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Buddhist Economics and A GMO rethink

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.

E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, 1973


Discussions about plant genetic engineering often reflect two starkly opposing narratives. On the one side are the angry mobs who invade research farms to destroy fragile green rice seedlings deemed “GMOs”. On the other, are the scientists who call for calm and respect for publicly funded research. Too often, it seems, there is little mutual understanding.

But times may be changing.

In a forum yesterday hosted by the Boston Review Magazine, a group of  journalists, activists, plant biologists, and farmers as well as academic experts in food security, international agricultural and environmental policy sat around a virtual table to find common ground. All accepted the broad scientific consensus that the process of GE does not pose inherent risks compared to conventional approaches of genetic alteration and that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment. That agreement allowed the discussion to move forward to a more societally relevant issue- the use of appropriate technology in agriculture.

Few consumers question the utility of reading Scientific American’s Food Matters online or using the most efficient technology to do it. Yet many are hesitant to embrace technology when it comes to food and farming. Some find the use of plant genetic engineering (GE), a modern form of plant breeding particularly distasteful.

Yet GE is just one of many technologies used to alter the genetic makeup of our crops. Today virtually everything we eat is produced from seeds that have been genetically altered in some manner.

Conventional methods include grafting or mixing genes of closely related species through forced pollinations, as well as radiation treatments to induce random mutations in seeds.  Such approaches are imprecise, resulting in new varieties through a combination of trial and error, without knowledge of the function of the genes affected.

GE introduces one to few well-characterized genes resulting in fewer genetic changes. In contrast to most conventional approaches, GE allows for introduction of genes from distantly related species, such as bacteria. Over the last twenty years, scientists and breeders have used both conventional and GE technologies to create crop varieties that thrive in extreme environments or can withstand attacks by pests and disease.

What criteria can scientists, farmers and consumers use to assess which type of these genetic technologies is most appropriate for agriculture?

In his 1973 book Small is Beautiful, economist E. F. Schumacher states that an appropriate technology should be low cost, low maintenance and promote values such as health, beauty, and permanence. Environmentalist Stewart Brand used a similar framework to select new technologies for inclusion in his 1969 Whole Earth Catalog. One of the purposes of the Whole Earth catalog was to facilitate a creative or self-sustainable lifestyle.

We can apply Brand and Schumacher’s Buddhist economic criteria to evaluate modern agricultural technologies.

Take, for example, Golden Rice, a provitamin A–enriched rice developed through genetic engineering that comprises many of the properties advocated by Schumacher and Brand. Consumption of Golden Rice, within the normal diet of rice-dependent poor populations, could provide sufficient vitamin A to reduce substantially the 6,000 deaths caused every day by vitamin A deficiency and save the sight of several hundred thousand people per year. This “biofortification” approach is important to poor farmers and their families in developing countries who lack nutrients and cannot pay the price of improved seed. It is widely considered an improvement on conventional supplementation programs, such as the World Health Organization’s distribution of Vitamin A pills, which costs 40 times more and often does not reach the rural poor who have little access to roads.

Golden Rice is an excellent example of how a particular genetic technology can appropriately serve a specific societal purpose – in this case, enhancing the health and well-being of farmers and their families. It is a relatively simple technology that scientists in most countries, including many developing countries, have perfected. The product, a seed, requires no extra maintenance or additional farming skills. The seed can be propagated on the farm each season at no extra cost through self-pollination and improved along the way.

Can we conclude from the example of Golden Rice that all GE seeds fall into the category of appropriate technology? Unfortunately it is not that simple. Each agricultural technology must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  It is not informative to group all “GMOs” together without regard to the purpose of the engineering, the needs of the farmer, or the social, environmental, economic, or nutritional benefits.

