer-­saved seed. Yields steadily decrease because of the loss of vigor, an increase in disease, and an often massive contamination with weed seeds. Only the very best growers are chosen to grow certified seed, and even they are heavily monitored by the seed companies, who are further regulated by governmental authorities.

The Monsanto issue is a distraction. Yes indeed, the company, under CEO Robert Shapiro in the 1980s, moved too fast, thoroughly botched the introduction of GE crops in Europe, and was secretive when it should have been transparent. Some blame it for focusing on benefits for farm-­ ers instead of consumers—­yield and efficiency rather than nutrition and variety—­but the customers of a seed and herbicide company are the grow-­ ers, not the eaters. As for complaints that Monsanto and the other “gene giant” companies are forcing dependency on farmers, apparently there is some unclarity on the concept of “customer.” The moment Monsanto’s customers are unhappy with its service, they can switch to something else. Most farmers buy their seeds from a wide range of suppliers and brokers. If they want GE seeds, Monsanto is getting competition from Syngenta, Dow, and Dupont-­Pioneer.

In a 1999 letter to Science condemning genetic engineering, Amory Lovins asked, “Is redesigning evolution to work not at its biological pace but at that of quarterly earnings reports—­and to align not with biological fitness but with economic profitability (survival not of the fittest but of the fattest)—­really a good idea?” Apart from his romantic notions about biological fitness and pace in agriculture, Lovins here seems to abandon the economic analysis he applies to nuclear power. He says the absence of private capital and market rewards is an argument against nuclear, but the presence of private capital and market rewards is supposed to be an argu-­ ment against GE.

Being generically against corporations is no more useful than being generically against nations. There are good ones and bad ones, and some-­ times good ones do bad things, and vice versa. In the case of GE oppo-­ sition, the anticorporate bias is oddly selective, because GE agriculture companies are condemned, but massive multinational GE drug compa-­ nies are not. The reason for that, Robert Paarlberg suggests, is that “multi-­ national drug companies . . . deliver products with benefits widely valued in rich countries, whereas multinational seed companies do not.”

Why was water fluoridation rejected by the political right and Franken-­ food by the political left? The answer, I suspect, is that fluoridation came from government and genetically engineered crops from corporations. If the origins had been reversed—­as they could have been—­the positions would be reversed too.

There is indeed a problem with the companies that currently dominate agricultural biotech, but it’s not one that environmentalists complain about, though I hope they will do so. Only a few big corporate players have survived a period of consolidation, caused partly by excessive anti-­ GE regulation that drove out small companies. The winners are Mon-­ santo, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont-­Pioneer, Syngenta in Switzerland, and Bayer CropScience and BASF Plant Science in Germany. This oligopoly was formed, geneticist Pamela Ronald points out, partly to aggregate and control the intellectual property of patented genes and techniques that are the engine of agribiotech. “What this means,” she writes,

is that the private companies now have even more control over who uses the technology of genetic engineering. If a particular aspect of the technology is key to the entire process—­say for example, the means to introduce a gene into a plant—­denial of access to a single technological component is essentially equivalent to denial of access to the entire process. This “exclusive licensing” by universities of key aspects of GE tech-­ nology to private corporations greatly restricts the ability of the public research sector to develop new crops using GE.

Alternatives are emerging, fortunately. Developing countries are building their own noncorporate GE programs suited to their unique agricultural needs, often with funding and scientific assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and often in open-­source mode, in which the new techniques are freely shared. Richard Jefferson in Australia runs a nonprofit called Cambria that develops unrestricted GE tools. With backing from Rockefeller, his group has devised two techniques that engineer around the patent-­controlled GE methodolo-­ gies and free them up, particularly for use in Southeast Asia.

Pamela Ronald, at the University of California–­Davis, isolated a gene that gives rice resistance to a major disease. True to her inclination, the university gave Monsanto and Pioneer the option to license the gene in certain crops grown widely in the developed world, but denied licensing rights for rice in poor countries. Furthermore, the gene was widely and freely distributed throughout the world to anyone who wanted it. Chinese scientists have now developed a GE hybrid rice carrying this gene, and the disease-­resistant rice seed may soon be distributed freely to growers.

With public support, GE projects for local crops are proliferating in the developing world. A roster as of 2005, according to Joel Cohen and Jennifer Thomson, includes the following:

In Africa, four countries (Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Zim-­ babwe) are developing GM apples, cassava, cotton, cowpea, cucumber, grapes, lupin, maize, melons, pearl millet, potatoes, sorghum, soybeans, squash, strawberries, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons and wheat. The traits included agronomic properties, bacterial resistance, fungal resistance, herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, product quality and virus resistance.

