Food purists, proponents of family farming and sustainable grub, Big Ag haters, pregnant ladies, and anyone else who gives a damn what they put in their mouth, sound the alarms. Tucked away at the tail end of a piece on climate change induced warfare in this week’s Economist is a specious and rather immodest proposal. To paraphrase:
Let’s plant lots of crops genetically engineered to survive heat and drought, so that we’ll always have plenty of grub for everyone, and won’t find ourselves in the middle of a nasty food fight (war) when climate change gets really, really bad!
Sorry, paraphrasing is mean. Here, verbatim, is what our reporter posits:
“The way to minimize the likelihood of climate-induced conflict in the future is to continue the process of crop improvement (for example, by taking advantage of the potential of genetic engineering), so that heat- and drought-tolerant varieties are available; to make farmers aware of these new crops and encourage their use; and to promote free trade and non-agricultural economic development. That way, people will have no cause to fight, and tyrants no excuse to stir them up.”
Here’s an idea – let’s not make genetically engineered (GE) crops even more ubiquitous than they already are, and just say we did. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are understudied and highly controversial. We don’t know for sure how they’re going to affect our health in the long run. Even the government recognizes this fact; the USDA Organic label specifies that foods labeled organic may not be made with GMO ingredients. (As an unfortunate side-note, the USDA turns a blind eye when organic farmers are contaminated with GE materials, neither protecting the farmer against his market loss nor revoking his organic licenseff.) Organizations like the Center for Food Safety spend a great deal of their time trying to keep a lid on the arguably dirty GMO business.
We’re running out of a lot of things here on planet earth. Among them – water, clean soil for growing things, space to grow things even where there isn’t clean soil, and time to deal with all the aforementioned. Because the hourglass is running low, genetic engineering may have to be part of the solution. But GE crops are not going to prevent climate wars. Not corn crops engineered to resist drought, not purple sugar beets injected with a bacterial gene that makes them impervious to herbicide.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to pour our money and energy into nipping climate change in the bud, to the extent that it’s possible? Before we look to climate change “cures” like GMOs, wouldn’t it make sense to give ourselves the best climate change vaccines we’ve got – bolstering our renewable energy sector, preserving our forests and open spaces, and conserving the water we’ve got?