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.
As a climber, for instance, you train, and live, for those days on the rock that fully test your limits, but you know what those limits are. If you can lead 5.10, you don't solo 5.11 your first time out. You live for the edge, but stay on this side of it. You take intelligent risks.
For humans to adopt every new technology just because we can is irresponsible, especially when a new technology puts us up against an edge that's hard to see, feel or even define. New technologies, like genetically engineered food, should be considered unsafe until proven otherwise, not the other way around.
That was the conclusion of an international group of scientists, government officials, lawyers and environmental activists who developed the Precautionary Principle, which states that when an activity threatens the health of humans or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. The proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. Last year, the European Union, in response to public pressure against genetically engineered food, adopted the Precautionary Principle as policy. That's a good move.
The proponents of genetic engineering (mostly seed companies now owned by chemical companies) should bear the burden of proof. Not only have they failed to prove that genetic engineering will do no harm, they have failed to demonstrate real benefit. Claims that genetically engineered food will create a second green revolution and that farmers will be able to reduce tillage and use fewer pesticides in the field are probably true – in the short run, not the long haul.
We learned a little about farming years ago when we commissioned an independent environmental-impact study of four fabrics that we commonly use, including synthetics made from oil. We were surprised to learn that our most "natural" clothing, cotton sportswear, was also our most environmentally harmful because of the chemicals used in conventional farming. When we made the switch to organic cotton, we got to know organic farmers and others interested in sustainable agriculture.
We also learned that industrial farming doesn't work. Since pesticides were widely introduced in the 1940s, damage to crops from insects has increased, not lessened. Yields increase at first, then fall. Pests adapt to poisons. The green revolution we exported to the third world didn't work either. It displaced small-scale sustainable agriculture where it was introduced, relied on sterile hybrid seeds that had to be repurchased every year, required high inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, plus machinery that had to be financed and fueled. Again, yields increased at first, then fell. Genetic engineering simply extends, for a few years or decades, the doomed practice of industrial farming.
There is an alternative: organic farming. It doesn't make anyone rich from patent royalties but it does the job of feeding people. And although organic farming makes use of traditional methods, as practiced now it can be highly innovative and effective. It can produce high yields from small acreage through the use of locally adapted plants, intercropping, improved nutrient recycling and new techniques to minimize leaching, soil erosion and water consumption.
Examples? They are to be found around the world. A quarter of a million farmers in Brazil used green manures and legume cover crops to double their yields of corn and wheat. A million small coffee farmers in Mexico doubled their yields by switching to organic methods. More than 3,000 dry-land farmers in India, using a range of water and soil-management techniques, tripled yields of sorghum and millet.
A worldwide switch to sustainable organic farming entails its own risks. It doesn't fuel the engine of economic growth as fast and furiously as oil or patented new life forms do. But organic farmers put food on the table, and without poisoning the earth. As calculated risks go, organic farming is a good one.
This is what I tell my friends when they ask why Patagonia has joined the fight against genetically modified food. I see this fight as critical to our efforts to help preserve and restore wilderness. Wilderness serves as habitat not only to salmon and primeval forest, but to wildness itself and the balance that sustains life. This is what we put at risk when we tinker with the genetics of our food.