Similarly in Asia, seven countries (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand) are developing GM crops including bananas and plantains, cabbage, cacao, cassava, cauliflower, chickpeas, chilli, citrus, coffee, cotton, eggplant, groundnuts, maize, mangoes, melons, mung beans, mustard/rapeseed, palms, papayas, potatoes, rice, shallots, soybeans, sugar cane, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

In Latin America, four countries (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico) are developing GM lucerne, bananas and plantains, beans, citrus, maize, papayas, potatoes, rice, soy-­ beans, strawberries, sunflowers and wheat.

So much for the leftist dread of centralized corporate control of global food production through genetic engineering. GE instead is proving to be a tool of regional empowerment, enhanced cultural variety in foods, and the abil-­ ity of farmers to sell to global markets without being controlled by them.


Genetic-­engineering enthusiasts have their own favorite stories that appear repeatedly in books with titles like Seeds for the Future, Mendel in the Kitchen, Liberation Biology, Genetically Modified Planet, and Tomor-­ row’s Table. Here’s one they all tell you that you never see in the anti-­GE articles and books.


The story: In the 1960s, an outbreak of papaya ringspot virus wiped out the industry on Oahu, so the growers moved to the Puna area on the Big Island, where the virus hadn’t yet invaded. Then in 1992, just when the annual papaya crop reached 53 million pounds, the ringspot virus was detected in Puna. Fortuitously, that same year, field trials showed that a transgenic line of papayas incorporating a gene from the virus worked like a vaccination against the disease. The race was on. As they watched their papaya trees go barren with the virus, the growers collaborated with state officials and the developer of the GE papayas, Hawaiian virologist Dennis Gonsalves, to get regulatory approval for the resistant line. They got it through the U.S. Department of Agricul-­ ture in 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration in 1997. (Conventionally bred plants, remember, face no such gauntlet.) In 1998 the new seeds were distributed free to growers. By 2001 the papaya crop was heading back to full strength. The two GE varieties, SunUp and Rainbow, were delicious, delight-­ ing consumers throughout the United States, Canada, and eventually Japan. Probably you’ve eaten some, because 90 percent of all Hawaiian papayas are transgenic now.

The rest of the story: European importers of gourmet foods wanted the Hawaiian GE papayas but were not allowed to bring them in. Organic papaya growers in Hawaii cleverly plant their non-­GE papaya trees in the middle of GE orchards and thus are protected from the virus.

Greenpeace activists in Thailand, defying the interests of poor farmers, persuaded the government to ban field tests of GE virus-­resistant papayas, but the technology is being pursued actively in China, and many expect that once China adopts GE papayas, all of Asia will. (In 2008 China inau-­ gurated a $3.5 billion program to accelerate a “transgenic green revolution” and advance “from high-­input and extensive cultivation to high-­tech and intensive cultivation.”)

The Hawaiian papaya story may exemplify how GE crops can best be introduced in much of the developing world. Papayas are considered a minor crop (though they are far from minor to Hawaiians and to poor peo-­ ple throughout the tropics), so multinational corporations had no role in the drama in Hawaii, and neither did multinational environmental orga-­ nizations. The process of getting the GE papaya lines deregulated was run mainly by the growers themselves, which made the whole campaign trans-­ parent, fast, and inexpensive. Important assistance came from the pub-­ lic sector: Agricultural programs at the University of Hawaii and Cornell University collaborated in the effort, and the U.S. Department of Agri-­ culture helped out with $60,000. Once the new crops went on sale, local consumers instantly relished the GE papayas, and that attitude spread to export markets overseas. It’s a success story with no shadows, unlike the next one.


The story: Rice feeds half of the world’s population, but it lacks important micronutrients such as beta-­carotene, the precursor for vitamin A; and vitamin A deficiency is a major affliction of the world’s poor. According to the World Health Organization, “An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vita-­ min A–­deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.” The UN Children’s Fund reported in 2004, “Vitamin A deficiency is compromising the immune systems of approximately 40 percent of the developing world’s under-­fives and lead-­ ing to the early deaths of an estimated one million young children each year.”

In 1992, following a Rockefeller-­funded meeting on the subject, Ingo Potrykus in Switzerland and Peter Beyer in Germany decided to collaborate on finding a way to fortify rice genetically to provide the missing vitamin A. It took them seven years. Potrykus was so harassed by anti-­GE activists that the Swiss government had to build him a grenade-­proof greenhouse.

