Genesis applied

“The urban/suburban dweller walks in the illusion of sufficiency. The agriculturist looks to the sky with suspicion, the thermometer with unquiet, and the cloud of flying things with dread.”

This remark, from an American reader, will serve to extend my rant of yesterday, and “segue,” as we say in film, to another of my little qualifications. For today’s issue will be GMOs, which is to say, “genetically modified organisms.” The same reader may be stunned to discover that I am, more or less, a fan of GMOs.

But first, a pre-qualification of the impending qualification of my seemingly Luddite reservations about the March of Technology.

For the truth is, I’m more backward than a Luddite. He was a response to the Industrial Revolution, determined to fall into its maw; whereas, I am a man of the thirteenth century, determined not to. I have no objection to technology, per se. I have no interest in the creation of “employment” as an end in itself.

For labour is inevitable, and is a curse: we must work to eat. And the only way to defeat the curse, is through joy in our labour.

For the smashers of stocking frames and power-looms were not joyful. They were approaching their problem in the wrong way. To my mind, they should have responded instead like men of the thirteenth century, thinking: “We are artisans. What can we do with this?”

There are limits, I will allow. They come down as Commandments.

For instance, I do not think the genetic modification of human beings is a good idea. The most dangerous thing about GMO is that it puts this idea in the liberal’s head. He would, as we see from innumerable articles of “popular science,” rather tamper with people than with crops, for his moral outlook is topsy-turvy. When he speaks of “frankenfoods,” he shows that he cannot grasp the moral distinction between a human being and a cob of corn. That the cob has already been genetically modified, over millennia, he may not understand: but that is sheer ignorance, more easily forgiven.

There is a question here to pause over. Is “genetic modification” the same as “eugenic”? Or could it be worse? We have been domesticating plants and beasts “eugenically” since time out of mind. Mendel described the mechanism we were exploiting all along. (Darwin before him had failed to see that this “evolution” necessarily required design, to an end fully anticipated.) The methods of GMO — direct tampering with the genes, including transfer across species — does more than speed the breeding process. It is at a definably new level. I don’t think we should deny this, when defending GMO. The argument that this is just “the same old thing” is false.

I candidly confess that I can find nothing intrinsically wrong with this new trick, however, only with some ways in which it might be applied. Prudence would dictate caution in proceeding, on two fronts that ought to run parallel. The second is to watch for unintended material consequences. The first is to keep examining our motives, to see that they are pure.

It is a good thing that people should have enough to eat. It is better that the poor should eat, than that they should starve. Without question, GMO provides the means to radically increase both the yield of the land, and the area that can (if necessary) be put under cultivation — while radically reducing the need for various pesticides and herbicides with known deleterious effects. But again, watch: for we may be breeding super-bugs and super-weeds into the bargain. There is a law of nature that reads, “No free lunch on this planet,” and anything that promises free lunch should call out the Inquisition.

On the other hand, the need for better nutrition is urgent. As GMO advocates can say, the known death-rate from malnutrition, around the same planet, is three million children a year. The known death-rate from genetically modified crops is zero. This might not distress the smug customers at Whole Foods, able to pay double for the jar that says, misleadingly, “organic.” But it ought to.

And here — again, on the same planet — is not only infant (and adult) mortality. Many more millions live lives unnecessarily enclosed by the permanent effects of childhood malnutrition. They are blind, halt, and lame from that fallout. The smugly-efflings who campaign against Monsanto will answer for that at the feet of Our Lord — for on top of ignorance they have added the crime of incuriosity.

It happens I don’t much like Monsanto myself, but for reasons unrelated to their products. I share the farmer’s fear of that company’s lawyers. Modern capitalism is obscene in this respect. One may conquer and control a market not by competition, as the faux–naïf libertarians suggest, but instead by lawyering and lobbying. Money talks, and where big money is the stake — at the interface of vested interests and government regulation — we will find hard men.

It happens, too, that I cut my teeth, when a lad in journalism, as a “business journalist” in Asia, whose chief interest was development economics. The question how to feed, and generally improve the lives and extend the freedom of the very poor, was the issue that moved me. I disliked the obstacles that I could then see: mostly hard men. I became acquainted with the ruthless means their large corporations use to inhibit small and rather promising competitors. It was then I first noticed that no elected government, needing money to buy votes, would fail to advance their interests.

