An Age of New Botany

In Week 5, we read “A Tale of Two Botanies” by Amory B. Lovins  (physicist and MacArthur Fellow) and L. Hunter Lovins (lawyer and social scientist). This article was originally published in Wired Magazine in spring of 2000 – but the arguments presented about GMO foods are nearly identical to those in the ongoing debate about their safety today. Reflecting back on this course, I think that this is one of the most interesting and relevant readings.

As hinted by the title, the premise of this article is to compare two different botanies: the old and the new. According to the authors, the agronomy of the ‘old botany’ only transferred genes between plants who could naturally interbreed. By contrast, under the practices of the ‘new botany,’ genes are “mechanically transfer[red]” between plants that would be unable to breed in nature. The new botany is, according to the authors, dangerous. In this post, I would like to examine the authors’ arguments, and then show how the article outlines the Basic Problem as applied to modern agriculture.

The first reason that new botanical practices of today’s agronomy are dangerous is that the resulting organisms are barely tested. It must be acknowledged that this was the case in the ‘old botany,’ also. Under those practices, however, the transfer of genes between breed-able plants did not deviate significantly from nature. By comparison, the practices of the new botany are doing what in nature would be impossible – the transfer of genes between completely unrelated and incompatible organisms.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason today’s botanical practices are dangerous is that once they are implemented, they can easily spread throughout entire ecosystems. Pollen from a field of genetically modified plants can easily spread to neighboring fields with traditional crops or to wild plant life.

The problems identified by Lovins and Lovins are directly applicable to this course, in that the dangers of the new botany perfectly fit out class’s description of the Basic Problem. Genetic modification technologies are advancing faster than society’s concern with them.

But the role of the ‘new botany’ as an example of the Basic Problem is, I would like to argue, unique in that it shows how the Basic Problem can occur on giant scale. From a single lab, seed, and field, the new botany’s dangers can spread to entire ecosystems and even the world. It is in this unique ability to demonstrate the possible scale of the Basic Problem – coupled with the continued relevance of the issue of GMO agriculture – that makes this article particularly strong.

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