This central point is addressed by several participants in the Boston Review forum. Journalist Marc Gunther highlights the conspiratorial narrative about GE technology favored by some corporate supported anti-GMO activists. Greg Jaffee, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that better farm management is crucial  to ensure that future GE crops benefit farmers, consumers and the environment. Margaret Mellon, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists argues that GE is not a transformative technology. Rosamond Naylor, Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University discusses the ethics of GMOs in light of persistent hunger and malnutrition. Robert Paarlberg, author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know outlines the effectiveness of anti-GMO campaigns in blocking the use of modern technologies in the developing world. Nina Fedoroff, Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State University and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science describes the pervasive disconnect between what is true and what people believe to be true about GMOs. Tim Burrack, Farmer and Vice Chairman of Truth About Trade and Technology  gives an account of today’s farmers who are growing more food on less land than ever before using biotechnology as an essential ingredient. Jennie Schmidt, Farmer and registered dietician reports that farmers choose GE crops because they are economically and environmentally advantageous.  Jack Heinemann, Lecturer in Genetics at the University of Canterbury reminds us that reliance on seed technology alone will not avert agricultural catastrophes. Their commentaries are posted online (just click on names to view each one) and the entire forum will be available in print form in the September Issue of the magazine. Kudos to Boston Review’s editor Deborah Chasman and Managing Editor Simon Waxman for launching this forum.

One unusual and important aspect of the forum compared to many other discussions on GE crops is that it was science-based, critically reviewed and included the perspectives of farmers –the 1% of US workers that actually produce the food that the rest of us eat and who are at the forefront of evaluating the effectiveness of specific agricultural technologies.

Despite the massive number of technical reports attesting to the safety and environmental benefits of GE crops over the pasts decade, science-based information about food, farming and genetics has only trickled out to the public through government agencies and science-based blogs such as,, Recently, however, to the delight of plant biologists, farmers, food security experts and skeptics, this trickle has turned into a torrent of excellent reporting.

Consider for example the investigative reporting by a bevy of talented journalists such as New York Times Pullitzer Prize winning author Amy Harmon, DotEarth’s Andy Revkin, Slate’s Daniel Engber, the New Yorker’s Michel Specter, Grist’s Nathaneal Johnson, Discover magazine’s Keith Kloor, Greenwire’s Paul Voosen, and Genetic Literacy Project’s Jon Entine. All have tackled the science behind GE crops eloquently and accurately. A number of informative and entertaining books on the subject have been published over the last few years as well. See for example, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, Michael Specter’s Denialism, and James McWilliam’s Just Food.

As more information is made available demystifying what farmers and plant breeders actually do, the public dialog about GE crops is becoming more sophisticated. Even chefs are taking time out of the kitchen to reevaluate their stance on modern agricultural technologies. Mark Bittman, widely admired for his culinary skills (check out his practical lunch tips) and beautiful prose, but not for his support for genetic engineering,  recently visited one of my neighbors here in the Central Valley (the source of 50 % of U.S. fruits, nuts and vegetable) to learn about tomato farming. He wrote an unusually thoughtful and respectful piece on the approaches the Rominger farm in Winters is taking to advance ecologically based management practices using modern technologies.

What technology then is truly “appropriate” for agriculture? There is no simple answer to this question. Instead of focusing on how a seed variety was developed, we need to frame discussions about agriculture in the context of environmental, economic, and social impacts—the three pillars of sustainability. We must ask what most enhances local food security and can provide safe, abundant, and nutritious food to consumers. We must ask if rural communities can thrive and if farmers can make a profit. We must be sure that consumers can afford food. And finally we must minimize environmental degradation. This includes conserving land and water, enhancing farm biodiversity and soil fertility, reducing erosion, and minimizing harmful inputs. The most appropriate technology for addressing a particular agricultural problem depends on the context.

Technology evolves. Just as today we source tools through the internet rather than the Whole Earth Catalog (Steve Jobs called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form”), few breeders now rely on primitive domestication for seed production.

As the physicist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski pointed out fifty years ago, “We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game by taking sides. . . . No one who has read a page by a good critic or a speculative scientist can ever again think that this barren choice of yes or no is all that the mind offers”.

