This article was written in 2006. At the time I lost the resolve that it would have taken to publish it. I rediscovered both the article and the resolve recently. The article was originally intended for a broader audience. I have perhaps explained a few terms that did not need explainations in the seed industry.
In 2006 Ralph Nader’s Green Party activities in the 2000 Presidential election were fresher in my mind. This explains my choice to use the word ‘Green’ to represent the progressive environmental movement. The word Green is still appropriate in Europe and other places around the globe, but perhaps a little less so than it was once here in the U.S.
Now Jeremy Rifkin is less of a force in the anti-GMO anti-commercial seed industry movement than he was as recently as the 1990’s. Partially Mr. Rifkin’s extreme positions about the risks of biotechnology caught up with him. Supporting his old rhetoric became unsustainable. Partially he has been replaced by people he trained, who now work at such places as the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Consumer Association, and the Center for Media and Democracy. But partially I think that his thinking about technology lost its edge as he became more knowledgeable about the technology. As he became more nuanced in his thinking about technology, daylight appeared between his position on biotechnology and the positions of the more purely naturalistic community; people more in tune with the original early 19th century Luddites; people like Wendell Berry, Andrew Kimbrell (head of the Center for Food Safety and former employee of Mr. Rifkin), Kirkpatrick Sale, etc. Mr. Rifkin had started to move toward positions more in line with the old left, although a lot of us would not have noticed the shift. His position in the anti-GM movement certainly changed post 2000. Earlier this year I used Mr. Rifkin as an example of postmodern thought which unifies positions rejecting the philosophical principles supporting realist science: there is a real world for science to represent which does not depend on social custom; science can speak about the real world, and well established scientific knowledge can be true. 1 Perhaps Mr. Rifkin was a better representative for the opposing position in 1990 than he is today.
Currently he is more involved with democratizing the power grid. That involves distributed power generation and computer control, and is incompatible with images of Kirkpatrick Sale smashing laptops with a sledge hammer. It may be that Mr. Rifkin decided that going back to the medieval world was not so attractive after all.
Social control of technology
Jeremy Rifkin, Agricultural Criticism and Biotechnology
The Green movement is the proud heir of the tradition of social Critical Theory. This inheritance includes the notion that culture is central to the human experience and that the only just way that culture can be changed is through an interactive communitarian dialog that casts doubt on the validity of social structures that have been developed in the past and replaces them. It is not at all by accident that grassroots democracy is one of the Green Party planks. When they say grass roots democracy they are rejecting representative democracy as it now exists and suggesting that it be replaced with town hall meetings.
This emphasis on grass roots democracy is associated with a profound sense of distrust of existing democratic political, liberal economic and modern cultural institutions. Viewed from a distance, this distrust of existing social organization seems a bit pessimistic and paranoid. Standing for grass roots democracy gives a positive image to this pessimism. It is ironic that distrust in existing government gets translated into high hopes in the ability of future government to do better, but making the argument that our society is now the product of the information age and thoroughly postmodern helps reconcile the incongruity.
Jeremy Rifkin is a useful representative of Green thought. A 2006 article by Mr. Rifkin in the Washington Post shows his application of communitarian thought to agriculture. 2 Mr. Rifkin argued that genetic engineering is inherently risky and has been made obsolete by the invention of genomics and marker assisted selection (MAS, a process by which genes can be identified and moved around in conventional crosses). He concluded that there is a need for public programs to support the sharing of the genetic information that will make public sector genomics work.
Focusing on the U.S. Mr. Rifkin’s depiction of America as excessively individualist is overly simplistic. We are a politically individualist nation with a strong cultural heritage of association into organizations, both in the private sector and in civil society. The existence of these associations makes our resistance to big government possible, and it makes America, not a simplistically individualist nation, but one with a very productive balance of self- and group-interest.
Mr. Rifkin’s attitude toward the risk of agricultural biotechnology mirrors this polarized vision of the conflict between the “good” collective side of America and the bad “individualistic” side. He is against commercial plant biotechnology, not so much because of the risk involved, but because the technology is in the private sector and not part of a “much larger systematic and holistic approach to sustainable agricultural development.” He is willing to support MAS if “plant breeders around the world will be able to exchange information about ‘best practices’ and democratize the technology.”
Mr. Rifkin refers to the fact that most of the genetically engineered traits which are in current use relate to weed and insect control, as a negative aspect of commercial development and ownership of the traits. In agronomic practice, completion from insects and weeds are serious problems for farmers and their crops everywhere, and by extension these are problems for the rest of society. Satisfying demand from customers, with technology that is available does not seem pernicious or immoral, except when the basis of ethics is the assumption of a need for a certain sort of communitarian control.
