I agree that each of these would be constructive and interesting discussions.  There are several additional questions that must be asked of each technology in order to keep arguments clear and on the same page:

1. Is "risk" being defined solely and narrowly in technological and anthropocentric terms - ie. no human died? Cancer rates have not increased beyond a certain threshold (granted that we're barely able even to measure it)?  If "environmental risk" or "benefits" are claimed, how are they defined?  Is the risk being measured in the short-term or long-term, locally, regionally, or globally?  And finally, what of the cultural benefits or drawbacks? 

Yes, I know:  all of these are hugely complex issues. I'm sure others on this list, like me, have spent much time on jobs and/or in academic research unpacking even just one part of this huge snarl of factors, what they call "wicked complexity" in U.S. natural resource agencies.  Such disputes cover not just how the environment should be managed, using what technology, but WHY and FOR WHOM.  Should a forest be managed chiefly to benefit lumber mills? (If so, local ones, distant corporate giants, or Asian importers?) Or simply for cheap housing (and note where that US mania has ended up!) Or from recreational users - with their own incompatible internal demands, e.g., snowmobilers vs. backpackers and birders. Indigenous peoples; species biodiversity; wildfire suppression (more hyper-housing mania); "pristine wilderness," however you define that!  Which "stakeholders" are included? How are they weighted?  

Failure or unwillingness to agree on the units of measurement AND the phenomena being measured are the main reason all sides in controversies like GMO, which have multiple technological, environmental, and social aspects, make the claim that they are "right."  They are - if they're not arguing the same topic, and overlook most of the involved aspects.

2. Is "benefit" being defined solely as "makes money for someone" - if so, for whom?  And who are the losers of income when these new technologies are deployed for the profit of agri-corporations, the rulers of nations, and the scientists who profited from developing them?  How are their losses to be justified - because they must be acknowledged if the argument is to be complete.

3. What about the larger question of value - of sheer necessity?  Whether a technology has immediate harms/no harm of the technology is less significant than the larger question of whether it's necessary. Scientific reductionism falls into alliance with economic wilfulness when a technology is pursued solely because it's "sweet" and new and KEWL, as the teenage geeks cry when they rush to buy the newest techno-gadget.  If the US didn't have a pro-natalist religious, imperialist ideology, would we need to seek MORE energy, more food?  Most of these GMO and nuclear arguments beg the most fundamental question, that of whether we should continue multiplying human population and resource use.  This is why I don't generally get into the debates over the fine details: it's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

For example:  Paddy approvingly posts a 2005 report from a for-profit, pro-biotech consulting group claiming that their research shows that "After just nine years of commercialization, biotech crops have made a significant, positive impact on the global economy and environment, decreasing pesticide spraying and reducing the environmental footprint associated with pesticide use by 14 percent, according to a study released today."

First, this report has amusingly thrown the entire massive pesticide industry to the wolves. It sets up a very narrow comparison to claim biotech does no harm - compared to pesticides.  (Truly a "lesser of two weevils" argument.)  Pesticides are a strawman.  Lets see tougher comparisons, and broader analyses.  How about a comparison to organic agriculture?  I work on an organic farm and we don't see a need for either GMO's or biotech to produce quite literally more on 2 acres than our 42 families can eat each week - we give crates of fresh food each week to the local food bank.  Our children can come play on the farm barefoot, we can eat the food as we pick it, and can re-use seed, and let plants self-seed, rather than purchasing expensive new seeds each year. We need neither pesticides nor GMO's, so the claims of this report Paddy posts are meaningless to us, except as specious argument, for purposes of private profit.!

The pesticide & biotech users and makers are largely the same people, educated in the same Ag schools, financially supported by the same corporations and nationalist, pro-growth, anthropocentric ideologies.  Are any of their technologies going to be other than "more of the same" over-intervention in a world that functions quite harmoniously without them?  "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss."  GMO and chemical advocates are all begging the same question - that massive human alteration of the environment is necessary - and working in the same fatal paradigm - "growth economics."

As I reject this entire world-destroying paradigm of "endless growth" of the human species at the expense of all others, and of the wealthy techno-elite classes at the expense of all other humans, this narrow GMO vs pesticide argument is moot.


On Tue, Aug 26, 2008 at 5:05 AM, Michael Balter <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Good questions, and I do not subscribe to Paddy's viewpoint but rather think this issue needs re-discussion on the left, along with nuclear power. How much of a danger are these technologies really, how much time and effort are they worth from progressives, and how likely is it that such campaigns would be successful anyway--and if so, what would be the key to their success?

These questions should be discussed based on current information and political contexts and not from the point of view that it would be heretical to raise them, which is basically Robert's attitude and possibly that of some others here (I am not including Mitchel in this, as he has always shown willingness to discuss any issue and I think that is laudable.)


On Tue, Aug 26, 2008 at 1:57 PM, Mitchel Cohen <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
I recommend the book edited by Brian Tokar, "Redesigning Life," as a place to start on this discussion. If you'd like, I'll send a reading list from the anti-GMO end.

But why do we have to re-argue old arguments if people on this list refuse to hear what's been said in the past. To claim that "all plant and animal breeding is, in fact, genetic engineering", albeit with "one hand tied behind the back," misses the fundamental points that make g.e. DIFFERENT than hybridization, and that have been explicated here and elsewhere for years. Need we do that again? To the same people who didn't listen the first ten times?

My point -- Is this an honest discussion, with people who have open minds (hey, I'm willing to hear new arguments about G.E., but not the same old sillyness from those whose ears have walls) -- or is it just a chance to belch out corporate propaganda? And to what purpose would we revisit this theme, other than the new push being made by the biotech industry to gain acceptance for g.e. agro-fuels?


At 04:09 AM 8/26/2008, you wrote:
Those still tied to attacks on genetic engineering and the European ban on GM foods should listen to the discussion begun today on BBC Radio 4 Farming Today.

Today's progtramme is available on the web at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/farmingtoday/index.shtml>http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/farmingtoday/index.shtml, which for the next 7 days will give acces to the programme on "Listeb Again",

British agricultural science establishments are currently reduced to operating "with one hand tied behind their back" by the current ban on genetic engineering in Europe.

Non-scientists still refuse to udnerstand that all plant and animal breeding is, in fact, genetic engineering "with one hand tied behind the back".


Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

Email:           [log in to unmask]

Website:       michaelbalter.com
Balter's Blog: michael-balter.blogspot.com

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