Technophilia and GMO Agriculture

One of the reasons I read the New York Times is that it keeps me up to date on what the ruling class wants us to think, one of which is that genetically modified organisms used in agriculture are perfectly safe and that opposition isn’t really rational.

Not long ago, the Times ran an article about a county councilman (Greggor Ilagan) on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mr. Ilagan is portrayed as a brave soul who stood up to another council member (Margaret Wille) who proposed banning all GMO crops on the island. Something like 90% of the citizens supported the ban.

Papaya growers are among Mr. Ilagan’s constituents. These folks provide something like ¾ of the annual US output of papaya. The papaya growers claim that an engineered version saved their crop from devastation and so were against the ban. As a consequence, Mr. Ilagan got papaya excluded. Nevertheless, the Papaya growers don’t like the idea of a GMO ban because it might make people suspicious of their GMO crop thus reducing sales and so they continued their opposition.

The spin of the article, by Amy Harmon, supports the idea that the ban unnecessarily stigmatizes GMO crops. For example, early on she writes, “University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.”

This of course will be news to the many scientists who oppose GMO crops.

Ms. Harmon cites as proof of this global scientific consensus a website by a writer named Ramez Naam. Mr. Naam has written the book “More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement” along with a series of science fiction novels. Is Ms. Harmon kidding?

Ms. Harmon goes further, reporting on the hurt feelings of some of the University of Hawaii biologists keen on introducing GMO crops. One is quoted as saying, “These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything. It hurts.”

Also recently, the Times’s so-called environment reporter, Andrew Revkin, wrote approvingly of a series by Nathanael Johnson that reviewed the literature on GMO foods. Mr. Johnson concludes that there’s not much to worry about and the people who do are out of touch, poor dears.

The review was published at Grist, a site for liberal thought. Mr. Johnson is the author of the book “All Natural.” This leads Mr. Revkin to characterize him as “in the same tribe as [Michael] Pollan and Grist readers.” Mr. Revkin goes on to talk about whether opponents of GMO will take Mr. Johnson’s analysis to heart and rethink their position. Mr. Revkin ends with a riff on the psychology of risk that pits the natural against the unnatural—in other words, this isn’t really a problem for rational discussion except insofar as it involves a rational discussion of why opponents of GMO food are neurotic.

There are indeed progressives or leftists or environmentalists who are enamored of GMO technology. And there are many who are not. The mistake is to frame this controversy as a psychological problem: why people fear change, science, and technological. The mistake is to frame this as a question of ignorance: who has the science on their side. The mistake is to frame this as a governance question: GMO papaya growers bullied by GMO opponents.

Mr. Johnson in his Grist articles frames the GMO controversy exactly wrong: “I’m going to start with the most politicized issue: Is there any evidence that genetically modified food is directly harmful to people who eat it? There’s a one-word answer to this: no,” a statement that is demonstrably false.

The correct question is: can it be shown with reasonable certainty that genetically modified food is safe for people to eat?

I ask myself why this author and people like him don’t want to ask that question. Is it because it puts the burden of proof on technological enthusiasts—call them technophiles, because they love technology?

It is of no interest to me whether that love is neurotic or healthy or scientifically anchored or erotically motivated or born of financial necessity or any other manner of psychological defect or virtue. What interests me is how it serves the capitalist mode of production.

Marx wrote that the capitalists are driven of necessity to replace human beings with technology, labor with capital, people with objects. Marx also wrote that individual capitalists do this because they act out the role of capitalist, whatever the psychology that moves them. And to advance technology and its displacement of human beings, the capitalist mode of production must have advocates who are technophiles—again, whatever the psychology.

At the core of that enthusiasm is the mystification of technology as something alien to human beings and therefore alienable in the financial sense: it can be owned with the owner able to both make money on its use and to permit or deny its use by human beings.

In fact, technology consists of how actual human beings use the actual instruments, materials, and natural processes at their disposal to fulfill their individual and collective needs—whether fanciful or practical. That includes the consequences of those activities—such as the destruction of biotic and farming communities.

Genetically modified organisms in agriculture turn seeds formerly nurtured by farmers into capital owned by industrialists with farmers and others left to suffer the consequences. I’m shocked that obviously smart people like Ms. Harmon and Mr. Revkin and Mr. Johnson can’t figure out that they’re being played for chumps.