Too, I noticed that Adam Smith was right: that genuinely free markets, along with free inquiry, can deliver material goods in a way that appears miraculous. And, that the biggest opponents of open competition were joint-stock corporations. Smith was facing down corporatism, but in his age had not faced socialism yet — which takes monopoly one giant step farther. He could nevertheless anticipate why it would fail; and how, on the contrary, the “hidden hand” of unadministered nature repays honest, independent labour. To reduce this to a formula: I hate large corporations, and I hate government departments more. And I hate the way they enable one another.

This is a Shakespearean position, incidentally. He hated kings, and hated rebels more. And most, he hated the tyranny of perpetual, institutionalized rebellion against the laws of nature and her God. He was Catholic like that, and without knowing it, four decades ago, so was I. The order of nature was not made with human hands. It is invincibly hierarchical, and at the top is God. Men must realize — as did Shakespeare’s secret hero, Thomas More — that Christ is King. It is to Him, and not to some chubby, statist Tudor, “dressed in a little authority,” that we owe our lives.

But men are men and sin is rampant. It is enough to discover how sin can be avoided; men will decide for themselves how to behave, and will believe what they want to believe, en route to the scene of each new crime. No government can stop this, for no government is above God. It is not their rôle to “create justice”; rather to stop specific unjust acts, one case at a time.

Now, I think I mentioned money. It will not do to condemn the amounts Monsanto can raise to advance their own, sometimes cruel, interests, without also mentioning the often greater amounts their opponents can raise, or appropriate through politics. The moral posturing of Monsanto’s opponents — the sanctimony of their slogans — should warn us of what they are. For the slogans offer less than candour. They speak for a cause in which God has no part, and God’s own poor are neglected.

Both sides claim redemption through “science” — which is scientism. We gain some insight into the nature of contemporary “settled science” when, for instance, we observe that all the “studies” commissioned directly or indirectly by the GMO industry find nothing but good in their endeavours, and all those commissioned directly or indirectly by their opponents find nothing but bad. Money talks, at every level, and that is the way of this world.

It is the reason I remain sceptical even of the more self-evident assertions on the side I prefer. The advocates make statements that appear too good to be true. This is probably because they are. The opponents make statements which they present as too bad to risk. Neither side feels it can afford to be candid, for both put self-interest above truth; and both engage in fear-mongering. Still, from what I can see, the sides are extremely unequal.

Let the smuglies buy their organic jars, and let the poor eat GMO. And the poor will continue to enjoy their food more.

As a man of the thirteenth century I have, as I said, no objection to technology, per se. To demonize it is to create an idol, of the voodoo kind. My questions are not for the gun, but for the shooter. I also insist on distinguishing between what follows in fact, and what follows in the neurotic imagination. There is no intrinsic reason why GMO should be suppressed. Problems may arise in the field, but that is where knowledge is gained from experience.

Of course the environment will be transformed. The wheat of Jesus’ day was very far from the wheat we found “in nature,” having been hybridized through hundreds of generations. The wheat we have today is very far from what it was then, all trace of that wheat having now passed away. Yet, stop intervening in material nature, and our own wheat will, strangely enough, revert to its original type — in which it fed only a few stragglers. (And the parasites that depend on our modern strains will also pass away.)

Behind what I call the “environmentalcase” worldview, is a profound misunderstanding of how things are. The transient is confused with the stable. Everything man does alters the world. And soon after he is gone, it is as if he never existed. Get over it: for in this world is change, but the only true “progress” is the pilgrim’s, beyond it.

We have, already, industrial farming on a vast scale, scouring once beautifully varied landscapes. Paradoxically, the development of focused, soil-specific and high-yield crops, requiring fewer external inputs, should give competitive advantage to the smaller farmer. Indeed, it is already doing so: this is the gist of the statistics I’ve seen. They are no surprise, for by reducing the need for heavy machinery, and other large fixed investments, GMO actually undermines economies of scale.

And that is the prudential consideration I find most attractive, after saving lives: not the technology in itself, but how it can be applied to restore the possibilities for small-scale, family farming.