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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Jonathan Rauch has a new article up in next month’s The Atlantic Monthly on the subject of genetically-modified foods. If you’re not familiar with the subject, Reason magazine has a special section devoted to the matter. If you’re unwilling to click on that link and read the context, then I’ll summarize it for you: science is brought to bear on crops in order to alleviate a host of biological maladies via genetic manipulation rather than the traditional means of human-guided plant husbandry.

Rauch argues that genetically-modified foods (GM foods hereafter), or Frankenfoods as they’re called by their detractors, are actually a veritable blessing for humanity. He cites a number of examples of their beneficence and suggests that they might increase crop yields far in excess of what the Green Revolution achieved. He speculates that the yields possible using biotechnology would feed the world for the foreseeable future and help bring the Third World out of subsistence farming.

With all of the benefits, why is such an article necessary? The answer is fairly simple: environmentalists. Groups like the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace argue that the potential downside of its widespread use could create environmental devastation. They further believe that we should study the issue until we can be sure that the risk levels have asymptoted.

That sounds fine and dandy. After all, who wants unnecessary risk? It seems reasonable. Except that the risks are far overshadowed by the possibilities. If food could be made cheaper, safer, and more plentiful, why would anyone oppose that? Because it disrupts nature? Because it might affect other plants in unknown ways? Sounds fine to me. Why? Because I know that we can deal with the problems as they crop up; we can especially deal with them once we’ve developed our knowledge of genetic engineering and that comes with experience in using it.

The environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering tend to consistently take nature’s side over man. While it’s hard to believe of anyone, I think that environmentalists genuinely hate their fellow man. They deride technology, they deride the fantastic wealth-creating powers of the free market, they deride the freedom that let’s individual and corporate initiative flourish. Life on earth is risky and we should undertake any effort to mitigate that risk. Our best bet is through technology and manipulation of our environment to create conditions more favorable to our existence.

The history of life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a testament to the phenomenal power of technology to better our lives (or worsen it in the case of war and totalitarianism). We live longer, live better, and live richer to the degree that we embrace technology and freedom. Anyone who denies it is woefully ignorant of the historical record or willfully blinded by their beliefs and biases.

[UPDATE: Glad tidings as Brazil lifts its ban on GM foods. Brazil has been one of the staunchest nations opposing biotechnology. Other good news is that the scientific community is conflicted over the matter.]