Wednesday, September 17, 2003

A New Environmentalism

Jonathan Rauch has an article in this month's Atlantic on the environmental promise of genetically engineered crops. A large part of the article is on the current success of Roundup, Roundup Ready crops, and continuous no-till cultivation. It's good to see a journalist properly relating this vastly mis-reported story. Most writers are lead up the primrose path by "deep ecology" partisans with massive biases against large clumsy corporations like Monsanto. Rauch actually went out and talked to agricultural extension agents and got the tactile story - the environmental *benefit* of the Roundup innovation: namely, that no-till retards erosion, that Roundup replaces a much more expensive, more dangerous, and more poisonous schedule of nastier pesticides, and that the whole program represents practical, efficient, and effective sustainability.

The main point of his article is an assault on the inclinations of American environmentalists and ecologists. Those worthies have been trained over the years to be suspicious of technology and capitalist solutions, and to take counsel of their fears by refusing progress rather than dealing with the needs of progress in a proactive fashion. Rauch points out that there isn't time, that the population crunch is in the near term, and that the companies on their own won't invest in marginal technologies that could do the most to restrain the expansion of environmentally disastrous subsistence farming. That is, if the agricultural programs built around genetic engineering aren't guided or effectively lobbied by ecologically minded governments and environmentalists, the most ecologically optimum solutions won't be funded.

Capital tends to produce capital solutions in the absence of government policy. More importantly, capital tends to produce solutions where it is a major factor, and the areas most vulnerable to ecologically hazardous cropland expansion are those areas least blessed with capital concentration. That is, East African subsistence farmers are not likely to benefit from the Roundup program due to their lack of capital in the form of local Monsanto dealers, trained personnel, university extension officers, and expensive mechanized spraying rigs. What the biotech industry needs is a set of pressure groups pushing for low-capital biotech solutions tailored to those marginal areas. What the biotech industry needs, in other words, is environmentalism with its collective head out of the sand and collective thumb out of its mouth.

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