The Fault Is Not in Our Technology

Finally, the folks who are looking for problems with GMO crops have what they’ve been looking for.

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

Of course, this isn’t a strictly GMO-related problem. This is a problem of good crop management being more expensive than poor crop management. So the good crop management didn’t happen, and now we have rootworms that are happy eating the modified corn.

The next time someone tells you technology will solve what is fundamentally a regulatory problem, remember that unless we regulate the technology, we don’t solve the problem.

The Fault Is Not in Our Technology

3 thoughts on “The Fault Is Not in Our Technology

  1. 1

    When the technology necessitates (or even just vastly favors) monoculture, and the fault is the susceptibility of 75% of a food crop to a parasite becasue of monoculture, then the fault is very much the technology. If all A are B, and B is a problem, then all A are necessarily a problem.

    In theory we COULD implement direct genetic modification of food crops differently to avoid some of the problems of monoculture (though this case actually illustrates very well why even modification of hundreds or thousands of initial strains, in an effort to preserve genetic diversity of food crops, with the same gene sequence can lead to problems). If we did, I might not be opposed to the use of GMO crops. However, until we implement the technology differently, I’m opposed to the technology, implemented as it is in its present form. I’m reminded of the True Rationalists dismissing concerns over antibiotic resistance, then insisting MRSA was an isolated case (becasue of poor practices in hospitals), then inevitably having to admit we use antibiotics WAY too much as we see more and more adaptation (to the extent that we’re now facing the end of antibiotics, at which point it’s a little late to try to prevent the problem).

    I’m getting pretty sick of context-blind fans of new technologies dismissing concerns over implementation as irrelevant while actively arguing for implementation in the problematic extant contexts. GMOs are not intrinsically bad (though I have serious reservations about the sustainability of a top-down design approach for food crops, as I think it will inevitably necessitate more terraforming and thus more resource use – especially petroleum and water – than bottom-up in situ generational selection to adapt crops to the actual growing environment), but in the contexts that actually existed and continue to exist, we should not have been or presently be using them.

  2. 2

    I might add another issue about technology use: Golden Rice is often touted as a fantastic crop because it has vitamin A that rice doesn’t usually have. Great, right? Lots of people in Asia subsist on rice, and almost always rice.

    But why aren’t they getting the vitamin A from other foods? It’s not like there are no other foods in Asia. There are many vegetables and fruits and meats to choose from — if you can afford it.

    Most famines these days have nothing to do with supply. Amartya Sen demonstrated that — there was plenty of food in Bangladesh. But nobody could afford it. It was more profitable to sell the food elsewhere.

    These were not a technological problem in either case. We could feed whole nations with the stuff we throw away in the US. Quite well, too. But we incentivize waste. Again, not a technological problem.

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