GM: “the entire socio-ecological world in which it is currently embedded has to be made anew”

This piece of feedback from a Maywa Montenegro, a food systems scientist, is not only very flattering. It also expands on what I think is the key misrepresentation that makes GM less of a debate and more of a shouting match between people in seperate soundproof booths.

Worth a read.

Dear Mr. Mathiesen,

Hello, from across the pond in California. As a graduate student in food system studies at the University of California-Berkeley, I greatly enjoyed your fine column, “Is a ban on GM crops more harmful than growing them?” Rare is the journalist who pushes back against scientific ‘expertise’ with such an incisive observation: “Defining the GM debate as a contest between objective science and irrational belief allows scientists to ignore a wider definition of risk and to frame opponents as fundamentalists.”

I cheered aloud when reading that line – and immediately sent the piece to some 400 researchers affiliated with the UC Berkeley Diversified Farming Systems Center, and the globally-scattered New World Agriculture and Environment (NWAEG) group. We are a polyglot array of social and natural scientists who work in agroecology, plant biology, agronomy, and conservation biology (amongst the natural sciences), geography, development, rural sociology, political economy, public policy, and science & technology studies (amongst the social). But many of us find those silos unhelpful and define ourselves as interdisciplinarians.

What unites our work is an interest in food justice and agroecology. For many of us, this means farming and food systems that are based largely on incorporating biodiversity into agricultural landscapes, rather than stripping farmland of its people and nature on the idea that some land should grow food – and other parts “spared” for conservation. We push back at the idea that “feeding the 9 billion” is a problem of productivity, given vastly productive farming today, amidst persistent hunger and malnutrition.

Genetically modified crops may or may not be antithetical to an agroecological approach – in theory, it could happen. So far, however, as so poignantly put by Marco Contiero in your piece – the benefits of GM have largely accrued to oligopsony interests. For me personally, in order for GM to “work,” the entire socio-ecological world in which it is currently embedded has to be made anew.

What you captured so well in just a few short lines was the more complex terrain of thinking that should accompany GM crop evaluation. The GM question hinges not on science versus belief, but upon the boundaries of science in question, whose knowledge is considered a legitimate part of the conversation (are farmers given room at the table?), and a deeper inquiry into whether the ‘science’ that is deemed objective and truthful isn’t itself always mediated by ideology, cultural habits, social norms, and political power. Researchers’ cannot help but mature in their thinking as individuals, and as communities of scientists, in a world where all these forces come to bear. Thus, the kinds of questions they ask – as importantly, the kinds of questions they don’t ask –  are deeply rooted in these social structures and experiences.

This was illustrated in your piece where Jones declares that the GM potato could have saved millions: “Blight costs UK potato farmers around £60m every year in losses and the massive use of chemical sprays. Each hectare has £500 worth of fungicide dumped on it each season.” Similar stories pertain to pest-resistant cabbages and broccoli as well as yellow-rust resistant wheat. “These are examples where in a rational world we’d be just getting on with [them].”

What is rational to Jones is a binary: between GM crops (saving the environment and untold millions) and a regime of fungicide and pesticide dumping. This is a false choice, of course, since there are many other ways of growing food – agroecology, for example – that offer viable alternatives.

But enough. I only want to close by offering a few resources that you may find useful in your future reporting. The first is a petition signed by 67 academics and researchers that my colleagues and I submitted in October to the National Academies of Science, which is currently conducting a review of GE Crops in the United States. We felt that the composition of the panel that will be undertaking the review was insufficient to the scope of the task; our letter includes a fuller explanation. Perhaps of interest to you will be the list of signatories on this petition.  These are professors, post-docs, and leading researchers at non-governmental organizations who would all give you informed – and scientific – critique of GM in a broader social/ecological context.

The second is a Scientist Support Letter that was submitted to the FAO in November, in advance of the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. As the name suggests, the letter was signed by a number of prominent academics who could potentially provide you with “a wider definition of risk” and a vision for feasible alternatives, such as agroecology and food sovereignty.

Best regards,

Maywa Montenegro

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