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Embracing GMOs

Ignore the origin and look at the technology on its own terms. (This will be easier with the emergence of “open source” genetic engineering, which could work around restrictive corporate patents.) What is its net effect on the environment? GM crops are more efficient, giving higher yield on less land with less use of pesticides and herbicides. That’s why the Amish, the most technology-suspicious group in America (and the best farmers), have enthusiastically adopted GM crops.

There has yet to be a public debate among environmentalists about genetic engineering. Most of the scare stories that go around (Monarch caterpillars harmed by GM pollen!) have as much substance as urban legends about toxic rat urine on Coke can lids. Solid research is seldom reported widely, partly because no news is not news. A number of leading biologists in the U.S. are also leading environmentalists. I’ve asked them how worried they are about genetically engineered organisms. Their answer is “Not much,” because they know from their own work how robust wild ecologies are in defending against new genes, no matter how exotic. They don’t say so in public because they feel that entering the GM debate would strain relations with allies and would distract from their main focus, which is to research and defend biodiversity.

The best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it, lest it remain wholly in the hands of enthusiasts who think there is nothing questionable about it. I would love to see what a cadre of hard-over environmental scientists could do with genetic engineering.  Besides assuring the kind of transparency needed for intelligent regulation, they could direct a powerful new tool at some of the most vexed problems in the field.

For instance, invasive species.  Most of the current mass extinctions of native species is caused by habitat loss, a problem whose cure is well known-identify the crucial habitats and preserve, protect, and restore them.  The second greatest cause of extinctions is coming from invasive species, where no solution is in sight. Kudzu takes over the American South, brown tree snakes take over Guam (up to 5,000 a square kilometer), zebra mussels and mitten crabs take over the U.S. waterways, fire ants and fiendishly collaborative Argentine ants take over the ground, and not a thing can be done. Volunteers like me get off on yanking up invasive French broom and Cape ivy, but it’s just sand castles against a rising tide. I can’t wait for some engineered organism, probably microbial, that will target bad actors like zebra mussels and eat them, or interrupt their reproductive pathway, and then die out.

Now we come to the most profound environmental problem of all, the one that trumps everything: global climate change. Its effect on natural systems and on civilization will be a universal permanent disaster. It may be slow and relentless – higher temperature, rising oceans, more extreme weather getting progressively worse over a century. Or it may be “abrupt climate change”: an increase of fresh water in the north Atlantic shuts down the Gulf Stream within a decade, and Europe freezes while the rest of the world gets drier and windier. (I was involved in the 2003 Pentagon study on this matter, which spelled out how a climate change like the one 8,200 years ago could occur suddenly.)

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