Caption: GMOs were first called ‘Frankenfood’ in 1992. The full title of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The Titan Prometheus stole fire from the heavens and made humans godlike in the process. Immanuel Kant called Benjamin Franklin the ‘new Prometheus’ for his kite-flying experiments with electricity. Image: Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky by Benjamin West (c. 1816).
I was trained in economic botany, an important but now almost forgotten discipline dedicated to the study of plants, people and culture. I am fortunate to have had the chance to learn about the long history of agriculture, the origins of domestication, and the richness of bio-cultural diversity in the world, particularly in the region of Mesoamerica (roughly, Mexico and Central America). I pursued the AAAS fellowship in large part because this richness is rapidly disappearing.
Since becoming a fellow, I have worked on GMO (genetically modified organism) trade policy at USDA, and over the last four years on a daily basis I have read what people here in the United States and all over the world have to say about GMOs.
If you follow food or agricultural issues at all, GMOs are bound to come up at some point, and many readers are probably generally familiar that there are strong opinions for or against GMOs, and a constant debate about the impacts of GMOs on society, their safety, their benefit, etc.
While the debate can be unwieldy, especially from a policy perspective, I don’t necessarily mind that there is a GMO debate. This is in part because the debate is multifaceted; a stand-in, or sort of symbolic battlefield for all kinds of “big picture” debates. I welcome the opportunity to gain new knowledge and insight, and feel our different backgrounds, perspectives, and values can help us better understand things.
My rule of thumb for a good GMO debate is that we allow voices to be heard and considered, and that we think about, rather than merely believe, what is said, so that the debate advances. In the words of philosopher Abraham Kaplan, "Values make for bias, not when they dictate problems, but when they prejudge solutions."
The starting point for any agricultural policy discussion should be the recognition of how fundamental agriculture is to society – nothing about our contemporary, urban, digital lives diminishes the absolutely critical importance of agriculture. Most of us are removed from the countryside, but none of us are removed from food.
Agriculture is not in the best shape these days. As Jonathan Foley and other scientists are showing, agricultural production is up against a looming crisis: we are well short of being on any kind of trajectory to meet the projected doubling of global food demand by 2050. How are we going to meet this demand, and do so sustainably? No one really knows.
On the supply side, I think everyone more or less agrees that by harnessing science and technology, and best management practices, we can reduce yield gaps and improve the efficiency of our current agricultural production systems. There are no quick fixes or simple solutions that will make agriculture become sustainable, and so I do not find it very useful to debate things in that light. I much rather prefer a dialogue about cooperation and finding common ground for working together on shared goals.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.