Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture. Jon Entine, ed. AEI Press, Washington, DC, 2006. 203 pp. $25.00 (ISBN 0844742007 cloth).
Biotechnology has brought considerable promise and benefit to agriculture by introducing new insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops. Such crops have resulted in higher yields, lower production costs, less pesticide use, and potentially more nutritious foods. However, consumer concerns, especially in the European Union, have resulted in considerable controversy, trade restrictions, labeling requirements, and a trade dispute before the World Trade Organization. In Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture, 10 well-recognized contributing authors from the United States and the United Kingdom provide insights into the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, offer an international perspective on why some groups are opposed to it, and suggest potential solutions to the controversy.
The various chapters in the book grew out of a recent conference, “Food Biotechnology, the Media, and Public Policy,” held at the American Enterprise Institute. Jon Entine, the editor, is an adjunct fellow at the institute and a scholar in residence at Miami University in Ohio.
The book is divided into three major sections. The first, entitled “Ideological Gridlock,” contains three chapters. Results from attitude surveys of worldwide opinion leaders are presented by Thomas Jefferson Hoban in chapter 1. Biotechnology firms and farmers tend to favor the technology. Some consumers, regulatory agencies, government leaders (especially in the European Union), and food industry officials are less favorable in their perceptions of the health, economic, and environmental benefits of the genetically modified (GM) crops currently in the marketplace. While the transatlantic controversy rages, according to Robert L. Paarlberg in chapter 5, African and other developing countries struggle to gain access to, or benefits from, the promise of these technologies that might increase the productivity of their low-income farmers and provide more nutritious food for millions of undernourished children. Paarlberg further states that the European emphasis on the precautionary principle is creating a regulatory and trade gridlock. Although rich OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations may be able to opt against GM foods with minimal adverse economic impacts, the economic and human costs in developing countries can be huge. Hence, the intense political and ethical controversy has substantial international consequences.
The second section, entitled “Consequences,” explores the implications of placing restrictions on the adoption and availability of GM foods from US, European, and developing country perspectives. The three chapters in “Solutions,” the final section, examine possible ways to address the agricultural biotechnology controversy. Issues discussed include the organization and financing of anti-biotechnology groups, the prospects for transgenic crops with enhanced nutritional or pharmaceutical attributes, and the role of the media in the debate.
This well-organized book offers insights into the sources and consequences of the still-unresolved debate on agricultural biotechnology that has been raging for over a decade. This is not intended to be a technical treatise on biotechnology, but rather a compilation of ideas on why a technology that has so much promise to enhance the well-being of agriculture, the environment, and consumers has not been adopted as rapidly as many initially anticipated.
All 10 authors are leading scholars on the topics addressed. The general tone of the book is favorable toward agricultural biotechnology, yet efforts are made to present different views and perspectives on the topic. For example, Hoban, the author of chapter 1, has conducted extensive domestic and international surveys on consumer attitudes toward agricultural biotechnology. C. S. Prakash (chapter 2) and Carol Tucker Foreman (chapter 6) both served on the US Department of Agriculture Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology during the Clinton administration. Patrick Moore (chapter 9), a founder of Greenpeace, has in recent years altered some of his views about the impact of the adoption of agricultural biotechnology, and now accepts it as potentially environmentally friendly.
All the authors suggest that effective communication focused on the current and potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology is essential if society is to benefit from these scientific advances. Sound science and regulatory review are only part of the process. Policymakers must also consider the political, social, ethical, and economic dimensions of the debate on agricultural biotechnology. Clearly, the degree of people's understanding of scientific discoveries is quite diverse: There are wide differences in their willingness to accept perceived risk, and their perspectives on the benefits depend, in part, on whether they represent a farmer, an agribusiness firm, a policy-maker, or a consumer.
Resolution of this controversy has enormous consequences for the future of world agriculture as the global population continues to grow, and as we seek to offer a more nutritious food supply in an economically and environmentally sustainable fashion. The book provides thoughtful insights into the arguments about—and potential solutions to—the current agricultural biotechnology debate.
The book would be appropriate for a college-level course in science communication or in agricultural or science policy. Scientists involved in molecular biology and related research might find the book helps them better understand how something that they may think is a safe and exciting scientific discovery is not readily accepted by others in society.