In 1999 the scientists sent their paper to Nature, describing how adding two genes to the rice from a daffodil (which also lent a yellow hue), along with one bacterial gene, did the trick, but Nature refused even to send the paper out for comment. Botanist Peter Raven got word of the situation and arranged for the paper to be published in Science, where it inspired instant acclaim as great science and a humanitarian breakthrough. In July 2000, Time magazine put Potrykus on the cover, with the headline, “This rice could save a million kids a year.” Golden rice was a hit.

The response from anti-­GE organizations was savage. “Hoax.” “Fool’s gold.” “Trojan horse.” “Deliberate deception.” “Technical failure.” “Use-­ less application.” “Threat to biodiversity.” “Rip-­off of the public trust.” “Will clash with traditions associated with white rice.” “Could lead to per-­ manent brain damage.” Even: “GE rice could, if introduced on a large scale, exacerbate malnutrition and undermine food security because it encourages a diet based on a single industrial staple food”—­that one from Greenpeace in 2005. Egyptian scientist Ismail Serageldin spoke for many appalled scientists when he responded, “I ask opponents of biotechnol-­ ogy, do you want two to three million children a year to go blind and one million to die of vitamin A deficiency, just because you object to the way Golden Rice was created?” (Serageldin was then director of the Consulta-­ tive Group on International Agricultural Research; currently he is head of the new Library of Alexandria.)

The rest of the story: The critics were right about one thing (and only one thing). Golden rice supplied enough beta-­carotene to provide just a fifth of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A. Over Potrykus’s strong objection, the Swiss corporation Syngenta entered the fray. Scien-­ tists there replaced one of the daffodil genes with a maize gene and got a twentyfold increase of beta-­carotene in “golden rice 2,” solving the vitamin A sufficiency problem. Then Adrian Dubock, a British scientist-­diplomat at Syngenta, freed golden rice from its maze of patent violations involving other companies and arranged for the developing-­world rights for golden rice 2 to be managed by the Humanitarian Golden Rice Network, chaired by Potrykus. Any farmer making less than $10,000 a year could get the seeds for free and own the right to breed and sow them year after year.

By 2007 field trials of golden rice were being conducted in the Philippines by the International Rice Research Institute, aided by a $20 million grant from the Gates Foundation, with the goal of freeing the GE rice for public use by 2011. The Gates Foundation also funded Peter Beyer to head the international ProVitaMinRice Consortium, which aims to “stack multiple micronutrient and bioavailability traits into Golden Rice.” The next-­generation rice will have increased protein, vitamin E, iron, and zinc. A really ambitious project at the International Rice Research Institute is to convert rice from a C3 plant to a C4 plant—­from the low-­efficiency photo-­ synthesis mode of wheat and potatoes to the more highly evolved, higher-­ efficiency mode of corn and sugarcane. C4 rice would need far less water and fertilizer yet would provide a 50 percent increase in yield. “That’s just the kind of long-­term, high-­payoff research that governments should be funding,” says Philip Pardey, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota.

Anti-­GE environmentalists fought so viciously against Golden Rice because they knew it would be the first of a cornucopia of food plants bio-­ fortified for high nutrition that would be widely desirable. They were right about that part.


The story: In 2001 and 2002, a severe drought in southern Africa threat-­ ened the lives of 15 million people in seven countries. A 15,000-­ton aid shipment of U.S. corn (about one-­third GE) from the UN World Food Programme was turned away by the government of Zimbabwe on the grounds that some GE corn kernels might be planted rather than eaten, and that would endanger the country’s exports to GE-­averse Europe. The United States offered to grind the corn to meal so it could not be planted. Meanwhile, part of the shipment was diverted to Zambia, just to the north, where 3 million were facing famine. Zambia had accepted and eaten such shipments for six years, but this time it was rejected. “Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health,” President Levy Mwa-­ nawasa declared. “We would rather starve than get something toxic.”

Outside a locked warehouse in Shimabala, Zambia, where the corn was stored for free distribution, the Los Angeles Times reported, an elderly blind man pleaded with officials to release the corn: “Please give us the food. We don’t care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway.” In des-­ peration, rural Zambians were eating “leaves, twigs and even poisonous berries and nuts,” said the Times. The World Health Organization esti-­ mated that 35,000 Zambians would starve to death in the coming months. Shipments of identical U.S. corn were accepted that year without inci-­ dent in Lesotho, Malawi, and Swaziland; Zimbabwe and Mozambique accepted the corn in meal form.

