March 6, 2011
Sitting in a confab on syn bio yesterday, I’m listening to my colleagues worry. “The big issue,” one of them says, “is unknown and unintended consequences. That’s the main thing I’m worried about.” I say well of course we do want to pay serious attention to unknown hazards, but frankly it’s not the “the main thing” I’m worried about. I’ve heard this story many times before. Way way back in 1986 when I was first starting to work on the ethical issues around genetically engineered crops, I focused a lot of my effort on risk, unknowns and uncertainties. The big problem, we thought then, was “What if one of these genes escapes?”
We had other examples of technological arrogance, after all. There were the “too cheap to meter” nukes that weren’t, and then Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They are still counting the fatalities from that one. And before that we had had Silent Spring which taught us that through the modern technological miracle of bio-accumulation pesticide exposure gets more intense as you move up the food chain. And if you’ve been down South you know about kudzu and Killer Bees, so I get it when people start to sweat bullets about gene escape.
But as for me, I worry a lot more about the things that we actually intend to do.
There is this plant, for example, that has pretty much destroyed most of the natural biodiversity all over the American Midwest. I mean it grows everywhere! And it’s not enough that it has displaced most of the Big Bluestem, wool grass and Pink Lady’s Slipper that used to grace our plains, it’s also wrecked habitat for lynx, warblers, skink and the greater prairie chicken. In many places it grows, water tables have become polluted. Health statistics reveal a weak correlation between the geographic locations of this plant and cancer in the local human population. But I needn’t stop there. The spread of this plant is plausibly tied to the rapid spread of intensive livestock production, not just here in North America, but globally. And recent work in public health suggests that it may be contributing to global epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
So surely this menace is the result of some genetic monstrosity run amok, some interloping invader species from Cucamonga, Afghanistan or the like that has taken over our once pristine prairies. But here’s the shocking truth: This plant cannot even reproduce without human assistance!
So how does it do it? Well, Native American tribes had a number of ritual ceremonies they would deploy to insure that their farmers did not forget to plant the corn. The Hopi and the Tzotzil call themselves “the people of the corn” but I can assure you that these tribes had nothing on us! We’ve enacted massive Federal subsidies to remind our farmers that they must plant the corn. And just in case that’s not enough, there are tax incentives in states like Iowa which are tailored exclusively for corn growers. We wouldn’t want our farmers to slip up and plant cabbage or rutabaga, now. And we’ve invested a ton in agricultural research to make sure that our corn has the best genetics, and that farmers have all the tools they need to help it reproduce.
But maybe that’s not enough! Fearing the worst, Congress had the foresight to support even more corn production by providing additional subsidies for corn ethanol production, and even mandated that by 2022 36 billion gallons of our fuels come from ethanol. Thank God for that! I’d hate to think that I could one day look out on the American countryside and see anything but corn!
Yeah, I know it’s hackneyed, but the moral of the story: Before you sweat the unknowns, be careful what you ask for. You might get it.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity