Science and emotion

I’ve finished reading Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa. Robert Paarlberg describes the social and political issues that have led to distrust of agricultural science in the developed world, and how this distrust was exported to developing countries. The book is definitely a good read, but seems repetitive at times.

Parrlberg’s tone makes it feel like he is putting down the organic movement while embracing industrial agriculture. This is justified from his viewpoint, because the organic movement has delayed the use of modern agricultural methods in Africa – methods that could have prevented a lot of death and suffering. I get the feeling that he is letting his frustration with the situation color his writing.

Opposition to transgenic technologies: ideology, interests and collective action frames is a review in Nature by Ronald Herring, political economy and political ecology at Cornell, that discusses many of the same issues covered in Starved for Science. Herring’s viewpoint is a bit different from Paarlberg’s – he says that we must decouple the emotional issues from science when it comes to transgenics. He speaks of mental “frames” or “cognitive screens” that “typically contain elements that are diagnostic (identifying problems and causation), prognostic (allocating blame) and motivational (providing reasons for action).”

The frames about genetic engineering certainly affect public policy, and might be changed by a better understanding of science. There seem to be two major opposition points: that genetic engineering is “unnatural” and that it is produced by big corporations. Neither of these points has anything to do with science. A third point is the lack of tangible benefit to consumers. Herring and Paarlberg both investigate the lack of protest about genetic engineering in medicine, a use that consumers directly benefit from. Herring is optimistic that these emotional oppositions can be overcome (reformatted for clarity):

It seems entirely possible that the GMO frame will subside over time into the realm of niche politics — similar to opposition to vaccines or pasteurization — or to the realm of discretionary food preferences among well-fed people.

First, it is the ideational construction of GM food that has been effective politically. Biomedical applications manifestly promote the interest of consumers; there are no campaigns for pharmaceutical-free zones.

Second, successful opposition has been in formal-legal institutions, not in the fields of farmers, where direct interests have outweighed ideology. More and more farmers, in countries rich and poor, have material interests in biotechnology; they have proved ready to lobby for transgenic crops or grow them without authorization if necessary, even when facing considerable risk.

Third, rising international powers such as China, India and Brazil invest in biotechnology as a growth sector. Because there are competitive advantages in molecular breeding, national interests are likely to push against the international formal-legal restrictions on transgenic crops.

Finally, we might anticipate that urgent crises will, over time, drive more interest in such fields as bioremediation, biodegradable plastics, drought-resistant plants and biofortification of food for those who cannot afford dietary discretion.

He eloquently reminds us of our ethical duties to our fellow man:

The Nuffield Council in the United Kingdom rightly stressed the ethical obligation to use emergent technologies to alleviate human suffering wherever possible. This obligation falls particularly on those privileged by accident of birth… Conscientious citizens of the ‘first world’ must understand that our political preferences have powerful influences on decisions in parts of the world where the options are fewer and less attractive.

Would PAN [Pesticide Action Network] be so opposed to GMOs if the evidence on pesticide reduction through Bt technology were widely understood? How can the frame incompatibility between a trait — insect resistance — and the stigma of GMO be maintained if the real, and urgent, interest is sustainability? How plausible are reports that year after year farmers in India plant seeds that fail them and destroy their environments? Had mobilizers against agricultural biotechnology had more respect for the rationality and agency of farmers in poor places, they might well have avoided egregiously erroneous constructions of their interests.

And, he asks everyone to make a change in thinking that could change everything:

The first step forward, then, is to split up the concept of GMO, to think of it as the product of a particular juncture in history. That juncture combined real concerns of unknown risks of new technology and demonstrably faulty state regulation. But the science has moved on. Vital questions about crops and interests for the future involve more splitting and less lumping: what traits, what cultivars, which genetic events, where and under what conditions for what developmental purposes? Only with this knowledge can we devise priorities and steering mechanisms as aspirational and precise as the potentials of the technology.