WASHINGTON, April 23, 2014 - “Genetic engineering could be a threat to human and environmental health,” Greenpeace International writes in large, green letters on its website. The charge from one of the world’s most controversial but visible environmental groups is not new – but it may be why some see environmentalists as a political fringe group, critics say.
“The enviro-romantic left has painted themselves as anti-science, anti-technology, and essentially policy irrelevant,” said Jon Entine, a journalist and founder of the Genetic Literacy Project, reflecting on the status of the environmental movement as it marks Earth Day 2014.
The world needs biotechnology, Entine said this week in an interview. And it will need it even more in 2050, when the population is projected to reach 9 billion.
“I love wild places,” said Val Giddings, a consultant and former vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and an ex-regulator with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). “If we want to leave any of them for our children, we need to double the productivity of our agricultural land.”
The environmental movement’s hostility towards biotechnology, Entine says, can be traced back to its spiritual mother: Rachel Carson. Though she would be catapulted to worldwide fame by her 1963 jeremiad against the chemical industry, Silent Spring, it was during the acceptance speech for the National Book Award for her earlier The Sea Around Us that Carson made her most succinct argument against “unnatural” science.
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation,” Carson said. “He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
The romanticizing of a past where subsistence agriculture – not “factory farming” and “frankenfood” – could feed the country grew out of Carson’s ethic, Entine says. And both he and Giddings say that idea has put the environmental movement on the wrong side of history.
In an interview with Genomics Newswire, environmentalist and Greenpeace co-founder Peter Moore took aim at his own organization, which he left in 1986. Supporting biotechnology innovations like Golden Rice, a fortified food meant to make up for the Vitamin-A deficiencies that kill more than a half a million children a year, would be the moral thing for Greenpeace to do, Moore said.
But the organization “has painted [itself] into such a corner on this issue – zero biotech, basically – that if they were to admit that there is one good agricultural biotech product, they have to then admit that there might be others,” he said. “Then they would be reduced to a rational discussion along with the rest of us about which is good and which is not. So they're taking a fundamentalist view.”
“One of the frustrating aspects of it is that it didn’t have to be that way,” Giddings said. Greenpeace, he said, entered the debate against biotechnology because the group suspected it would touch a nerve among its base and prove a lucrative fundraiser; other environmental groups soon followed.
But Entine said he’s noticed a change in the dialogue, starting during 2008 food crisis, when food price spikes around the world sparked rioting in countries including Burkina Faso, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Egypt.
In early 2013, Nature Conservancy President and CEO Mark Tercek committed to making “credible progress toward a diverse and sustainable planet, not score ideological points” through welcoming “constructive criticism and new ideas, and [committing] to finding objective measures of our progress.”
Released just a few months later, Tercek’s Nature’s Fortune urged conservationists to “keep an open mind toward GMOs because in some cases they likely can help us solve our biggest challenges.” To expect that other major groups will break from their traditional anti-biotechnology positions “is probably too much to ask,” Entine said. But he anticipates a future in which environmentalists will “look back to this era with embarrassment.”
Meanwhile, other biotechnology advocates like to remind environmentalists of another Rachel Carson quote, this one from Silent Spring (below). This one, some say, anticipated GMO technology. If Carson were alive today, they argue, she might be a biotechnology fan.
“A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on the understanding of the living organisms they seek to control and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing – entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists – all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.”
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