Agnostic on Biotech: When ‘Science-Based’ Makes Nobody Happy

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Published on June 9th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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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.

(Image: Farm fields in Switzerland. Credit: swisscan through a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: Agnostic on Biotech: When ‘Science-Based’ Makes Nobody Happy

  •  Comment from John

    I find this is true in all areas of conservation. As scientist we have to be almost heretics at times. While we hope to be voices of reason, using science to reveal truths, many from both sides of the spectrum view it as treason. I would rather please no one and know at the end of the day I have a clear conscience.

  •  Comment from Gaby

    Great article. I feel this way so often, reading about the different responses each side has to new technologies and policies. I’m glad I’m not the only one who wants to me reasonable (though I’ll be the first to admit that occasionally I’m not…)

  •  Comment from Jason

    The Nature Conservancy has always been a rational voice in ecology. As a scientist in biotech and a nature lover, I’m glad to read this balanced approach.

  •  Comment from 4thebirds

    Science is a wonderful thing but it is not the end all. And never will be so 1+1 will never always equal 2. So science can never be the defining answer.
    I’m sorry to hear that the Conservancy is not more concerned about gmo’s and the use of more pesticides being used because plants have been gm’d to withstand more roundup. So more roundup in the earth and food. Among many other things. Isn’t that bad enough?
    I joined the Conservancy a while ago but hadn’t read the website. Lots to check out.
    All the best

  •  Comment from Randy

    I find your use of the work “agnostic” to be a little odd here. Doesn’t that mean, incapable of being known? and doesn’t science purport to find answers and therefore ultimately know? So, I don’t see us as agnostic on biotech; I see us as pragmatic on biotech.

  •  Comment from Rick

    I had the same question as Randy about the use of the word “agnostic”. Maybe “ambivalent” is the more appropriate word?

  •  Comment from Mark

    Thanks Rob for your thoughtful message. Achieving strong conservation outcomes is a highly nuanced activity. Trade-offs, an open mind, and good decision-making are necessary. Disciplined science-based analysis is key.

  •  Comment from Rob McDonald

    Good point Rick and Randy about the choice of the word “agnostic.” You are right, the word literally means unknowable in greek, but I didn’t quite mean it in that sense. I meant it in the sense of withholding belief because of a lack of empirical evidence, another common definition of the word agnostic.

  •  Comment from Rosalind

    There is another elemental risk inherent in biotechnology, as we currently practice it, that was not mentioned in this discussion: that such technologies currently allow for proprietary ownership of a plant. Any “science-based” evaluation without considering the potential for environmental and human devastation caused by such “rights” is scary to me.

  •  Comment from Walter

    If your comments pleased no one you most likely have a very good position just like good legislation.

  •  Comment from Harijot K. Khalsa

    It’s almost a year later. What has the Nature Conservancy learned by speaking to producers about environmental problems related to “the spread of genes into wild ecosystems and some mortality effects of Bt on non target organisms?” And are the producers of this biotechnology the only ones that the Nature Conservancy has approached with these concerns?

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