The lethal change of policy in Zambia was the result of a concerted effort by Europe-­based environmental organizations to frighten African nations about GE crops. South Africa had already adopted GE cotton, soybeans, and white maize—­a favorite food locally—­but other nations were susceptible to pressure. The leaders of the Africa campaign were Greenpeace International and Friends of the Earth International, both based in Amsterdam. Greenpeace, with chapters in forty countries, had a thousand full-­time staff members, and Friends of the Earth had chapters in sixty-­eight countries and 1,200 full-­time staff. You can find thorough documentation of the players, techniques, and effectiveness of the cam-­ paign in Robert Paarlberg’s book, Starved for Science. Decision makers in Zambia and elsewhere were persuaded that GE crops would cause aller-­ gies, would infect their digestive tracts, would spread HIV/AIDS, would contain pig genes, and would deny them any possibility of selling their crops to European markets.

Starvation was treated as a measure of commitment to the cause. In the service of what was thought to be a higher good, the environmental movement went sociopathic in Africa. In a panel discussion in Johannes-­ burg, Bill Moyers asked the Indian antiglobalist Vandana Shiva about the situation in Zambia. She said:

When the same situation happened in India, with the cyclone—­ 30,000 people dead and many hungry—­when we tested the food and found it to be GM, and we just gave the information to the people who were victims, who were hungry, they led a protest to the aid agencies and they said just because we are poor, just because we are in emergency, doesn’t mean you can force us to eat what we don’t want to eat. Emergency can-­ not be used as a market opportunity.

I propose that anyone who encourages other people to starve on princi-­ ple should do some of the starving themselves. I can attest that starving just a little bit, just for a week, concentrates the mind wonderfully. Bertolt Brecht stated the operative rule: “Grub first, then ethics.”

Just as it’s worth knowing and remembering who was CEO of Exxon Mobil when it spent millions trying to discredit climate change (Lee Ray-­ mond), it’s worth knowing and remembering who was leading Green-­ peace International (Thilo Bode, then Gerd Leipold) and Friends of the Earth International (Ricardo Navarro) when those two organizations went to great lengths to persuade Africans that, in the service of ideology, star-­ vation was good for them. On their watch and among their many other beneficial campaigns, their organizations—­and the European nations and humanitarian NGOs they influenced—­screwed up royally in Africa.

The Kenyan plant pathologist Florence Wambugu said as much in testimony to the U.S. Congress in 2003: “The primary accomplishment of the mainly European antibiotech lobby, through gross misinformation and political maneuvering, was only to keep safe and nutritious food out of the hands of starving people. . . . The antibiotech lobby asserts that the continent needs to be protected from big multinational biotech compa-­ nies. This often Eurocentric view is founded on two premises: that Africa has no expertise to make an informed decision and that the continent should focus on organic farming.” Dr. Wambugu went on to spell out how corporations, as well as NGOs, need to respect African autonomy:

Consumers need to be informed of the pros and cons of vari-­ ous agricultural biotechnology packages, the dangers of using unsuitable foreign germplasm, and how to avoid the loss of local germplasm and to maintain local diversity. Other checks and balances are required to avoid patenting local germplasm and innovations by multinationals; to ensure policies on intellectual property rights and to avoid unfair competition; to prevent the monopoly buying of local seed companies; and to prevent the exploitation of local consumers and companies by foreign multinationals. Field trials need to be done locally, in Africa, to establish environmental safety under tropical conditions.

The rest of the story: Africa has a multitude of agricultural problems to solve; only some can be helped by transgenic technology. The core problems are malnutrition and undernutrition, both still on the increase. According to one 2008 report, “Deficiencies in macronutrients, protein, and energy, as well as micronutrients, iron, vitamin A, zinc, and iodine [are]­ the underlying cause of half of all child mortality.” GE can help with that one—­more food and better food. African small farms are rain fed (5 percent of agriculture in Africa has irrigation, versus 60 percent in Asia) and so are utterly dependent on the weather. Whole crops are lost and whole regions starve when the rains don’t come. Though drought-­tolerant GE crops will help somewhat, the main needs are for irrigation systems, wells, electricity to run them, and roads for transporting farm equipment and produce heading to market.

African soil is seriously degraded, in part because crop residues are used for fuel and building materials rather than returned to the soil, in part because synthetic fertilizers often aren’t available. GE is no help here. Soil enrichment methods are well established. They include (to quote a Gates-­funded National Research Council report):

controlled grazing, mulching with organic matter, applying manure and biosolids, use of cover crops in the rotation cycle, agroforestry, contour farming, hedgerows, terracing, plastic mulch for erosion control, no-­till or conservation tillage, reten-­ tion of crop residue, appropriate use of water and irrigation, and the use of integrated nutrient management, including the judicious use of chemical fertilizers. Land-­use planning and land-­tenure reform are policy tools to accompany those techniques.

Africa has particularly horrendous pests. Tsetse flies torture the livestock, parasitic weeds such as Striga (witchweed) attack everything that grows, a new version of wheat rust from Uganda now threatens wheat crops world-­ wide, and flocks of millions of the red-­billed quelea devour entire harvests of sorghum, keeping generations of children out of school to chase the birds from the fields. GE can help every one of these.

The point is this: Agriculture in Africa south of the Sahara is mostly tropical. Farm practices and germplasms and corporations and political stances developed in the temperate north don’t much apply. “The tropics are sun rich and water poor, while temperate zones are water rich and sun poor,” says plant biologist Deborah Delmer. “Most agriculture is devel-­ oped for the temperate zones. Most people are in the tropics. Tropical pests aren’t killed by winter. Farms in the tropics have many more crops than temperate farms. Each region in the tropics should have its own research infrastructure.”

No thanks to decades of European interference, Africa is making up its own mind about the uses of biotech for its unique agricultural situa-­ tion. At the 2001 World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland, physicist-­essayist Freeman Dyson watched a panel debating GE crops. His report:

It was a debate between Europe and Africa. The Europeans oppose GM food with religious zeal. They say it is destroying the balance of nature, with unacceptable risks to human health and natural ecology. They talked a great deal about a rule called the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle says that if some course of action carries even a remote chance of irreparable damage to the ecology, then you shouldn’t do it, no matter how great the possible advantages of the action may be. You are not allowed to balance costs against benefits when deciding what to do. The Precautionary Principle gives the Europeans a firm philosophical basis for saying no to GM food.

In response, the Africans pointed out that the Precautionary Principle can just as well be used as a philosophical basis for saying yes. The growing population and general impoverish-­ ment of Africa are already causing irreparable damage to the ecology, and saying no to GM food will only make the irrepara-­ ble damage worse. The European pretense of allowing no risk of irreparable damage makes no sense in the real world. In the real world there are risks of irreparable damage no matter what you do. There is no escape from balancing one risk against another. The Africans need GM crops in order to survive. In most of Africa, soils are poor, droughts are devastating, and many crops are lost to disease and pests. GM crops can make the difference between starving and surviving for subsistence farmers, between prosperity and ruin for cash farmers. Afri-­ cans need to sell products to Europe. The European ban on GM food protects European farmers and hurts the Africans. As the Africans see it, the European ban on GM food is motivated more by economic advantage than by philosophical purity.

Theories abound on why Europe rejected genetic engineering while America accepted it. Many blame the late-­1990s outbreak in Europe of mad cow disease (which has nothing to do with GE), with the resultant horror of dangers that might be hidden in food, along with distrust of gov-­ ernment officials overeager to assuage fears that turned out to be legiti-­ mate. Americans read about that melodrama from afar. Robert Paarlberg thinks it’s the differing legal and political frameworks: “The American legal system tends to use civil litigation after the fact rather than preemp-­ tive regulation before the fact to ensure consumer and environmental safety. And . . . America’s two-­party political system gives less space for Green Party candidates to gain election and then join governing coali-­ tions to advocate against GMOs.”

Genetic engineering has entered that special domain, long occupied by animal-­rights activists and antiabortion activists, where violence is deemed justifiable. Vandalism of GE research crops and facilities, along with intimidation of researchers, is even more common in Europe than in the United States, where the FBI estimates that just one group, the Earth Liberation Front, made six hundred attacks causing $43 million in dam-­ age between 1996 and 2004. In his book The March of Unreason (2006), Dick Taverne examines how tortuous the rationales sometimes become: “In Germany . . . extreme [GE]­ opponents fire-­bombed one of the Max Planck Institutes because it was conducting genetic research on petunias. They argued that as genetic modification was bound to lead to eugenics, and as this had been practised by the Nazis, such research was bound to lead to Nazism.”

At the other end of the conceptual-­stretch spectrum, Switzerland has a gene technology law, passed in 2004, which enforces protection of “the dignity of plants.” All biotech research applications must have a paragraph spelling out how the dignity question will be dealt with. Scientists who asked for specifics were told by the ethics committee that, for example, genetic engineering must not cause the plants to “lose their indepen-­ dence,” by which the committee meant their ability to reproduce. The geneticists inquired: Did that mean no seedless fruits and no male-­sterile hybrids, both common in agriculture?

