The Iowa farm tour was going well until the subject turned to genetic engineering. The tourist wasn't sure why, but she knew it was bad. Eventually she spat out an accusation: "You just use GMOs to make money."
Unfazed, the farmer explained that GMOs allow less spraying and work well with no-till. A less diplomatic farmer might have simply responded, "So?" For the accusation begs two questions.
Is it wrong to plant GMOs? The tourist assumed so, but like most Americans she doesn't actually know much about them. The National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization and a lot of other people who do know about GMOs think they're safe.
Is it wrong to do something just to make money? Well, yes, if the something is inherently evil, like trafficking in slaves or heroin. Even informed critics don't think GMOs are heroin. Yet suspicion of the profit motive is at the heart of anti-GMO sentiment.
"GMOs have come to represent the corporate control of our food system," a PhD candidate in plant and microbial biology told the New Yorker. He believes in "the promise and power of genetic engineering," but only if "used for people, not for profit (http://tiny.cc/…)."
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Big agribusiness companies aren't the only suspects in the lineup of profit seekers. Clinging to romantic notions about a mythical past, many Americans are, at heart, unreconciled to the idea that farming is a business. And it even goes beyond farming: Many Americans have conflicted feelings about the profit motive generally.
On the one hand, our country's capitalist tradition holds that the profit motive produces benefits to all of society. As Adam Smith, the apostle of capitalism, put it, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest (http://tiny.cc/…)."
On the other hand, we have a Christian tradition that takes a less favorable view of profit. As the apostle Paul wrote in first Timothy, "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (http://tiny.cc/…)."
Whom do we believe, Adam or Paul? At times it's one, at times the other. At still others we believe both, and not always inconsistently. After all, the love of money and the pursuit of profit aren't identical. "For profit" is, in many cases, "for people."
The trick for farmers is convincing their countrymen that growing genetically engineered crops specifically and commercial farming generally are among those cases. In an era when the prevailing wind is blowing toward Paul, it won't be easy.