The Middle is a Tough Row to Hoe
We’ve recently seen some firearms pundits punished for trying to take a reasoned position between the two rigid extremes of the gun debate. In a similar vein, writing, What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters, Nathanael Johnson feels that discussion of GMOs is far less important than – but a proxy for – a debate about the industrial model of agriculture.
If the stakes are so low, why do people care so much? I think it has something to do with the role GMOs play in the stories we tell ourselves about agriculture in the modern world. When Dan Charles was researching his (terrific) book, Lords of the Harvest, he bumped up against some of the same quandaries I encountered, and concluded that the importance of these narratives was tantamount.
“The dispute over genetic engineering involves facts, to be sure,” he wrote. “But its parties disagree far more passionately over the story. They quarrel over the nature of the characters, the plot, and over the editing. They also feud over the unknowable: the ending.”
The debate isn’t about actual genetically modified organisms — if it was we’d be debating the individual plants, not GMOs as a whole — it’s about the stories we’ve attached to them. Both sides have agreed that this thing, this rhetorical construct we call GMOs, will be used to talk about something bigger. … people care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science. These larger stories are so compelling that they often obscure the ground truth.
Beneath all this is a fundamental disagreement about technology.