I think the main element that distinguishes Europe from America and other parts of the world in regard to GE crops is the seriousness with which Europeans take what is called the precautionary principle. It was invoked in the Davos debate; it was invoked in the Zambia debacle; and it has had regulatory force in the European Union since 1992 and in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, governing international movement of GE organ-­ isms, since 2000. As Robert Paarlberg points out, “Europe’s precautionary principle had honorable origins. It first emerged in the context of a serious and well-­documented environmental harm in Germany known as forest death. The German government responded with a 1974 clean air act that allowed action to be taken against potentially damaging chemicals even in the absence of scientific certainty regarding their contribution to the harm. In 1984 this same principle was then embraced for managing ocean pollution in the North Sea, another documented harm.” But as time went by, evidence of harm disappeared as a precautionary principle trigger, and science was explicitly devalued.

There are a number of versions of the precautionary principle. The clearest and most often cited came out of a meeting of environmentalists in Wisconsin in 1998. Called the Wingspread Statement, it goes:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

They had me at “precautionary,” worried me at “some cause and effect,” and lost me at “fully established scientifically.” That is an illusory, unattain-­ able goal. Nothing is fully established scientifically, ever—­not gravity, not Darwinian evolution, not the safety of peanut-­butter-­&-­jelly sandwiches. Science is a perpetual argument. More useful wording would be some-­ thing like “precautionary measures should be taken during early stages while the preponderance and trend of relevant scientific evidence becomes established, and then the measures should respond to that evidence.”

As Dyson noted, the precautionary principle, as currently applied, is deliberately one-­sided, a rejection of what is called risk balancing. The convener of the Wingspread gathering, Carolyn Raffensperger, is widely quoted as saying, “Risk assessment embodies the idea that we can measure and manage or control risk and harm—­and we can decide that some risk is acceptable. The Precautionary Principle is a very different idea that says that as an ethical matter, we are going to prevent all the harm we can.” Net-­benefit analysis is ruled out.

One consequence of the precautionary principle is that, in practice, it can be self-­canceling. It says to wait for the results of further research, but it declares that the research is too dangerous to do. Under the banner of the precautionary principle, activists burn the fields where GE research is going on and threaten the researchers. “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent,” said Dave Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth. That is a formula for paralysis. (I can imagine Dave responding, “A little paralysis might do a world of good about now.”)

Hear now ‘‘The Fable of the Steak Knives,’’ as told by the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. His software engineers were spending a lot of their time imagining problems that would occur on Wikipedia and then devising software solutions to head off the problems. He explained why that is the wrong approach:

You want to design a restaurant, and you think to yourself, “Well, in this restaurant we’re going to be serving steak. And since we’re going to be serving steak, we’re going to have steak knives, and since we’re going to have steak knives, people might stab each other. How do we solve this problem? We’re going to have to build cages around each table to make sure no one stabs each other.

This makes for a bad society. . . . When you try to prevent people from doing bad things, the very obvious side effect is that you prevent them from doing good things.

The astronomical success of Wikipedia comes from its principle of not trying to solve imaginary problems but instead putting all of the commu-­ nity’s effort into close attention to what actually goes on, noting genuine problems as they emerge, and then solving them as locally as possible with speed and efficiency. The whole system is success driven rather than prob-­ lem driven.

Expected benefits from any act are finite and known: “Golden rice will prevent blindness in children.” Imagined problems are infinite and unknown: “Golden rice might cause poor people to stop eating green vegetables; it might lead to excess vitamin A consumption; it might be a Trojan horse for corporate takeover; it might cause who knows what prob-­ lems!” The apparent imbalance is treated as a contest: small and unlikely good versus large and certain harm. In this formulation, no good surprises are possible, all bad surprises are probable, and intended consequences are never what actually happen. In reality, intended consequences are what usually happen, surprises are balanced between good and bad, and they’re easy to recognize and to expand on or correct, as needed.

If cellphones had been subject to the precautionary principle, the argu-­ ments against them would have included: They’ll microwave your brain; they’ll exacerbate the Digital Divide; they’ll lead to the corporate takeover of all communications; they’ll homogenize society—­prove they won’t! In reality none of those things occurred—­though of course other problems did, such as incompatible standards and new forms of discourtesy. The main outcome was enormous, rapid success, with a vast empowering of individuals everywhere, especially the poor.

The late Mary Douglas, anthropologist and lifelong student of risk, noted that sectarian groups such as some environmental organizations separate themselves from the world with infinite demands. For them, she wrote, “there can never be sufficient holiness or safety.” As a Brit, she also wondered, “What are Americans afraid of? Nothing much, really, except the food they eat, the water they drink, the air they breathe, the land they live on, and the energy they use.” The economist Paul Romer adds a global perspective: “Even if one society loses its nerve, there’ll be new entrants who can take up the torch and push ahead.”

