At What Risk? A Summary of Thoughts on Genetic Engineering

Dr. Blake C. Meyers, Dr. Jonathan M. Links
Spring 2002

We began our public-education campaign on the risks of genetic engineering a year and a half ago with an ad on the potential dangers posed to the monarch butterfly by ingesting milkweed dusted with pollen from Bt corn. So it seems appropriate to conclude with Sue Halpern's meditation on the monarch's 3,000-mile journey (from the Adirondacks of upstate New York to the volcanoes of Mexico), a running of the gauntlet that illustrates the complexity and richness of one life form – and how little we yet understand its workings.

The "conservationist" movement is a battle against [genetic engineering] technology, when instead it should be a battle for the "appropriate" use of technology.

Dr. Blake C. Meyers
Department of Vegetable Crops
University of California, Davis

We're alarmed by several potential harms from genetic engineering, including new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, increased residues from broad-spectrum pesticides, the creation of new viruses and pathogens, and unexpected genetic mutations. We see the promise of genetic engineering linked inexorably to the false hope of factory farming: that industrial-scale, pesticide-reliant agriculture is the only way to feed the world. Above all, we see that GE portends both an immense loss of plant biodiversity (as we sacrifice the world's heritage of locally adapted natural foods in favor of a handful of patented, corporate-controlled hybrids that can be grown only in sterile soils) and a tremendous risk to wildness itself as we tinker in ways we do not fully understand with the makeup of life itself.

We ask that 1) genetically modified organisms be kept in a contained environment until independent safety testing proves they are safe; 2) that products containing GMOs be labeled as such; and 3) that the companies that produce GMOs be held responsible for any environmental damage they cause.

The essays, and especially the ads, we've run have earned us a lot of mail, which we welcome. Response means we've sparked some interest among our friends and customers in an issue that needs far more public debate. Some of our correspondents have gently asked us to admit a contradiction between our design of often high-tech clothes and what they see as our anti-tech position on agriculture. We're not opposed to complexity. Modern organic farming actually requires a more complex, if less mechanical, approach to feeding (and clothing) people. But in the tradition of people like Wendell Berry and Jacques Ellul, we place no mystical faith in the high-tech, capital-intensive fix per se. Pests are just as much a problem for farmers now as they were before the wide use of chemicals. Industrial agriculture has wrought enormous environmental destruction, when organic alternatives were possible. There is more good to the world than the technological ingenuity of humans; time to be wise rather than clever.

A few of our scientist friends were stung by our reference in one essay to those in "white lab coats," a sort of Gary Larson Far Side image they object to as anti-science. We can see their point and regret if the caricature encourages yahoos. No one can afford to be anti-science or anti-scientist. But not all geneticists (Richard Lewontin, for instance) agree that GE is inherently safe, or that pinpoint gene-splicing represents great hope for agriculture. The underwriting of science by corporations (through university grants) certainly influences the studies agricultural scientists pursue, or don't. And we now have a solid modern history of stuff that's come out of labs that should have stayed there. DDT doesn't belong in pelicans, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) doesn't belong in our milk.

One correspondent took us to task on our call for independent safety testing of GMOs � we require that GE food be shown to be not dangerous in any conditions. This stance, and its aversion to risk, he said, inhibits progress. We'll plead half-guilty to that sort of risk aversion. What we would ask: Which sorts of risks are worth it? And what is progress? A new way to get somewhere is of no use if the destination is wrong.

Many of our readers wrote in or e-mailed positive comments about our essays (and ads). Thanks to all who took the time and effort to engage us toe to toe or cheer us on. What happens next with genetic engineering is up, in part, to you. The citizen voice does make a difference: witness the recent commitment from Trader Joe's, a mainstream national food chain of 172 stores, to reformulate its private label foods that contain GMOs. Their reason? "Given the opportunity, the majority of our customers would prefer to have products made without genetically engineered ingredients." Way to go, Trader Joe's.

We must fight to constantly remind ourselves - as you at Patagonia do in every catalog - to balance the "costs" (both micro and macro) of the manufacture and consumption of material goods against the benefits of ownership and use.

Dr. Jonathan M. Links
Department of Environmental Health Sciences
Johns Hopkins University