Pamela Ronald About the Author: Pamela Ronald is a Professor at the University of California, Davis where she studies how genes affect the plant’s response to environmental stress and disease. She is co-author of ‘Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food”. Find her on the web at Follow on Twitter @pcronald.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. The Ethical Skeptic 3:09 pm 09/6/2013

    Yes, I believe the science, that I will not die if fed GE food. But my body tells me that I am suffering already from the highly hybridized corn, wheat, canola, alfalfa and derivative products crafted over the last 20 years, nonetheless. My doctor has advised me to remove these products from my diet for specific health reasons. This was effective. The two sides are not “On the one side are the angry mobs who invade research farms to destroy fragile green rice seedlings deemed “GMOs”. On the other, are the scientists who call for calm and respect for publicly funded research.” This is propaganda.

    The two sides are a public and families which have been forced to eat, without their input or review in advance, highly modified foods which are triggering auto-immune disorders at an alarming rate, and a food industry who did not even care enough but to do the “massive number of technical reports attesting” until AFTER THE FOOD WAS ALREADY RELEASED and constituted 60% of total food production (eg. 1999 Bt Corn and 1995 Triticale)

    Fortifying rice with vitamin A and breeding wheat crops is not the same as inserting bacteria code genetically into corn. Not the same thing by a long shot. This too is propaganda. Testing after the food has already been released is incompetence. This is incompetence to a mother with 3 kids working to keep a household together; so why does it not constitute incompetence to the “science” community? Because it is doctrine.

    The industry has NOT DONE THE SCIENCE on the impacts of auto-immune disorders that these highly hybridized foods are causing. Re-doing the same 90 day rat-death study 500 times over and over, getting the same result “Rats did not die” – will still produce the same pseudoscience result: Doctrine and Ignorance.

    American families know there is a problem, and we are the “peers” -= as our bodies, our childrens’ immune systems, and an our kitchens ARE the labs; not 90/240 day rat death study reports – those are useless fodder – no matter how many times you run them again. We are the ones suffering. We remain highly skeptical, unconvinced, and resent this food being forced upon us, before it was even tested.

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  2. 2. cwhitingclark 3:51 pm 09/6/2013

    I was appalled by the subtle use of descriptors in this piece and the heart tugging use of inhabitants of third world countries to shape the emotional responses of readers. And I can’t help but think that the group of activists, journalists, plant bilogists and academic experts must have been carefully selected to achieve consensus on the safety of GMO foods. The author speaks highly of the science behind GMOs, ignoring the fact that the practice of creating new organisms by interrupting a DNA sequence with genes from another species has been in practice only since the 80s. The impact on human and environmental health takes far longer to become evident and yet we are being asked to accept the safety of the process based on a limited number of short term studies, many of which have been funded by those companies with an interest in outcomes favorable to the propagation of GMO foods. I would be less skeptical if these companies were not so heavily invested in the success of GMOs and if the same companies were not patenting seeds that have always, previously, been available to anyone and everyone who was able to use them in whatever way s/he wished. It does not sound to me as if they are on the eightfold path.

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  3. 3. racer79 5:50 pm 09/6/2013

    There are dozens of points that I would love to discuss in depth that this article brings up, however for the sake of time I will limit myself to the one that is bugging me the most.

    “…finally we must minimize environmental degradation. This includes conserving land and water, enhancing farm biodiversity and soil fertility, reducing erosion, and minimizing harmful inputs. The most appropriate technology for addressing a particular agricultural problem depends on the context.”

    Let’s start with conserving land and water, and improving soil fertility.
    I am 100% certain that if a side by side empirical study were done on the most effective techniques of farming to reduce land and water usage were done that hydroponics and drip irrigation would hands down beat out GMO’s. And as far as improving soil fertility, to my knowledge rotating crops is the best method to do this, not modifying the plants genome.

    Moving on to enhancing plant biodiversity.
    GMO’s are the exact opposite of this. Monsanto and others like it are soley responsible for the MASSIVE reduction in the amount of seeds traded between farmers, and thus are responsible for a vast reduction in the potential gene pool which obviously harms biodiversity.

    Reducing soil erosion, once again I’m pretty sure that GMO’s don’t help us out much on this one, and even if they do, hydroponics obviously destroys them in this category.