The precautionary principle has been so widely recognized as a bar-­ rier to progress that, according to England’s Prospect magazine, in 2006, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology recommended that the term “should not be used and should ‘cease to be included in policy guidance.’ ” Various attempts have been made to draft a substitute—­the proactive principle (Max More and Kevin Kelly), the precautionary approach (Nuffield Council on Bioethics), the reversibility principle (Jamais Cascio), and the anti-­catastrophe principle—­that one from an excellent book, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005), by behavioral economist Cass Sunstein, who now heads Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

I would not replace the precautionary principle. Its name and found-­ ing idea are too good to lose. But I would shift its bias away from inaction and toward action with a supplement—­the vigilance principle, whose entire text is: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The precautionary principle by itself seeks strictly to stop or slow new things, even in the face of urgent need. Precaution plus vigilance would seek to move quickly on new things. Viewed always in the context of potential opportunity, a new device or technique would be subjected to multidisciplinary scrutiny and then given three probationary categories for ongoing oversight: 1) provi-­ sionally unsafe until proven unsafe; 2) provisionally safe until proven safe; 3) provisionally beneficial until proven beneficial. As the evaluation grows more precise over time, public policy adjusts to match it.

When GE food crops first went public in the early 1990s, precautionary vigilance would have monitored the brave early adopters, looking for signs of harm and signs of benefit, and especially for surprises, good and bad. (A surprising benefit from Bt corn, for example, is that it reduces myco-­ toxin poisoning in tortilla cornmeal because less insect damage means less fungal growth.) By the end of the 1990s, vigilance of a decade’s cumu-­ lative experience would have declared GE food apparently safe so far and apparently beneficial so far. Europeans would gingerly have begun buying and planting GE food crops, and anti-­GE activists, while remaining suspi-­ cious, would have stopped burning GE research fields and labs.

The emphasis of the vigilance principle is on liberty, the freedom to try things. The correction for emergent problems is in ceaseless, fine-­grained monitoring, which largely can be automated these days via the Internet, by collecting data from distributed high-­tech sensors and vigilant cellphone-­ armed volunteers. (Wikipedia, for example, is an orgy of vigilance: A clus-­ ter of diligent amateur watchers and correcters actively surveil each entry, with a response time of seconds.) Managing the precautionary process in this mode consists of identifying things to watch for as a new technol-­ ogy unfolds. (Does golden rice actually help with malnutrition? Are there really any instances of hypervitaminosis, too much vitamin A? Can they be headed off, given how they occur?) Intelligent precaution also would charge specific agencies to keep an eye out for unexpected correlations, such as the increases in lung cancer that developed around concentrations of asbestos—­they were detected in the 1930s but not acted on until the 1980s. Tens of thousands suffered and died needlessly during that lag.

The mantra for dealing with pandemics is “early detection, rapid response.” The old method of waiting for news of dead nurses in remote hospitals has been replaced by active monitoring of online chatter, active monitoring of the condition of animals sold in developing-­world food mar-­ kets, a network of “sentinel physicians,” automated bioassays, and more to come. That’s the way to organize vigilance.

One also has to credit the pioneers of excess. In the 1920s, radiation was lauded for its healing properties until a millionaire golfer named Eben Byers died from drinking a thousand bottles of a popular radium potion called Radiothor. Some of my contemporaries in the 1960s took pains to prove that the danger from excessive LSD use was not brain damage or chromosome damage, as had been predicted, but personality damage. Amateurs can be counted on to discover exactly how much video gam-­ ing leads to suicide, how many carrots lead to orange-­eyed delirium, how many grizzly bears you have to hug before one eats you. I have no doubt that amateurs, not corporations or governments, will be the ones demon-­ strating how much GE is too much, and good luck heading them off with that line about proponents bearing the burden of proof. Nor will legions of corporate lawyers building forts around gene patents have any better luck. Biotech wants to be free.

The fact is that the fastest-­moving countries now with GE crops are the developing nations that have the scientific competence and confidence to stand up to excessively cautious environmentalists—­China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines. As they go, so goes the world. Foundations such as Gates, Rockefeller, and McKnight are helping to spread the technology—­in locally nuanced form—­to those who need it most in the poorest nations, mostly in Africa and south Asia. Bitching and moaning, Europe will drag along after.


What about God? What about the retribution we invite by playing God with genetic engineering?

