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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Public Concerns and Agricultural Biotechnology

Crop and Soil Environmental News, May 1998

Charles Hagedorn
Extension Specialist

Nearly every speaker at the recent National Forum for Agriculture offered compelling reasons for a rapid, nearly unquestioned adoption of biotechnology in agriculture. Some of the many supporting reasons include:

1. Population growth: Each year world population grows by the equivalent of another Mexico, or 90 million people. At that rate, today's population will double in less than 60 years. Biotech is the best hope to feed these new billions of people.

2. Affluence: As the human population doubles, increased global living standards will require food production to triple, at least.

3. Resource utilization: Biotech is a "green" or sustainable technology because it can genetically protect plants from disease and insects while "naturally" boosting plant productivity through more efficient uptake and use of water, sunlight, and other limited resources.

4. Medical miracles: Currently, 53,000 Americans await organ transplants and 10 per day die because of the lack of transplantable organs. Biotechnology may allow pig brain material to cure Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's, pig heart valves to repair damaged human hearts, or genetically engineered animal tissue to save untold thousands worldwide every year.

Despite these rosy predictions, ag biotech also has great pitfalls, according to critics. It's a Pandora's Box, they warn, that once opened could lead to "master races" of plants, animals, and humans. In the process, the earth's biodiversity -- its wide and varied gene pool -- will be altered forever in a negative way. In fact, the global gene pool is shrinking already, without biotechnology. Of the 30,000 edible plants on the earth today, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, just three -- rice, wheat, and corn -- supply half the world's food. However, about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of these key food crops has been lost through the application of genetic selection since 1900.

So who is right? If we can harness genetic biotechnology to improve life, shouldn't we -- even if it unleashes some unknown problems in the future? The answer -- if there is one -- lies in ethics, said Erich Loewy, a professor of bioethics at the University of California, Davis. People must be empowered to think through the question so they can arrive at their own answer, he notes, because that is the only opinion that counts.

At the heart of the process, says Loewy, is how people view knowledge. "There are two views," he offers. "Knowledge is only significant when we do something with it. As such, it is ethics-free. Or knowledge is problematic: Good knowledge is what I believe and everything I don't believe is bad knowledge." That difference is magnified through the rapid acceleration of change because today's knowledge often has both good and bad sides. "Nuclear weapons, which can keep the peace or destroy the earth, is a case in point," Loewy notes. "But to say that the only safety is to curtail technology would lead to a frozen society" and few people want that. However, some of the "anti-biotech" groups propose just that -- a moratorium on all types of biotechnology until somebody decides it is completely safe. Who would decide?

"The point is that knowledge is not value-free," Loewy says. "Cloning is a prime example. We can clone plants and animals, but what do our values suggest when it comes to cloning humans?

"The only way to deal with this ethical question is to create a mature society that is able to deal with these ideas democratically. We, as an intelligent, educated people, should gather and dialogue." So far, however, Loewy points out, this has not occurred because the "conditions for democratic decision making" do not exist on any large or organized scale.

Those conditions -- "the three elements of a political democracy," Loewy calls them -- are "a willingness to listen, public dialogue, and respect for different opinions. Such a view includes the concept of an economic democracy -- although this concept is hard to defend when there is an underclass of hungry, homeless people; and the concept of an educational democracy where everyone has the ability to pursue ideas. "You need all three for a viable political democracy," he says; where people can make informed ethical choices. If you don't have the three, "then the political democracy will become a "toy" of powerful special interest groups," he said.

Which is exactly where agricultural biotechnology resides today. Unanswered questions about its wonderful, life-sustaining possibilities and its worrisome, perhaps life-threatening capabilities are not broadly debated by society, government, agricultural groups, or farmers. As such, ag and food biotech largely is a "toy" of a few powerful global corporations who advance it at a furious pace because, in today's ethical vacuum, they can.

But should they?

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