Watching SuperFreakonomics author Steve Levitt sitting next to Jon Stewart as they shook their heads in disbelief that everyone wasn’t on the climate change/geo-engineering bandwagon (It’s easy! it’s cheap! We know it works!) depressed me to no end. It seems like every challenge we face now has an “easy” technological silver bullet that will spare us sacrifice or even change. GMOs will end hunger. Geo-engineering will solve climate change. A pill will cure obesity. Cellulosic ethanol will eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that none of these phantasms currently exist. Indeed, if you ask an expert when exactly we’ll get one or the other of these whiz-bang items, the answer is almost always the same: “within ten years.” And so it’s been for decades.
At root, I don’t think this is really about faith in technology. After all, the only plot twist more hackneyed and familiar than the miraculous, world-changing invention (a plot twist the media have a long history of falling for) is the unintended consequences that cause it all to go horribly wrong. Instead, this is, as Ralph Loglisci of the Center for a Livable Future put it regarding GMOs, “about political expediency.” I would also add a healthy dose of denial to that mix. Not necessarily a denial of whatever impending disasters face us. Rather it’s denial of the failure of progress — in other words, an unwillingness to accept that what we’ve been doing in this country more or less since WWII represents anything other than progress. Techno-fixers’ courage and will quails at the thought that we might be heading for dead-ends and not the limitless plains of the future.
Topping it all off is the feeling among elites in this country (in the media, in politics, in business) that they neither want to do the heavy-lifting that’s required to deal with our problems nor do they think Americans will accept any real changes to their fossil-fueled, meat-powered, SUV’d way of life (although I think it’s an open question as to whether the elites are considering “typical” Americans’ desires or their own). We can’t change our ways, they say, so you scientists better get out your magic wands and start waving.
GMOs are, of course, a perfect example of this phenomenon. The NYT hosted a recent debate asking if “Biotech food can feed the world.” As usual, “activists” were the voices in opposition to a biotech solution while scientists provided the favorable opinion. This despite the fact that there are indeed scientists who remain skeptical of GMOs — like those behind the landmark analysis of GMO shortcomings, Failure to Yield. And to read the pro-GMO arguments, you’d think that there were piles of magic seeds sitting around that could cure hunger if only the “activists” would let farmers plant them. There aren’t.
The only GMO seeds available are ones that have been engineered to survive dousings of particular herbicides or to produce their own pesticide. Of course, they do still require heavy applications of fertilizer and water (and even pesticides and herbicides). But drought tolerance? Or supersized fruit? Or any other really promising development? Ten years away, swears Monsanto. And health risks? No worries — it’s not like anyone’s gotten sick from eating GMO food, supporters declare. Of course, we’ve never had an industrial product whose health effects on humans, animals or insects only became clear years or even decades later (at which point early studies suggesting risks are once again unearthed). Critics are such a bunch of lily-livered worry-warts!
And when scientists do create a more useful GMO trait, like virus resistance in squash, things still don’t turn out right. In field trials, the GMO squash was indeed more resistant to the viruses, but more susceptible to a squash-killing bacteria. As a result, the conventional squash out-performed them. Meanwhile, we’re seeing more and more examples of seeds developed through advanced but standard breeding techniques out-perform even the highest-tech GMOs.
If this were really about preventing the catastrophe of 9 billion mouths to feed in 2050 (as GMO proponents incessantly remind us), the obvious answer isn’t a magic seed, it’s to do all we can to ensure there aren’t 9 billion mouths to feed in 2050. Some might read that sentence and call it “population control.” Others, like Nick Kristof, might observe that policies which empower women in the developing world can actually accomplish the goal of reduced birthrates (not to mention higher standards of living) — and probably for less money that we’d pay Monsanto and its ilk in their fruitless quest for super seeds. But those kinds of on the ground, “small-scale” policies get far more rhetorical support than they do financial support. After all, cynicism about the ability to make change in this country pales in comparison to cynicism about the ability to make change in Africa. It’s much easier to invent some magic seed, give it to African farmers and leave it at that.
I recommend keeping the GMO story in mind when you hear about the next great techno-fix, whether it’s spraying sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to solve global warming or turning to agriculture to solve our gasoline addiction. Hyping these mythical future developments has nothing to do with the success of science and everything to with the failure of politics and our collective imaginations.