A version of that question was put to me by Kathy Kohm, editor of the remarkable magazine Conservation. “The history of engineering is marked by a trail of unintended consequences,” she said. “We don’t know what we don’t know. How do we walk the line between hubris and humil-­ ity?” I replied:

A lot swings on what is considered news. Ever since ancient Greek drama, hubris and unintended consequences have made great theater.

Intended consequences, although more common, are not news and not theater. GMOs have been tested extensively, but we never hear of the results unless something suspicious turns up. . . . One headline you will never see is “GM Crop Again Shown OK.”

Technology emerges from science. Then we do science on the technology. Then we know what we know. The whole pro-­ cess works on a necessary blend of both hubris and humility.

I admire Prince Charles, especially for his humanizing influence on the design of cities and buildings. With his usual forthrightness, he has made a clear statement about the impiety of GE: “I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.” Pope Benedict in 2006 vilified scientists who “modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God. . . . To take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dan-­ gerous venture.”

An unlikely ally of the prince and the pope is the American leftist Jer-­ emy Rifkin, who believes that GE violates “the boundaries between the sacred and the profane” and must be banned wholesale from the world. (Among scientists who have read his work, Rifkin is regarded as America’s leading nitwit. The evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, a considerable lefty himself, described Rifkin’s biotech book Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-­intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work.”)

Then you have Bill McKibben, who listened to working climatolo-­ gists for his landmark book, The End of Nature, but borrowed his views on genetic engineering from Rifkin. GE, he wrote, “represents the second end of nature. . . . What will it mean to come across a rabbit in the woods once genetically engineered ‘rabbits’ are widespread? Why would we have any more reverence or affection for such a rabbit than we would for a Coke bottle?”

There is a common sentiment among environmentalists that every-­ thing made by nature is good and everything made by man is bad. “Four legs good, two legs bad.” Nature is seen as whole and therefore holy. It is inscrutable and divine, whereas we are crass; and yet it is also fragile, vul-­ nerable to our crass depredations.

What “nature” are we talking about, exactly? You can’t do anything against nature, if your idea of nature includes physics, chemistry, and mechanics. Abominations can be imagined but cannot be performed. Anything you can do you can only do because nature allows it. Nuclear fission is so natural it occurs geologically. Horizontal gene flow is so natu-­ ral it is the norm among microbes. Apparently what people mean when they say “against Nature” is “against my understanding of Darwinian inheritance and traditional breedline agriculture.” Or maybe it’s not so cosmic, and what people mean by “against Nature” is “something I’m not used to yet.”

In looking for guidance on ethical issues, notions of abomination don’t help much. What does help is a sense of how harms and benefits are dis-­ tributed. In 1999 and again in 2003, the question of genetic engineering was examined in exhaustive detail by the prestigious Nuffield Council on Bioethics, in Britain. Their conclusion: “There is a moral imperative for making GM crops readily and economically available to people in devel-­ oping countries who want them.”

Mostenvironmentalists don’ tseem aware of what’s going on in the bio-­ sciences these days. They don’t realize that their battle against GE crops is a rearguard action in a sleepy backwater of biotech. So far we’ve been touring Agroecology 101 and Genetics 101—­textbook stuff. Now we jump to the leading edge of biology, the new discoveries and techniques that aren’t in the textbooks yet. This is where alert environmentalists should hang out, looking for powerful new tools to seize and deploy for Green agendas. And, for those so inclined, whole new dimensions of things to worry about are on offer. GE crops will be left in the dustbin of outdated frets, like an old food fad: “Remember when we thought Bt corn was the end of the world?”


Richard Manning (2000). Foods Frontier. Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press. p 211

“Farmer in Chief,” Michael Pollan.  New York Times Sunday Magazine, Oct. 12, 2008

Tomorrow’s Table blog, “10 Things about GE crops to Scratch From Your Worry List,” Sep. 4, 2008

“Biotech Crops Experience Remarkable Dozen Years of Double-Digit Growth,” ISAAA Brief 37-2007

Pamela Ronald, Raoul Adamchak (2008). Tomorrow’s Table. Oxford: Oxford Univ, p 67

Robert Paarlberg (2008). Starved for Science. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. p 62

Robert Paarlberg

Jennifer Thomson (2006). Seeds for the Future. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. p 118

Robert Paarlberg (2008). Starved for Science. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. p 1

Nina Federoff (2004). Mendel in the Kitchen. Washington: Joseph Henry. p295

Florence Wambugu

“Biotech Crops Experience Remarkable Dozen Years of Double-Digit Growth,” ISAAA Brief 37-2007