    And last but not least, minimizing harmful inputs to the environment. This must be what they are talking about when you read studies on how genes from GMO’s have began transferring to weeds, particularly the genes that they place in the GMO’s in order to make them less affected by the herbicides that are designed to kill those weeds (read statement with extreme sarcasm).

    Thank you SciAm for opening my eyes to how useful GMO’s are in these particular areas, which is to say, THEY AREN’T.

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  4. 4. racer79 6:07 pm 09/6/2013

    With my very brief rant out of the way, I do have to give props to the author for this particular statement,

    “Can we conclude from the example of Golden Rice that all GE seeds fall into the category of appropriate technology? Unfortunately it is not that simple. Each agricultural technology must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It is not informative to group all “GMOs” together without regard to the purpose of the engineering, the needs of the farmer, or the social, environmental, economic, or nutritional benefits.”

    Bravo for having at least one paragraph that doesn’t read as if it were typed out by Monsanto itself.

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  5. 5. pianissimo_sempre 9:32 pm 09/6/2013

    I whole-heartedly agree with the previous four anti-GMO comments (the ethical skeptic, cwhitingclark, racer79), so I won’t reiterate their points. However, in addition to what they brought up, I would like to point out the issue of food sovereignty and GMOs–something not often mentioned right away in the GMO argument. Genetic modification results in genes or plant varieties being patented. When GMO seeds are sold to farmers in the US or “bestowed” upon people in less-developed countries, people lose control of their own food supply. The company that developed the modified crop owns any seeds resulting from the initial planting if these seeds contain the modified gene(s). You can either pay the company a fee to use the successive generations’ seeds or you risk being sued (look at the recent US court case Monsanto vs. Bowman). Also, pollen–it tends to, you know, spread genes through pollination–and can travel by air or insect for miles. Have fun trying to manage that.

    To The Ethical Skeptic–while at a bed and breakfast today, I actually met someone who was informing the host there that she wouldn’t be eating their meals–she is highly affected by several GMO foods. They cause her to have severe autoimmune and bladder problems, and not eating specific GMO varieties completely relieves her symptoms (she was instructed to do this by a medical doctor). I’m glad you brought up health issues in your post.

    GMOs are unacceptable. At the very least, people need a choice whether or not to consume GMOs.

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  6. 6. Hannahla 12:42 am 09/7/2013

    Kudos to the foregoing posts. The recent article in Scientific American reads like it was published by Monsanto’s PR department. They (SA)miss the point entirely.
    The abstract notion that GE foods are problematic in general is not the issue. Our health is at stake here. I am canceling my subscription as this is the second article that they have published which, again, misses the point entirely. I, too, am a practitioner of the eightfold path. Nowhere am I required to accept information that has not been thoroughly researched nor concords with my own experience.

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  7. 7. Never Ending Food 2:19 am 09/7/2013

    Vitamin A (beta-carotene) is not supposed to come from starchy foods such as rice, it is found within the diversity of orange, yellow, and red fruit crops as well as within dark green vegetables—all crops which are being forced out of the equation through the ever-increasing move away from bio-diversity and towards the limited monocropped approach that is being advanced by genetic engineering. The argument for or against labeling far too often gets caught in arguments of GMO safety and misses the more fundamental question of whether we truly need to be ‘tinkering’ with unproven technologies when we already have naturally existing solutions which are completely being ignored. The world is full of naturally ‘open-pollinated’ varieties of crops that are drought-resistant, pest-resistant, high-yielding, seasonal, perennial, and nutritious, but they are being ignored because of the profit-driven campaign to convince the world that without the genetic engineering of a handful of plants we are all going to perish…nothing could be more contrary to the truth.

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  8. 8. mem from somerville 9:44 am 09/7/2013

    I was so pleased to see that the participants in this had all agreed to the safety issues. Especially since I know some of them in the past had been doing some real fearmongering on that exact front. But I had hoped an actual corner was turned and that the debate would be going in a different direction.

    So I was very saddened today to see Jack Heinemann fearmonger on the exact same safety issues in India.


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  9. 9. waysidelynne 9:52 am 09/8/2013

    There is a vast difference between hybridization and genetically altering seeds.

