Food Fight! Which Side Are You On?

By Jon Christensen

Quick: I say, “Genetically modified organisms.”

And you say what? Which side are you on?

I was at a dinner party with a diverse group of conservation-minded folks who were in town for a meeting on conservation finance. There were biologists, economists, conservationists, and the like. As far as I could tell, everybody was dedicated to the cause, although they had creative disagreements about the best means. So there was a buoyant mood and lively conversation around the dinner table.

Then Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, stood to give a meandering speech on the “state of conservation.” He didn’t avoid controversial subjects. In fact, he seemed to relish facing them directly—albeit with a deft, light touch. Among friends, there didn’t seem to be a need for political correctness.

He talked about the perennially thorny problem of population growth and the undeniable fact that “people do things to habitat when there are too many of them.” He talked about the twin problems of globalization: economic and biological. He touched on a few more hot-button issues such as agricultural
subsidies and the politics of climate change.

Any of these topics could have raised a rousing debate, even among conservationists. But there was hardly a murmur until Kennedy mentioned those dreadful letters: GMOs.

“In our community, GMOs are a litmus test for loyalty,” he lamented.

Litmus tests don’t allow new questions to be asked, new territory to be explored, or fixed positions to become more nuanced. Litmus tests don’t generate questions: they provide answers and they foreclose debate and discussion.

Kennedy went on to sketch his own view of one interesting dilemma among the many raised by GMOs that conservationists ought to think about. If genetically-modified crops produce increased yields for poor farmers, he said, then allowing farmers to grow those crops may be better than watching them continue to cut down forests to produce more crops. The campaign against GMOs is a “rich-country argument that is potentially hurting the poor,” he said.

But he hardly needed to go on. All he had to do was say the word, GMOs, and the food fight began.

The formerly cordial party erupted into a verbal brawl. GMOs are morally wrong, said one conservation biologist. No they’re not, said another, that’s a slippery slope. The argument became heated and personal. This was no longer an exchange of ideas but a battle of slogans and sound bites.

Finally, Kennedy spoke again. “I object to things being taken off the table,” he said. “I don’t believe in non-negotiable questions.”

The party broke up soon after. People drifted out. They met the next day and continued to work together. But some of that kindred-spirit feeling had gone out of the gathering.

That’s what happens when you have a litmus test for loyalty. The only question remains, “Which side are you on?”

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