Monday, February 25, 2019

Biotech in Agriculture: Blessing or Curse?

For personal reasons, I pay more attention than I might otherwise to doings in Omaha, Nebraska (a niece of mine lives there).  As I write this, they're enduring a blizzard with up to 50-MPH winds, temperatures near zero, and up to a foot of snow coming down.  Most of them, that is.  The governor, on the other hand, a Republican named Pete Ricketts, is at the Agricultural Outlook Forum outside Washington, DC participating in a panel discussion of biotechnology in farming. 

In a brief interview that appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, Ricketts painted a glowing future of apples that don't turn brown, salmon that grow faster, and other developments that will feed an increasing population.  Almost in the same breath, he admitted that the public's view of genetic engineering is skeptical, and environmental groups criticize large-scale farming for the effect it has on climate change.  The panel that Ricketts was scheduled to participate in at the forum is called "The Evolving Regulatory Landscape and Adoption of Precision Agriculture." 

Biotechnology in general, and genetic engineering in particular, are specialized topics that most people know a little bit about, but only a few people know a lot about.  In such cases, the few who know a lot have both the privilege and responsibility to use their knowledge wisely.  But wisdom in one person's view may be folly to another.

The tension that Gov. Ricketts pointed out in his interview with the Omaha World-Herald involves two camps or lines of thought.  For simplicity, we'll call them biotech optimists and biotech pessimists.  The optimists, which evidently include the Governor and his fellow panelists at the forum (a biotech scientist and two biotech-firm executives), believe that biotech will improve agriculture and make good-quality food more available.  We should bear in mind that increasingly, farming these days is big farming:  large corporations operating huge spreads with highly mechanized processes that employ fewer people all the time per unit of product made.  That's just the definition of increased productivity, and it's a driving force behind biotech and most other production-oriented businesses these days. 

The biotech pessimists are a more varied group.  They are no doubt responsible for a good bit of the regulatory landscape mentioned in the forum's title.  Some of the reasons for regulation are protection of endangered species, abatement of water and air pollution (have you ever driven within a few hundred yards of an old-style pig farm?—you'd remember it if you did), and prevention of unlikely but devastating disasters that might happen from genetic engineering experiments gone wrong.  The positions of such pessimists range from mild (horse-trading adjustments to regulations in cooperation with biotech industries) to extreme (abolishing all genetic engineering from the planet), but they are united in their opposition to simply letting biotech optimists do whatever they want, with no restrictions whatsoever.

In a well-running democracy, these opposing interest groups make their opinions and facts known and reach a compromise in cooperation with legislative bodies—a compromise that both allows useful advances in biotechnology and avoids the worst harms that can result from it.  Whether this democracy of ours is running that well is a question for another time.

A factor that has to be added to this mix in recent years is the increasingly international nature of all trade, including trade in farm commodities.  One hard fact that Gov. Ricketts mentioned is that Nebraska's farm income for 2018 is expected to be the lowest since 2002, and one factor in that decline is the downward pressure on prices due to international free trade in farm products.  Adam Smith's invisible hand is at work here, making sure that in an ideal world of free trade, the price for each commodity is established by the most efficient producer worldwide, leading to an overall maximum efficiency.  Mathematically, the principle is irrefutable, but mathematics takes no cognizance of nations, cultures, customs, or traditions.

The biotech optimists tend to be on Adam Smith's side, if for no other reason than if we don't take the next step in biotech improvements, somebody else will and they'll undercut us productivity-wise.  In other words, if we don't beat them at their own game, we lose.  The pessimists would step in and question the propriety of the whole game. 

Without farming, we wouldn't have civilization at all—no universities, no cities, no modern conveniences, no science, and no people—well, almost no people, by comparison to what the globe supports now.  Any nation with a considerable land mass suitable for farming is going to have to deal with the question of how that farming is conducted:  whether it is protected from adverse influences such as foreign competition and excessive regulation that would threaten its existence, or whether it is left to fend for itself, which in a democracy gets increasingly difficult as the number of people directly and indirectly supported by farming dwindle.  If you read agrarians such as Wendell Berry, you will conclude that in the U. S., we have largely taken the latter course, treating farming increasingly like we treat the military:  as the sole preoccupation of a few specialists we need pay no attention to, as long as they do for us what we want. 

But such neglect is a recipe for long-term disaster.  Taking any group of people for granted—farmers, soldiers, engineers, even politicians—is to treat them as means, and not ends in themselves:  human beings like us who deserve attention, justice, and mercy.  I do not have all the answers, or even a few of them, regarding how much biotechnology is enough.  But farmers perform an increasingly neglected service to us all, whether here or abroad.  And I hope that we don't sacrifice farming communities for the sake of free trade, or freedom from genetically-modified crops, or any other ideal shibboleth that looks good on paper, but would wreak havoc among people we may never meet, but upon whom we depend for every bite we put in our mouths. 

Sources:  The Omaha World-Herald carried the article "Ricketts joins panel on farming biotechnology during D. C. visit, calls for productivity, innovation" on Feb. 22, 2019 at  The Agricultural Outlook Forum's website is at 

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