Right up there with air and water, one of the last things in nature we should be tampering with is our food—at least not without due consideration of all the ramifications. And that, of course, means undertaking a full program of research, not plowing ahead—as the biotech industry appears to be doing—with such abandon that if problems crop up later it will be too late to turn back. There’s a lot at stake: human health, environmental quality, and the future ability of ecosystems to produce food in quantity that is safe to eat and of high nutritional quality.
It’s disturbing that food biotechnology is coming to the fore at the same time in history that organic foods are becoming ubiquitous. Organic and natural food proponents have worked hard to bring us this far, while educating the public and policymakers about food safety issues. Yet now they are faced with the irony that the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors may very well be getting a good dose of biotech themselves, whether intentionally or by accident. If it’s not entirely safe to eat foods that have been sprayed with a pesticide, is it any better that the pesticide is instead made by a gene of the plant? We just don’t know for sure, but we should—lest we find out the hard way generations later, as we did with the delayed effects of some pharmaceuticals, fertility drugs and nuclear testing.
But this is a classic lop-sided tug of war, in which moneyed interests hold the upper hand in the marketplace and in the arenas of public debate. Funny how we keep stalling on action to curb global warming because we’ve supposedly not done enough studies, yet genetically modified ingredients are steamrolling their way into a whole host of food products with little discussion.
As with so many other environmental and social issues, economics is the underlying player. The impetus of the biotech industry, in employing such tools as embedded pesticides to increase crop yields and genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production, is to make more profit, not some altruistic desire to deliver nourishment to the hungry. Promises that food biotechnology will "feed the world" are unsubstantiated, as there’s little evidence to date that an abundance of anything makes its way to the truly needy. And even if that were to change, we shouldn’t need high-tech fixes to feed hungry mouths. Instead we should be addressing the fundamental causes of hunger, with an eye toward devising a safe, healthy, sustainable, locally controlled—yes, organic—food production model.
There may well be a beneficial role for food biotechnology, right alongside organic. After all, the best of it is not that big a stretch from the beneficial creation of hybrid plants. It could increase yields and, with moral guidance, improve the lot of the undernourished. And there is certainly something to be said for finding less-toxic ways to combat destructive insects and disease. But biotechnology—if it’s at all up to these tasks—should not supplant organic farming, and should only go forward with the objectives of health, safety and adequate nutrition for all.