Genetically modified organic farming

What would Rachel Carson say about the prospect of sustainable GMOs?

Published July 16, 2008 10:25PM (EDT)

When a debate between two authors of new books about the future of food is labeled "A Food Fight," one can be excused for expecting some fireworks. But the exchange hosted in late June at the Oxford University Press blog between Robert Paarlberg, author of "Starved for Science" and Pamela Ronald, author of "Tomorrow's Table," on the topic of "how to best ensure a safe food supply with the least amount of damage to the environment," was anything but adversarial.

It might have helped if the two authors has more sharply opposed stances. But Paarlberg, who believes Africa is shooting itself in the foot by resisting genetically engineered crops, and Ronald, who believes organic farmers should take advantage of GMOs, appeared to agree more than disagree.

The discussion is not without nuance, however, and Ronald was even brassy enough to cite "Silent Spring's" Rachel Carson as a potential muse for those who aim to merge the latest biotechnology with sustainable agriculture.

After all, in 1962 she said:

"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 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."

Personally, it seems like a bit of a stretch to jump from that quote to an endorsement of Monsanto's RoundupReady cotton or soy, but, as noted here many times before, How the World Works has no fundamental objection to integrating all kinds of exotic biotechnology into our food production system, as long as we aren't depending on the companies who are aiming to profit off the new products for the final word on health or safety risks. But the quote that really seemed to sum up an approach to farming (and just about everything else) that this blog can get behind also came from Ronald, quoting a farmer friend of hers:

As Mike Madison, a fellow farmer, neighbor and writer says, "In dealing with nature, to be authoritarian is almost always a mistake. In the long run, things work out better if the farmer learns to tolerate complexity and ambiguity... Having the right tools helps."

Part two of the exchange is here. Part three is here. And both books have joined my endless queue.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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