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What Does a Clothing Company Know about Genetic Engineering?

by Yvon Chouinard
Winter 2002

Some friends have asked me why Patagonia has joined the fight against genetically modified food. They tell me it's easy to understand why Patagonia fights for wilderness preservation, but what does a clothing company know about Bt corn or Roundup® Ready soybeans?

The answer is, we don't know enough. And neither does anyone else. Here are some of the risks of genetically engineered food: Harmful insects, or bacteria or fungi, could develop resistance even more quickly than they do now to chemicals that kill them. Beneficial insects could lose habitat. The immense variety of seeds the world's farmers have developed over the past 5,000 years could shrink to those few that can be bought from seed companies owned by chemical companies.

Genetically modified seed, like all seed, travels and will mingle with conventional seed in ways that could change forever the natural processes that form and sustain life.

When we grow a strawberry with DNA from a flounder in the lab, that's one thing. When we grow that strawberry in the field, we radically alter a complex ecology we barely understand. We know now how the flight of a butterfly in Hong Kong can change the weather in New York. We don' t know how to recall a new form of life once it's released.

If you think corporations are too sophisticated, governments too cautious and scientists too wise to let something really dangerous happen, think again. Think about the old newsreel footage of scientists on Bikini Atoll, protected from head to foot like astronauts, waving their Geiger counter wands over contaminated terrain – and sailors following them around, half-dressed in deck clothes. Or think of leukemia-stricken Russians whose teeth enamel will set off a Geiger counter even now, 50 years after exposure, because as children they drank milk laced with strontium-90 (Sr9) at a time when radioactive waste was released directly into streams. Or think how close brown pelicans came to extinction from exposure to the DDT we once sprayed on our lawns. Or of thalidomide babies, classrooms with asbestos ceilings and mad cow disease. Time and again we have been exposed to untested or poorly tested technologies that turn out to do great harm.

Apologists say that all new technologies entail risk, and all we can do – as a technological society – is to correct our worst mistakes once we become aware of them. They don't seem to know what the average solo climber, whitewater kayaker or big-wave surfer knows: the difference between risk and folly.

About the Author
Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia. He began his entrepreneurial career as a blacksmith, and remains a consummate dirtbag.