November 13, 2011

It seems that the noted philosopher Paul Thompson has a new book out. It’s called Agro-Technology: A Philosophical Introduction. The title is just a wee bit misleading because the main focus of the book is a bit narrower. Thompson gives an extended defense of genetic engineering in developing new crops, and argues that planting genetically engineered crops is far superior to conventional agriculture.

The main thrust of the argument is that the two main achievements of plant genetic engineering—herbicide tolerant crops and pest resistant crops that produce their own version of the Bt toxin—have led to an overall reduction of chemical use and resulted in the substitution of less toxic chemicals when they are compared to the farming methods used by most farmers in the industrial world. They have also improved soil conservation due to the way that they permit no-till farming. They have done all this with no decline in yields. That is, farmers are producing as many bushels of corn and soybeans or bales of cotton per acre as they ever did.

Thompson is not averse to organic farming. It, too, results in reduced chemical use, but it doesn’t score the victories in soil conservation and he is skeptical that it can maintain adequate yields, especially in the developing world. In fact, he thinks it’s downright criminal that biotechnology is being kept out of Africa because African leaders have been made fearful of it my unscrupulous European representatives of NGOs. He also waxes eloquent over the products of genetic engineering that are just on the horizon.

As it happens, I agree with Thompson about most of this, though I have a bit of a “show me” attitude about the wonder products that are just around the bend. They’ve been coming any day now since sometime in the mid-1990s. Maybe. We’ll see. I also think that Thompson is a bit unfair to contemporary organic production, which is not really just any kind of production that eschews synthetic chemicals. It’s flatly irresponsible to say that poor African producers are using organic methods, yet I think he does come pretty darn close to saying just that.

Yet although I mostly agree with him, I would never have written a book like this, mainly because I think that the dichotomy between biotechnology and organics has been and continues to be one of the most unproductive ways of talking about what matters in agriculture today. It’s why I’ve worked up all the stuff about an agrarian vision that you read about in the Thronapple blog, and why I don’t find very many occasions to write about biotechnology here.

And then there’s also my sense that too many blogs like this one would just bore everyone to tears.

So I’ll just close by noting that the author of Agro-Technology is on the faculty of the University of Toronto, and that he served for a number of years on the Monsanto Company’s “Bioethics Advisory Board”. Neither is true of me.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


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