Technology opens doors; society decides whether to pass through those doors. Educator Steven Goldman spotlights this thought in his Teaching Company course Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World (http://tiny.cc/…). What he's saying is that societies can embrace new technologies enthusiastically, unenthusiastically or not at all.
American commercial farmers today are only too familiar with a contemporary variation on this theme.
To appreciate the theme's relevance to modern agricultural technologies, it helps to start with a historical parallel. One Goldman stresses is the reaction of Europe to the introduction of the printing press in the 1450s, which he says "was totally different from the response of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Islamic society to exactly the same technology" (http://tiny.cc/…). These societies had printing and even movable type long before Gutenberg "invented" them, but the technology did not transform them as dramatically as it did Europe.
Not that nothing changed. Historian Lynda Shaffer has argued that the invention of printing in China, a mere 700 years before Gutenberg, revived Confucianism after centuries of Buddhist dominance. More importantly, it democratized the country's bureaucracy, enabling thousands of Chinese to rise to important positions in government on the strength of their performance on civil-service examinations. It was the wider availability of books that enabled them to prepare for the exams (http://tiny.cc/…).
Yet as consequential as it was, the Chinese reaction paled in comparison to Europe's. There 10 million texts -- two million of them books -- were published in the first 50 years of printing. Printing paved the way for the Protestant Reformation and the development of modern science. It spurred rapid advances toward mass literacy and fueled economic development. Europe went through this new technological door with unparalleled enthusiasm. In Goldman's words, Europe almost immediately became "print drunk."
If the Internet and the cellphone are any indication, societies today remain capable of embracing technologies with unparalleled enthusiasm. But not every technology. Genetic engineering? Not so much. The question of increasing relevance for farmers is whether the world is capable of embracing biotechnology in agriculture with any enthusiasm at all.
Farmers worldwide planted 444 million acres of biotech crops in 2015, a hundred times more than in 1996 (http://tiny.cc/…). Since 2012, though, the growth has slowed; in 2015, total acreage actually fell. Three countries -- the U.S., Brazil and Argentina -- grow more than three quarters of the acres, and it's not clear how many more they can or will add.
Other countries could take up the slack; China, for example, grew only 3.7 million biotech acres in 2015, to America's 70 million. Will China and other developing countries step up, though, if public acceptance continues to be in doubt?
If it's Europe we're talking about, doubt is the wrong word; opposition is more like it. Last year a protest against trade talks with the U.S. centering on genetic engineering brought 150,000 to the streets of Berlin. Americans are less violently opposed, but they have their doubts. By one poll, 57% (http://tiny.cc/…) think genetic engineering makes food unsafe to eat.
And there are Americans who are outright opposed. Indeed, to many food-movement activists in the U.S. genetic engineering has become almost a litmus test of morality: Anyone who's for it must be a pawn of Big Ag and Big Food. You can see this in the way these activists pillory politicians who support many of their goals but haven't joined them at the anti-GMO barricades.
When one of these politicians, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, introduced legislation (http://tiny.cc/…) to promote urban agriculture, the headline on one account read, "'GMO-Friendly' Stabenow Introduces Federal Urban Farming Bill, But Should We Trust It?" (http://tiny.cc/…).
If someone is "GMO-friendly," apparently, she's inherently untrustworthy. That she could also want to boost small-scale organic agriculture is inconceivable to those who see the biotech issue as a contest between good and evil.
Perhaps there were eighth-century Chinese who had a similarly black-and-white view of printing. Perhaps deep fears of its potential consequences, an early predecessor of the precautionary rule, explain why China didn't become "print drunk." Or maybe it was just easier to print European languages with alphabets of fewer than 30 characters than to print Chinese with its thousands of ideograms. Different societies in different eras can have different reasons for not walking through the doors technologies open.
Our world has one foot through the biotech door. But there's reason to question whether it will ever walk all the way through. Whether China and other developing countries can get past the public's doubts may be decisive.
Petroleum-industry people argue endlessly over when planet Earth will reach Peak Oil, the moment of maximum extraction, after which oil goes into decline. In agriculture, you have to wonder if we are already at Peak GMO.
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