    Patents on seeds don’t create profitability for farmers and offer no guarantee of success if planted.

    There is also balance in nature so if you solve one problem, another is created. We have seen that with bee colony collapse. We need bees to pollinate the crops for food; without them, there will be very little food. Where’s security in that?

    Proper treatment of the planet – no till practices, crop rotations. Check out Sumant Kumar, a farmer from India who is defying the corporate pressure to plant gmo rice crops and succeeding:

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  10. 10. Overfences 4:48 pm 09/10/2013

    As a participant in the Boston Review Magazine forum, I take issue with the sweeping statement that all of the participants agreed that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment. My views on both topics are more nuanced.

    I agree that GE products currently on the market–overwhelmingly herbicide tolerant (HT) and BT crops–are unlikely to be allergenic or toxic and on that basis are likely safe to consume. But I also believe that there are holes in the risk assessment process that leave some questions unanswered. This month’s issue of Nature Biotechnology has an excellent feature discussing the challenges of food safety testing.

    Moreover, it is important to note that each GE product must be individually assessed for food safety and that the safety status of the HTC and BT crops says little about foods that might be introduced in the future. For example, serious attention needs to be paid to the possibility that GE products produced by gene silencing might inadvertently turn off non-target genes in people who consume them.

    I disagree strongly with the statement that the BT and HT crops are safe for the environment. Yes, scientists have documented pesticide reductions in pesticide use immediately following the introduction of these crops, which I welcome and applaud.
    But these benefits exist only until resistance develops to glyphosate or the BT toxins.

    Glyphosate-resistant weeds have already arisen across the US and are leading to enormous increases in pesticide use, reversing the early reductions attributable to the HT crops. The biotechnology industry’s response is a new generation of transgenic crops that enable the use of older, more herbicides like 2,4 D and dicamba. Unless U.S. agriculture responds swiftly, we will soon be facing a nightmare scenario of increased pesticide use resulting from resistant weeds. This is not an example of an environmentally beneficial technology.

    Margaret Mellon

    BT has proven much more durable, in part because strong regulations allowed the government to impose refuge requirements on U.S. farmers. But resistance has already arisen in corn root worms in the Midwest and is leading to increased chemical insecticide use.

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  11. 11. marclevesque 5:43 pm 09/10/2013

    I don’t understand why there are so many articles on Scientific American these days directly or indirectly helping the GMO industry spin their products. And it certainly isn’t because the negative spin is a significant problem when compared to the mountain of positive spin from the GMO industry and media.

    Can’t we just stop the exaggerations of real and potential benefits of GMOs, and, stop the minimization of real and potential harms.

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  12. 12. pcronald 3:37 pm 09/11/2013

    I appreciate that Doug Gurian-Sherman has taken time to respond. His response is quite lengthy so I will summarize my understanding here of the UCS position (based on Mellon and Gurian-Sherman’s responses):

    UCS concurs with the broad scientific consensus (see main article for citations) that:

    1. Each GE crop must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
    2. In the case of GE cotton, the technology has enhanced yields in many parts of the world.
    3. The planting of GE cotton has reduced the use of sprayed insecticides
    4. GE papaya has enhanced yields
    5. GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat.
    6. The GE crops currently on the market are safe for the environment but overuse of herbicides leads to herbicide resistant weeds.
    6. GE crops are just one of the many tools that can be used to enhance the sustainability of farms.
    7. Enhanced public funding for breeding is needed
    8. The planting of GE corn in the US has benefited growers of non-GE corn
    9. The technology of GE has not solved all agricultural problems. But we should not throw out the technology for that reason. (Just as we do not consider vaccination as a technological failure because there are still diseases for which we don’t yet have vaccines)
    I am glad to see that UCS has come forward to support these points. If there is any disagreement on these 9 points, I hope UCS will respond concisely (e.g. Simply indicate which of the 9 points are not supported).
    The other points that Gurian-Sherman raises (e.g. the relevance of peer review, the relative merits of breeding and GE to address diverse agricultural problems etc.) will be taken up in a discussion on the blog in the near future.

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