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26.10.03

More On GM Externalities

This article contains some interesting information about the safety of organic versus GM food, and the history of opposition to changing agricultural technology. Unfortunately, it's framed as a screed against leftist intellectual snobbery. In so doing, it makes the most common mistake made by anti-organic/pro-GM arguments: focussing almost entirely on the inherent qualities of the food product, and thus missing the huge question of the externalities of the production process.

I'll grant that many opponents of GM do focus on the food itself, claiming that it's less nutritious and more dangerous to the eater. While I'm not conversant with all the agricultural science on the question, on this issue I tend to think the anti-GM side's claims are not strong enough to justify a regulatory, rather than individual choice, solution. One "inherent quality of the food" question that isn't raised in the article is taste. Anecdotally, I can report that one of the best pieces of fruit I ever ate was a bunch of organic grapes.

The tack that DeGregori (the author) takes is somewhat different from the typical "GM food is safe" argument. He opens by describing how the ability to mass-produce identically perfect goods has led to a search for imperfection and inferiority -- such as one sees in handcrafted goods -- as a mark of authenticity, prestige, and value (for those who can afford it). In doing so, he lays the groundwork for a critique of his argument.

On one level, I can agree that there's often something silly about the search for inferiority. But it's important to see what that search for inferiority is really seeking. It's not necessarily something inherent in the product. It's a recognition that the product has a history, that it came from somewhere and was worked on by someone. The very sameness and perfection of mass-produced goods makes them seem as if they appeared out of nowhere. In buying handcrafted items, people want to reconnect themselves with the production process, to think about all the externalities created in making what they buy. Since DeGregori can't see that in handcrafted items, it's no surprise he can't see it in organic food.

For example, DeGregori says:

It is another of the "inferior is superior" views that there is something inherently virtuous in farmers planting their own saved seeds ...


But the argument in favor of planting saved seed has nothing to do with the inherent virtues of the product. It's an argument about the political economy of agriculture. The problem is not with the qualities of the crop, it's with the farmers becoming dependent on agrobusiness corporations for their seed, which reduces the power and autonomy of the farmer.

Interestingly, DeGregori is able to see political economic conditions when they weigh against organic food. He expresses concern that because organic food (and other non-mass-produced goods) is more expensive than high-tech food, restricting the latter would affect the ability of the poor to get any food at all.

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