Does genetic engineering have a role to play in developing sustainable agricultural systems?
Many of the claims of the proponents of agricultural biotechnologies are being challenged by a coalition of public interest groups who represent a range of environmental, food safety and economic concerns. These groups question the compatibility of genetically modified food with sustainable agriculture. For example, Friends of the Earth, a UK-based environmental group, notes: ‘…we promote sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty/security, acting as a counter-balance to the models promoted by multinational biotech companies. Environmental, health, socioeconomic, ethical and cultural questions are also taken into account, and a balance between perceptions in developed and developing countries is sought.’ (http://www.foei.org/campaigns/Biotechnology/indexbiotechnology.html
Without reviewing all the claims made by both sides of the genetic engineering debate, I argue instead that, at its root, sustainable agriculture represents a fundamentally different approach to growing crops and raising livestock and poultry than the (conventional) approach to farming that is now incorporating genetic engineering into its practices. Conventional agriculture is anchored to a scientific paradigm that is rooted in experimental biology and embodies an approach to farming that focuses on enhancing the ‘favorable’ traits of crop varieties and animal species. Further, I argue that in a capitalist economic system, the traits (products) developed by genetic engineers are turned into commodities that can be bought, sold and traded on the world market. As such, the reductionist nature of experimental biology, which identifies and creates ‘traits’, dovetails nicely with the reductionism of neoclassical economics, which provides the framework for turning these traits into ‘property’.
Sustainable agriculture rests on a biological paradigm best described as ‘ecological’. As such, sustainable agriculture is not readily amenable to incorporating the techniques and technologies of reductionist science. However, sustainable agriculture is unlikely to replace ‘conventional’ agriculture as the dominant production paradigm until a new (or modified) social science paradigm that is also nonreductionist in character is adopted. An emerging community-centered ‘problem-solving’ perspective might offer a starting place for such a paradigm.