ecoglobe [yinyang] news (23 December 1999)

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Release 2000: The Age of Arrogance

by Jonathan J. Halperin*

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Y2K have more in common than we might think. Beneath the false reassurance we obtain from nifty acronyms assigned to complex problems, a certain foreboding lurks. Both GMOs and Y2K raise profound doubts about our extensive reliance on and faith in technology--whether so new as to be largely unseen, or so familiar as to be no longer clearly perceivable.

Y2K has been widely viewed as a problem with a time-frame but no real cause. Yet ever since the 1960s, software designers have known full well that key computer systems would falter or crash at the century's end. Products were steadily marketed with no mention of the fact that they contained a fatal string of code. While it takes hubris to flood the world with flawed products in the first place (presuming that subsequent software developments would vanquish the problem), to continue doing so for decades--without alerting consumers to the full nature and extent of the problem until a recall was impossible-- has to be one of the most massive business deceptions ever perpetrated.

And yet, as we careen through the final days of this millennium struggling to contain the impact of this technical arrogance within the computer sector, we are repeating the same mistake in the food and agriculture realm. Trapped by the cherished myth that technological developments are discrete and independent, we have been unable to recognize disturbing parallels. The causes of both problems--compartmentalized, short-term thinking--obscure the links.

Trained as we are to reduce problems to smaller and smaller pieces in order to understand and resolve them, we find it hard to look across technologies to perceive systemic similarities. Overwhelmed with the rapid pace of technological development, we have yet to understand as a culture what forward-thinking companies have already learned; it is the "white space" between neatly drawn and compartmentalized disciplines that is critical. We lack the requisite tools which would enable us to systemically assess the cumulative impact of technological developments on the natural and social world.

Advocates of genetic manipulation have been caught off guard by a wave of international opposition to tampering with the biosystems that sustain us all. In the public spotlight, they appear flustered and offer contradictory claims in tones at once defensive and righteous.

GMOs, they simultaneously assert, are the breathtaking results of a multi-billion dollar research effort--and fundamentally no different from what "Farmer Bob" has been doing for years to give us sweet corn.

Genetically modified seeds have been so widely released in the U.S. that virtually every American has already eaten genetically modified food, though we are just beginning to learn about their risks. Transgenic crops cover more than 20 million hectares of land in the United States. More than half of the soya produced and one-third of the corn grown in America is genetically modified.

The immensity of the risk posed by tinkering with genetic materials--irreversible contamination or disruption of the food chain--is increasingly seen by the public as unacceptable. Glib reassurances, arrogant communications, and manipulation of a regulatory environment designed to protect the public have caused parties as diverse as Prince Charles, Greenpeace, the British Medical Association, the American Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the Kenya International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, dozens of other nonprofit organizations, and millions of citizens around the world to condemn as premature the widespread release of genetically engineered organisms into the food chain.

These critics are united by their view that it is safer and wiser to place trust in the natural balance of ecosystems than in multinational life-sciences companies with their overblown promises and disingenuous dedication to ending world hunger.

At the dawn of a new millennium, the industrial-age thinking of many powerful corporate, scientific and political leaders is dangerously inadequate to the challenges we now face. We need to evolve, cultivating the necessary wisdom, humility, and self-control to do more than indiscriminately manipulate genes just because (in Robert Oppenheimer's poignant phrase) it is "technically sweet" to do so. While a flawed chip may leave some of us in the dark next year, what are the consequences for future generations of genetic pollution of our food?

* Jonathan J. Halperin is president and founder of FYI Information Resources for a Changing World, an international strategic research and communications firm. FYIJJH@IBM.NET

[Source: email to the Biotech_Activists list 20 Dec 1999]
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