The Amish use GMOs, you know.

posted in: Science & Society | 25

More than once I’ve thrown that title into a conversation–in real life or on twitter–and I’m usually met with stunned responses or disbelief. And if it’s on twitter it usually gets some retweets, which reminds me that some people are hearing that the Amish use GMOs for the first time. I have known for a while. I  remember reading about the very curious situation of low-nicotine tobacco that was a controversial anti-smoking strategy developed at the turn of the century. Read more about the details here in a piece in Wired in 2003, but just to give you a taste:

…the bucolic setting isn’t exactly what it seems. Drying inside Dienner’s barn are 10,000 pounds of genetically modified tobacco – one of the most scientifically advanced agricultural products in the world. “Amish law doesn’t say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco,” he says.

A BBC documentary clip lets you hear from a farmer who chooses Bt corn. Click to watch.
A BBC documentary clip lets you hear from a farmer who chooses Bt corn. Click to watch.

That’s not the only story I know about. The BBC did a documentary a while ago that had a fascinating clip of an Amish farmer talking about his Bt corn. This is the one I usually share on twitter because it’s so remarkable to hear the farmer himself talk about using a GMO crop. Go and listen to him yourself.

The farmer talks about his need to use heirloom equipment while at the same time being a sustainable and competitive farm. And using Bt corn is the right choice for him to accomplish what he wants.

Are you qualified to take tools that he wants to use away from this Amish farmer?

Think about that for a minute.

I was thinking about this again as I was reading Heirloom Technology. It’s a great read about inventor and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Saul Griffith, who straddles an interesting divide. What is the point where a tech device would be useful, durable, and appropriate–with the bonus of being sustainable? He’s not saying to get rid of your cellphone. He’s wondering if there’s a way to make it better. If you want to hear some of his earlier thinking on these issues, watch this Long Now seminar he gave before the birth of his child on that bike that’s on fire in the Heirloom piece. He talks about examining his own life in mathematical detail to find efficiencies and energy sinks, including the external energy costs having children, and it’s pretty amusing: Climate Change Recalculated.

I understand the appeal of certain low-tech and heirloom devices. I personally own a 1917 Singer treadle sewing machine that I use and love. The images of the durable items in the Heirloom piece made me laugh–I cook with cast iron pans and I have ensured that I can make coffee if the power is out–even if I use the one with the clock timer the rest of the time.

But I don’t confuse my hobby-level sewing and cooking with the need for large-scale production of fabric and food for the rest of the world. There are efficiencies that can come from larger- or industrial-scale production that are beneficial–they can provide ways to reduce energy use and water use, as well as reducing intensive human labor needs. And although I’d never withhold anyone’s right to use a hand loom, I don’t think it’s the solution to increasing happiness and prosperity for everyone else on the planet.

And that’s the same way I feel about GMOs. There are going to be some GMOs that provide major benefits for people–sometimes on a small scale, and sometimes on a larger scale–and sometimes it won’t always be obvious to people who don’t understand that they can bring benefits. An example of this was provided in a recent issue of Science that explores the current state of pesticides (don’t miss the companion podcast!), with a great comment from Jeff Dangl:

It’s imperative that we grow our food in a sustainable way and that we do so with less chemical input. The example I gave earlier, late blight in potato–in Europe there are currently anywhere from 25 to 50 sprayings. And so if you can reduce that by tenfold down to two or three sprays per season with a genetic solution, I think that’s a huge win for environmentalists. In fact, it’s hard to be an environmentalist and not embrace genetically modified technology for trading in genetic technology for chemical use, so I think this is a hugely important issue.

Reducing pesticide spraying is a good thing for both farmers and consumers. Yes some people think it shouldn’t be examined at all and have tried to halt or have damaged the scientific trials. Similarly, virus-resistant beans or cassava may benefit some of the folks who are the most food insecure and reduce their chemical exposure.

I’m asking you to think like the Amish. Can you consider about the potential benefits of the technology before dismissing it entirely? Can you get past any fearmongering you might have been exposed to, and ask yourself why an Amish farmer might use Bt corn? Don’t you think some of these technologies deserve a look to see if they offer useful features that can benefit farmers and consumers? Consider that something you don’t need in your backyard is fine to dismiss for your personal situation–but are you qualified to withhold that from people in other situations?

Nobody is trying to withhold heirloom tech for those who want to use it. And there may be times when that is exactly the right technology to employ. But there are some cases where integrating new tech when it’s appropriate will have real and vast benefits. It would be reactionary to abandon these options without evaluating them. If you want to be techno-lapped by the Amish, that’s your call. Just decide if you have the right to withhold it from others.

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Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.