I had the weird experience recently of saying something that was simultaneously frustrating to both industry and to some environmentalists.
I had been invited to a large conference of biotechnology companies in Atlanta, to serve on a panel discussing the potential implications of biotech crops for sustainable development. And when I say it was a large conference, I mean truly, mind-blowingly large. Walking from one end of the exhibit hall to another took 15 minutes and passed people speaking at least that many languages. The Irish section of booths was giving out whisky; the Italian section had plush white couches and good coffee; the Silicon Valley section was delightfully laid-back.
Later, during the panel, I said that the Conservancy is essentially agnostic about biotechnology:
- To the extent there is scientific evidence that biotech crops have caused environmental problems (and there is some, related to the spread of genes into wild ecosystems and some mortality effects of Bt on non-target organisms), The Nature Conservancy will speak about those problems with producers and try to find a solution.
- To the extent that there is scientific evidence that biotech crops have actually been positive for the environment (and there is some, related to yield increases, reduction in pesticide use, and allowing easier no-till agriculture), we will speak with producers about ways to maximize the gains for biodiversity.
For a Nature Conservancy scientist, this didn’t feel like a controversial statement. We try hard to be a science-based organization, choosing our conservation actions based on what will objectively be best for the diversity of life on Earth.
However, my statement managed to please nobody.
Industry felt like I did not go far enough, and that the Conservancy should be positively singing the praises of biotech. A few environmentalists who heard the statement criticized it, because it didn’t address the significant moral qualms that some have about the technology or the risk of greater potential environmental problems in the future if developers of biotech are not careful. Apparently, passions are so high on the issue that it is difficult even to make a dispassionate statement.
This is a relatively common place for the Conservancy to be in. We try to be agnostic about new technologies except where the science is clear. This means that sometimes we are slower than other environmental groups about responding to new issues, and our position papers are less flashy and exciting, maybe a bit more nuanced.
But I hope it also means we get it right more often, taking conservation actions that maximally help achieve our mission.