Environmentalism for the 21st Century

But the programs of genetic research and development now underway in labs and field stations around the world is entirely about benefiting society and the environment. Its purpose is to improve nutrition, to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, to increase the productivity of our farmlands and forests, and to improve human health. Those who have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards genetic modification threaten to deny these many benefits by playing on fear of the unknown and fear of change.

Many in the anti-biotech movement focus on the issue of corporate control. This is an entirely different subject than the science of genetic modification itself. Corporate control in the form of monopoly can occur in any sector. But, for example, just because Microsoft is alleged to have a monopoly over computer operating systems doesn’t mean we should all throw our computers in the garbage or demand that computers be banned. The technology itself must be analysed and judged separately from the institutional framework that is used to deliver that technology. And, unless we wish to dismantle all the laws relating to intellectual property there will continue to be proprietary rights in new developments, thus requiring an element of control. This is generally accepted as beneficial in that it encourages innovation and competition.

The so-called “precautionary principle” is constantly invoked as an argument for banning genetic modification. Whatever the precautionary principle means, it is not that we should stop learning and applying that knowledge in the real world. We will never know everything and it is impossible to create a world with zero risk. The real question, as so ably put by Indur M. Goklany in “Applying the Precautionary Principle to Genetically Modified Crops”, is whether the risks of banning genetic modification are greater or less than the risks of pursuing it. Of course, if we pursue genetic modification, or any other new technology, it must be done with great care and caution. This results in the adoption of a precautionary “approach” or a precautionary “attitude” rather than treating it as a “principle”. The daily example of crossing the street is sufficient to explain the difference between the two interpretations. If we would only cross the street when we had a 100% certainty that nothing would go wrong during the crossing we would never leave the curb. But that doesn’t mean we should cross without pausing and looking both ways before venturing into the roadway.

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