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Science should not be confused with technology

(Tuesday, April 13, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The arguments around the registration of Roundup Ready wheat continue unabated. The latest salvo in the battle was fired by an unlikely source - G. Allen Andreas, the CEO of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. In an interview with Reuters news agency, Andreas warned Canadian farmers that they might not want to be the pioneers in pushing a product the world's consumers do not want.

For many opponents of Roundup Ready wheat, the argument is that simple. Eighty-seven percent of the CWB's customers require guarantees that the wheat they are buying is not genetically modified. Since there is currently no way to control the spread of Roundup Ready wheat into conventional varieties, introducing it is equivalent at this time to losing those markets.

Given this, many farmers cannot understand why our varietal registration process does not protect farmers from potential economic disasters. It did at one time. The economic impacts of releasing a variety were once part of the consideration in the process. The federal government eliminated that, apparently to pave the way for Roundup Ready wheat, which Agriculture Canada was developing for Monsanto.

Those supporting Monsanto's bid to release Roundup Ready wheat get rather confused around the issue of science. So we see impassioned pleas for freedom to release GM crops coupled with claims that to be against this is to stand in the way of science and hence progress. Opponents of GM crops, whatever their reason for that position, are vilified as wanting to return us to the dark ages.

All this also gets confused around the notion of patents themselves. Because many groups oppose the patenting of higher life forms, like plants and animals, they are accused of opposing the concept of patenting.

So those supporting the release of Roundup Ready wheat have lots of avenues to attack their opponents. Unfortunately, most of these avenues involve setting up, and then whacking down a variety of straw men.

For example, Roland Penner, in an editorial in the March 4 Manitoba Co-operator, claimed that the argument against patenting higher life forms implies "there should not be any such thing as patents to begin with". This is ridiculous. I have never heard such an argument made. I have heard arguments made that the extension of patent rights to discoveries (rather than inventions, as originally intended) and to living organisms (like plants and animals) should be carefully examined and debated in a public forum, rather than arise from decisions by the patent office. A little harder straw man to knock down.

The question of "opposing science" is equally interesting. It can be argued that the development of GM crops is not science, but rather the application of science. It is, in fact, technology. The science comes in learning how to isolate specific genes, to manipulate DNA, to insert genes into cells. I know very few people who want to stop that type of research. It holds great promise, for example, in treating genetic diseases, through gene therapy.

But society has a right, and in fact a duty, to control technology. For example, under the vague definition of science, those standing against the development of biological weapons would be anti-science. In fact, the development of these things is the application of science - i.e. technology.

There can be a great many reasons for controlling technology. It may be harmful to the general good, like biological weapons. It may be an expensive waste of resources, like the GM sweet potato in Kenya, that took millions of dollars to develop, when sweet potatoes in neighbouring countries already has the disease resistance of the Kenyan GM potato. It may be harmful economically, (not to mention unwanted) like GM wheat.

What it really comes down to, is that some companies want freedom to produce and sell anything they like, without consideration for the economic and social impacts. That is why we have, or should have, regulations and regulators. The argument over Roundup Ready wheat boils down to this. Which is more important, the right" of Monsanto to sell a product or the right of farmers to protect their markets? I vote for the farmers.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax