Playing God: A Double Book Report

Question: Did you know we’ve genetically engineered salmon to grow at twice their normal rate?  Or that we’ve similarly altered the genes of crops, making potatoes that produce their own pesticide and tobacco that glows in the dark?

Next question: Are you at all surprised?  Whether or not you knew about these particular achievements, the fact that genetic codes are looking more like K’NEX sets shouldn’t be all that shocking.  I mean, Jurassic Park was released over fifteen years ago.  Still, besides just knowing about these genetically engineered (GE) foods, should we care?  Further still: should we be freaked out?    It’s not an easy answer (and many have already responded “YES!”), but a couple of books I’ve been reading have helped to frame the GE issue more responsibly, if not solve it totally.

The first is Michael Specter’s Denialism.  Denialism (the book and the philosophy) starts with a simple premise: when faced with a complicated issue, most of us would rather a blanket answer than a complete one.  In other words, in the world of public opinion, the mob has triumphed over the jury.  For this reason, Specter argues, society has come to demonize modern science.  By fixating on a handful of isolated incidents – Ford’s neglectful engineering of their ill-fated Pinto, or Merck’s shoddy testing of its wonderdrug, Vioxx, for example – we’ve dealt corporate science a scarlet letter impossible to see beyond.  

Protesters against scary corn.

In the world of food, it’s been a scarlet acronym: GE.  Jaded by the last half-century of culinary “advancements”, denialists have developed an impenetrable distrust of the food-science community.  True to his theory, these close-minded naysayers “shun nuance and fear complexity”; innovations are seen as threats, risks as examples of malintent.  In their ultimate stroke of rash decision, denialists have started a movement that literally calls for a return to the pre-industrial pastoral.  I’m sure you’ll recognize this regressive uprising, even in Specter’s own terminology: The Organic Fetish.

According to Denialism, the organic movement is nothing more than a manifestation of blind fear.  The frustrating part is, it sort of makes sense.  As is pointed out over and over in the book, no decisive proof exists that organic foods and pesticides are any healthier for the body or better for the earth than their synthetic counterparts.  Though Specter is quick to accept that we’re in the midst of severe global crises, he sees advances in science as the answer, not the enemy.  The Organic Fetish, he argues, is little more than a scapegoat solution to avoid the more complicated truth: maybe, with restraint and responsibility, what got us into this mess can also get us out.

With chips this organic, who needs the gym?

Taken a step further, this blind adherence to organic marketing may very well lead to worse health and sustainability.  Specter points towards high-end junk food at organic markets – unhealthy chips and crackers that claim to be good for you through rustic branding and purported health benefits (Now with omega-3s!).  He also argues against organic produce itself, which, due to its often-exotic origins, accrues way more food miles than conventional produce grown locally.  If denialists actually wanted to address the issues of health and sustainability, they would see these practices for as hypocritical as they actually are.  Instead, it’s much easier to adopt a blanket ideology (Organic: Good, Science: Bad) to pass blame and ease the conscience.

Clearly, Denialism didn’t totally jive with me.  It’s not super fun having personal tenets so explicitly undermined.  Luckily, my next book – Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire – was the perfect answer.  It didn’t refute Specter so much as provide the ying to his yang.

Botany gives us a “Plant’s Eye View of the World”, a premise that definitely takes a little more imagination than Denialism.  To loosely borrow a line from The Royal Tenenbaums: “Well everyone knows humans have conquered nature through domestication and agriculture.  What this book presupposes is… maybe we didn’t?”  Example: Was it our decision to clear the forests in order to plant acres and acres of corn?  Or did corn – after brilliantly adapting to suit our needs – convince us to change our lifestyle and landscapes in devotion of the stuff?  Which is the real success story: ours or theirs?  (Hint: How healthy has corn made you lately?)

Pollan sees Man’s relationship with nature as the struggle between two Greek Gods: Apollo, God of the sun (think order and reason) and Dionysus, god of winemaking (think chaos and ecstasy).  Though we constantly seek to control our natural world, nature’s inherent wildness often ends up calling the shots.  The point crystallized for me in Pollan’s analysis of the potato:

A work of art.

We seek control in our French fries.  Anyone who’s gotten McDonald’s fries knows how perfect and beautiful they look, no matter where or when you get them.

We get control by planting giant monoculture of the only potato that can yield that long, gorgeous fry: the Russet Burbank.

We lose control to pests.  Because we’ve reduced the genetic variance in potatoes (a giant field of Russet Burbanks is a lot like a huge, inbred family), they’re more vulnerable to disease and pests.  In this case, the Russet Burbank is the only potato susceptible to the potato beetle.

So… We seek control again against these beetles that keep eating our crops.

We get control again by genetically modifying the potatoes to build a resistance to the beetles.

We lose control again when the beetles adapt to the new potatoes, making the natural pesticide we relied too heavily on forever obsolete.

This is obviously a simplified version of the issues at hand, but you can see the pattern forming.  The more we try to manipulate nature, the more it wriggles free from our grasp.  It’s a model closely linked to anthropocentrism, as is Specter’s argument.  In Specter’s world, science knows best.  Because we have the knowledge and the power to solve our problems through human ingenuity, we inherently should.  Now don’t get me wrong – modern science is absolutely a great tool – it’s just not our only tool, or our best.  That’s why I think Specter’s argument is a little short sighted.  Just because modern science is proven to work in the short run (or, as is often the case, isn’t proven to not work in the long run) doesn’t mean it’s the best option.  Pollan sees the world a more broadly and, I think, more responsibly.  To him, neither reason nor chaos wins in the end.  Instead, our relationship with nature should be one of understanding and honest compromise.

Using the philosophy found in Denialism, that potato issue from before has a pretty clear solution: once the current GE potato becomes obsolete, we’ll just have geneticists develop another one.  Will it work?  Probably.  Still, there’s an easier solution: What if we just gave up a little control?  What if we were okay with French fries of various, imperfect lengths?  That way, we could plant a polyculture of different potatoes, fostering biodiversity and getting rid of the beetle problem in one fell swoop!

Of course, that would still leave one question unanswered… who would be the real winners in the scenario: us or the potatoes?

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