A note on genetically-modified foods and central planning — September 23, 2010

A note on genetically-modified foods and central planning

Reading Marion Nestle’s note on how hard it is to identify which foods are genetically modified, I can’t help but think of James Scott’s [book: Seeing Like A State]. Scott lumps industrial agriculture in with schemes to rationalize the organization of a nation. From the perspective of a central planner, putting people into an order that the state can understand is a great virtue. The state can’t appreciate that underlying the apparent chaos of a city is great order, in the sense that the city is exactly attuned to the needs of the people using it. (Istanbul, the most amazing place I’ve ever been, must scare the sleep out of Turkey’s leaders.)

Likewise, agricultural central planners can’t stand the chaos of a tangled mess of plants; they replace it with long geometric rows of single crops stretching off to the horizon. Of course, the natural chaos disguises great order underneath: often the multiple crops at a single site are food for multiple species of insects that eat one another remain in a kind of equilibrium. Get rid of the natural order and you’re required to spray pesticides to keep away the now-dominant species of insect. This leads to all the horrors we’re used to by now, like pesticide runoff into the Mississippi River, leading many miles later to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

When I read about the prospect of genetically-modified foods, those are the sort of traumas I think about. We make one change to something basic, like our food supply; it seems locally rational, but in the aggregate it’s disastrous. (Those in favor of GMOs need to explain why we need them. The onus is on them to tell us why they *won’t* be a disaster and why our non-genetically-engineered food supply doesn’t do the job.)

Industrial civilization is good for a lot of things, and has led to a breathtaking increase in the quality of life in Western civilization. I’m not decrying industrialization, and besides: what would be the point? Despite the justified awe we feel in the face of a small, local, sustainable closed-loop farm like Polyface, which Michael Pollan lovingly documents in [book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma], there’s no way we’re going to shift our entire food supply back to that.

In an industrial democracy, we respond to this kind of agricultural lunacy with regulation. We recognize that acts of individual rationality often lead to large-scale destruction, so we use the compulsive power of the government to stop the large-scale failures. Maybe we forbid GMOs, say. Or maybe we make it cheaper for customers to buy sustainable food, thereby shifting the micro-level incentives to get a better macro-level outcome.

What frightens me, though, is that the bad actors seem to always have a leg up on the government. Write your legislation carefully, but the bad guys will find the loopholes. Set your penalties too low, and it’ll be in the bad actors’ interests to break the law. Use tort law as the instrument of capitalist justice, but whom do we sue about the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico?

These are the industrial cards we’ve been dealt, so there’s nothing to do but play them.