For efficient operation for any field a research, society needs to make a choice whether the area is to be addressed with public research or through private research. In the case of genetic engineering, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that that genetic technology was enough like other technology that it should be patented, and the regulatory agencies decided that the safety reviews could be handled under existing legislation. The Green community certainly thought that this was an issue that should have been subject to grass roots review. They distrust institutions that have not been put through forums of public review, public review in which minority positions have an opportunity to influence outcomes out of proportion to the impact that the numbers supporters might have in a purely democratic process.
The anti-GM NGO community is committed to a culture of sustainability. They encourage subjective notions about certain risks as a step in the process of forming that culture. These subjective notions about the risks of biotechnology seem to justify large expenditures for risk management. Recommendations for expensive regulation and expensive public research projects as alternatives to genetic engineering fit within a set of norms and values that are profoundly pessimistic and suspicious of technology, the free market, and government that is not immediately controlled by grass roots democracy. The suspicion of technology and the free market combine into rejection of the private seed industry.
Under this umbrella of mistrust, science is one of the questionable institutions. Mr. Rifkin sees science as subject to error because of the influence of powerful economic interests. There is of course an element of truth in this. Scientists are human too. They are inclined to get caught up in mistakes that might be influenced by sources of funding (public or private), but established science does have a self-correcting mechanism that tends to find problems relating to positions on the natural world sooner rather than later. Over emphasizing the leading fringes of scientific knowledge where uncertainty is possible or even characteristic, can erode trust in established knowledge as a basis for public discourse. The diffuse mistrust of scientific knowledge can limit the application of science in public discourse. The role of science in public discourse is to provide providing facts that can be agreed by most citizens and their representatives. The mistrust of the Green community as represented by leaders like Mr. Rifkin undermines the functioning of representative democracy. The insistence on grass roots democracy in this case includes a pervasive distrust of the authority of established scientific knowledge in existing representative democracy. Rejection of the authority of science includes rejection of the authority of the science used in the regulation of the science on which the evaluation of biotech traits for use in the seed industry rests.
The application to community control of agriculture includes management of the sorts of innovation that are created for the new economy. MAS is in. Agricultural genetic engineering is out, at least until it can be cleansed of its private sector past. The difference may be as much about cultural symbolism relating to corporate control as about technological risk avoidance.
Sustainable agriculture is about coping with limited resources. A future socially holistic cultural solution to agricultural sustainability might not end up being so from different the resource control of traditional pre-enlightenment societies. Mr.Rifkin in his discourse favorably points to the social integrity of medieval European society. Decision theory has found that cultural norms require enforcement. If a postmodern world that abandons rationality or self-interest, there are risks of the authority of culture being misused. Radical grass roots cultural democracy may not be stable. The authority of higher representative institutions, like our representative Federal government, have always been justified by the dangers of factional fragmentation and inter-factional warfare that were characteristic of the medieval society as it actually existed and as it might be recreated by a hypothetical grass roots democracy of the kind proposed in Green politics.
Marker assisted selection that Mr. Rifkin supports is an important addition to plant technology, but it will not replace genetic engineering in general, any more than computers have replaced the screw driver. They are tools that do mostly different things. Marker assisted selection is being used in both the public and private sector. Large capital expenditures are rendered efficient by competition for capital in the free market. The large capital requirements for the use of the technology used in genomics and MAS (automated lab equipment) indicate a role for markets, but there will be areas of the economic landscape for markers that the public sector can best address. That has been true of plant breeding in the past, and marker assisted selection remains plant breeding with its ties to field testing for confirming the linkage between scientific and commercial hypothesis and the reality of the physical world.
Cultural influence on agricultural policy can help us move toward agricultural sustainability, but as with other major social issues, culture has a potential to either help or hurt, depending on the content: social conservatives and naturalist progressives both appreciate the role of culture. The environmental movement has contributed to positive change, but the suspicious and anti-rationalist undercurrent within the movement has the potential to create social friction rather than remove it. Culture wars have the potential to become real wars.
2 Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Genetically Modified Crops. Washington Post, July 4, 2006. Source of material quoted
Seed Key Words:
Seed, seed industry, science, ethics, Jeremy Rifkin, agriculture, biotechnology, biotech, Marker Assisted Breeding, genomics, Green, Progressive, natrualsim, culture.