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We Don't Know What We're Doing

I am in Maine for Christmas, far from the madding crowd (or its Vermont equivalent), and I feel vaguely silly writing a serious post about agribusiness. One of the many infuriating things about modern industrial farming is that it makes you feel like a crank just for writing about it. You start out citing facts, and pretty soon you feel like you are out in la-la land. But that’s because all of the silly conspiracy theories that you hear about large multinational corporations conniving to seize absolute power, with no thought for the public good, actually hold true in agribusiness. I usually try to take deep breaths, get some ironic distance, and just plain resist the urge to write posts like this one. But I really hit the roof this morning, when I read this article in the Washington Post about a failed pilot project in “pharming” — the use of human food crops like corn to mass-produce pharmaceuticals.

The idea behind pharming is to turn food plants into factories for making specific molecules - these can be drugs, ‘industrial enzymes’, pesticides, or anything else you can get the plant to make by blindly splicing in genetic material. Once the plant is fully-grown, you harvest it and extract the chemical back out, a process (thanks in large part to massive government subsidies for agriculture) that is cheaper than just synthesizing the stuff in a lab. In a particularly evil little touch, one of the main driving forces behind pharming is the huge market in animal vaccines and synthetic hormones that the livestock industry desperately needs to keep factory farmed animals from instantly dying of disease — precisely the kind of twist-of-the-knife that makes the whole topic so infuriating.

Proponents of the pharming idea spout all the usual horse manure about curing cancer. Opponents of the idea apparently sit on their hands, or confer with each other in soft hushed tones, for all that it has made a difference. When’s the last time you heard about pharming?

It took a failed pilot project (yes, they’re already growing the stuff outdoors) to bring the practice to the front pages of the Washington Post. It seems that, in spite of rigorous efforts by pilot project participants to make sure that corn pollen from genetically modified drug-making plants had no chance of cross-breeding with non-GM corn (or one of the GM corn varieties judged fit for human consumption), the pollen still got out and contaminated several hundred acres before being contained. By “contained” I mean they plowed up five hundred acres of plants and burned them.

This kind of genetic Russian roulette reminds me of nothing as much as it does the introduction of exotic species to Australia in the last century, when well-meaning botanists and other scientific adventurers decided to turn the country into a land of milk and honey by importing European plants and animals that have since devastated the Australian ecosystem. By “devastated” I mean turned most of the interior to scrub, and killed off hundreds of native species.

In both cases, the people behind the plans were eminently rational, the promised benefits were enormous, and everything went irretrievably to hell as soon as the stuff got out in the wild. We’re not there yet with biocrops, but having pilot studies going on in real Iowa fields at the same time as scientists discover they know much less than anyone thought about the basics of gene expression (that is, admitting that the whole science of genetic engineering is the microscopic equivalent of pushing colored buttons to see what they do) is not the most reassuring Christmas gift I could have asked for.

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