Set aside, for a moment, any questions about how genetically engineered foods affect health or the environment. Set aside all the intellectual property arguments. Let’s ask a more basic question: Is genetic engineering useful? That is, is this technology fruitful enough that it merits further research?
According to the most hyperbolic rhetoric, genetic engineering is going to save the world. This is the technology that is going to liberate us from farms that run on fossil fuels. It will feed more people off fewer acres than ever before. And it will end our reliance on harmful pesticides. I say hyperbolic because no scientist I’ve talked to has ever suggested that genetic engineering is the only solution. But when the rhetoric heats up you’re likely to hear some version of this refrain: We don’t have any choice! We need this technology.
Recently, Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, made a convincing case that genetic engineering, or any kind of crop improvement actually, isn’t of primary importance. If we really wanted to feed ourselves responsibly, here’s how we'd do it: Reduce food waste, eat less meat, and make fertilizer and irrigation available to the farmers that need it.
Riffing on this reasoning, Doug Gurian-Sherman, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, took it a step further, pointing out that there is an opportunity cost to genetic engineering research. Essentially, public investments in genetic engineering eat up money and energy that we could instead be investing in more effective approaches.
So which is it? Do we have no other choice but to embrace this technology? Or is it basically the 8-track of agriculture? I wish I could argue one extreme or the other here -- it would make this essay more dramatic. But as usual, the answer is: It depends. There are some goals of genetic engineering that are probably a waste of time. And then there are others that will almost certainly bear fruit.