Even if you’re not as ardent a fanatic as I am of Michael Crichton, you’ve at least heard of the movie, Jurassic Park, based on his novel of the same title if you’ve spent any amount of time in human society since 1993. For you cave-dwellers, Jurassic Park, like many of Crichton’s books, begins with a fictional, but not inconceivable advance in science followed inevitably by unforeseen chaos. Specifically, the DNA of dinosaurs is extracted from prehistoric, blood-sucking insects preserved in amber. These genetic blueprints are then used to reconstruct the terrible lizards and fill a paleontological zoo. But the dinosaurs cannot be contained when an unexpected hurricane hits, and control of Jurassic Park is lost by its creators to disastrous effects.
While thoroughly entertaining his audience, Crichton forces us to face our own naivety. He reminds us that our capacity for foresight is greatly limited by pride, ignorance, and an appetite for recognition. This lesson is particularly relevant to the sciences as discoveries are modes of societal and environmental change that may be positive or negative, anticipated or unanticipated. The negative consequences of scientific advancements may not be as obvious or immediate as an unleashed tyrannosaur, but subtle effects can be just as devastating. I’m sure global climate change, for example, didn’t remotely occur to the inventors of the internal combustion engine.
At its origins, science can be distilled to an attempt to understand cause-effect relationships. We have an increasing ability to decipher causes of observable effects, but if we can’t predict the effects of our own actions, can we be trusted with this scientific power? Negative physical and ethical consequences are never a scientist’s intention, but if he or she is blinded by the immediate gratification of fame or money or simply neglects to look, they are likely.
I think scientists, especially those in fields which attempt to control any phenomena which occur naturally (e.g. genetics), should proceed with caution. One of the fatal flaws of the Jurassic Park project was its confidentiality. Transparency allows for unbiased minds to predict consequences of scientific research. Perhaps through forums like science blogs, the public should be allowed to give input every step of the way. While a small group of scientists desperate for discovery may overlook potential consequences of their findings, an informed public is more apt to foresee them.
Scientific research continues to expand human knowledge on many subjects, and some argue that the rate at which science is unveiling new techniques may outpace the ability of businesses and individuals to property utilize the new technologies developed. In order to counter this, in many cases emerging techniques or ideas are ‘rushed’ to the foreground and produced on a massive quantity without adequate research into its environmental, social, or ethical impact.
This concern sparked controversy in the early 2000s in Europe against an American agricultural biotechnological corporation Monsanto. Monsanto has caught media attention for its unethical lobbying practices (link to amount spent on lobbying), aggressive retainer of lawyers, and conglomerate seeding practices.
Before becoming an agricultural company, Monsanto has its debut with testing nuclear weapons during the Manhattan project. In addition to their research in producing bioengineered seeds, Monsanto is also known for producing Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), being a widespread producer of PCBs (Coolants banned in 1979 for extreme toxicity and being damaging persistent organic pollutants), and for the production and use of the highly controversial (and later discovered, contaminated) Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War as an agent of herbicidal warfare.
To recap, the company whose crops will be eaten by millions of Americans every year has been involved in nearly every major environmental scandal not involving oil in the 20th century. If that wasn’t enough, there have been countless allegations of corruption, conspiracy, and nearly militant propagation of company territory.
Small farming operations are being edged out by Monsanto by legal means, as their patent over their genetically modified seeds allows them to sue any farmer found using their seeds. Unfortunately, because of the potency of the seeds, they are often being spread to contaminate other fields, whereupon the owner can be taken to court for infringing on Monsanto’s patent.
Recently, a USDA study was done on Roundup (the chemical glyphosate, the main herbicide produced by Monsanto and spread over thousands of acres of farmland. Although the USDA hasn’t updated its pesticide usage figures since 2007, estimates suggest almost double the glyphosate use in 2008 than in 2005. Although the chemical is described as being inert, when combined with other ‘inert’ substances in the ground and in preparation of the herbicide, severely toxic reactions can occur.
Further, the study suggested that the use of Roundup actually decreased soil health on a long-term basis. Even if the herbicide was safe in and of itself, ‘superweeds’ are a large concern. As herbicides become more and more powerful, the evolution of weeds is supercharged, producing more virulent varieties that can overcome the herbicide, devastating fields in the absence of herbicide—wreaking havoc on organic farms (more on that later).
The media needs to be more involved in publicizing the activities of this and other companies who constantly violate the rights of other business owners. Through contamination and litigation, Monsanto is attempting to monopolize the food supply of the United States. Are we to bear witness to the rebirth of America’s agriculture in the Industry’s vision?