When a reader accuses me of slumbering while the world’s environment is plundered, I wonder: Am I really asleep and dreaming for 30 years that I’ve been looking energetically for ideas that will protect our natural resources and the beauty of the world around us? Herewith, a few responses to that reader and others.
Genetically modified crops: I can assure the reader — who believes my optimism proves I have been “duped” and “seduced” by Monsanto — that Monsanto is innocent, because I have arrived at my opinions without being brainwashed or otherwise violated. I am an organic gardener and a science writer. I have also lived and worked with Third World herders and farmers and fishermen.
This reader’s fear of genetically modified crops embodies the “precautionary principle” beloved by cloistered environmentalists, whose first caution is to protect what they already have, even at the expense of those in the world who are sick and hungry today and everyday.
This reader places himself in the position of the Greek gods who chained Prometheus to the rock and had a vulture eat his liver because he gave humankind the gift of fire. The precautionary principle, as used by this reader and many status-quo environmentalists, would certainly have prohibited the introduction of fire, the domestication of the horse, the steel plow, the tractor, electricity, anesthetics, the automobile and antibiotics.
The reader also would have us believe that long-term benefits of biotechnology and chemicals in agriculture are fantasy, fostered by the “corporate empire” for profit. I humbly admit I see nothing wrong with profits. In fact, they have driven the development of most of the comforts and protections we enjoy, including reliable hiking boots, light-weight tents and insulated clothing, not to mention organically grown foods and probably the newspaper hosting this discussion.
The long-term benefits of chemicals to agriculture seem well documented by the history of agriculture. The nostalgic notion that agriculture 50, 100 or 200 years ago was carried on without chemicals is the real fantasy in this debate. Not only did farmers use chemicals, but the chemicals they used were often much more dangerous to both the natural environment and human health. The common use of arsenic, lead and sulfur compounds on fruits and vegetables in the 19th century is a case in point. The heavy use of sodium chloride, alum and wood ash for food preservation also did a lot more damage to health than today’s chemicals.
Among the advantages that genetic modification can have for poor and low-income people who can’t get to the organic food boutique are higher yields, lower prices, less fertilizer and pesticide demand, less soil loss, and crops that can grow in currently hostile places. These are immediate benefits for people who are hungry today. For example, American researchers working with Chinese farmers recently have been able to make dramatic reductions in the use of pesticides by combining planting techniques with new fungi-resistant strains of glutinous rice. Crop losses were reduced by over 50 percent. Income went up 15 percent and spraying fungicides was reduced from four sprays to one. And should we reject the recent breakthrough of an engineered soybean that resists all 150 varieties of nematodes that attack this important source of protein, which yields tofu and soy milk?
Certainly these new rice strains might have some adverse environmental effects. Genetically modified corn might kill good (as well as bad) insects. The more important question is whether it kills more good insects than spraying chemical pesticides. These questions come down to whether we tell hungry people that they must continue to go hungry because something might go wrong to some degree?
And, oh, yes, environmentalists worried about global warming should note that experimenters now testing genetically modified rice varieties in China, Korea and Chile indicate the new varieties extract up to 30 percent more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than traditional varieties.
We can trade pros and cons of genetic engineering ad infinitum. (I do recognize the cons.) We could do it about fire, electricity, microwaves and refrigeration, too. We have no more reason to ban genetically modified crops than to ban electricity and radio waves. We do have reasons to require liability, full disclosure and ongoing testing. We have reasons to carefully monitor and measure the trade-offs. On that score, by all means, label this food “genetically modified” or “irradiated” — and don’t forget the dangers of organically grown crops, so let’s label them “grown in excrement.”
While one critical reader wants to feed “our grandchildren (and their grandchildren),” no matter what noble goals he wraps around his plea to ban genetic engineering, this “Practical Gardener’s” words to people who need the benefits now seems to be: Drop dead. It seems particularly tyrannical to me to have affluent Americans telling the world’s poor what trade-offs they can make to survive.
If the seed and chemical companies are motivated by “greed rather than concern for the poor,” as a reader charges, then what is it that motivates the opponents of new crops and technologies? The way they allow their own fears to dictate what other people in the world can choose seems like greed to me, even if the reward is not money. They are taking away something more valuable than money. They are taking away life itself.
Trading pollution rights: Another reader noted that trading pollution rights could not protect a family living near an industry that bought emissions rights from another company. True. Consider why. One of the problems with the government-permitting system is that once something meets the permit requirements, suing for damages is almost impossible. Before the permit system, tort law allowed an individual whose health or property was affected to sue the polluter directly. As government regulation often does, in these cases, it has seriously damaged individual rights to self-defense and liberty. If “property rights” did not have such a bad taste for liberal environmentalists, we might be able to give pollution-impacted property owners more muscle when emissions impact their homes, crops or health.
The same reader notes that “A pays B money for the right to pollute in North Carolina, while C, totally outside the negotiation and transaction, suffers from the pollution in South Carolina.” He says we need more regulation. Yet the pollution-trading system begins where regulation leaves off. Within the boundaries of the regulations, the trading system allows industry to determine who pays to meet the regulations and how. If the total amount of emissions are too great, then the regulations, not the marketing of rights, needs to be adjusted.
Consider how this same system might work if it could be applied to individual homes and cars, something we all have. Government, after consulting with the best scientists, sets a limit for the overall emissions of NOx and CO2 from our cars. It sets an overall limit for the carcinogens and CO2 produced by our fireplaces, wood stoves, cooking stoves, and oil and gas heaters. Each home, each car license comes with the rights to a certain amount of these emissions. If I keep my house cold and don’t heat my bedrooms (that’s how I live, in fact), but you have a baby you want to keep warm and you need a larger car for your family, you can buy some of my emission rights. The homeowner who burns wood in a fireplace or wood stove, or who uses an outdoor grill, puts out more particulates and dangerous chemicals per capita than most factories.
Which makes one wonder why it is that these same people consider themselves so virtuous and the men and women who run corporations so evil.
Wallace Kaufman lives in Pittsboro. He will be in Asheville to discuss his ideas and his books at Malaprop’s on Thursday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m.