January 15, 2012

Conservative musings on genetically modified food

I've started writing (but not finished) a post on formulating a conservative approach to new issues.  Or more accurately, I've started writing about how to take a conservative approach to any issue.  Quite often topics that rise up don't fit into conventional categories. For example, what is a conservative approach to the Internet?  Does there need to even be any consideration over it from a conservative perspective?  Maybe - when you consider it from a freedom of expression perspective, or the perspective of religion and morality, or the perspective of national security.  The conservative 'answer' in regards to each of those considerations may not fit with the conservative view with respect to the other considerations.

But there are areas of consideration even more new than the Internet.  Consider genetically modified food.  As a conservative, what way do you think about genetically modified food? Why might we need it?
Each month, the global population grows by another 6 million, and an ever-wealthier world means one with more purchasing power, which drives up prices. Currently, with the global population at 7 billion and change, more than a billion of those go to bed hungry, and another billion suffer from malnutrition. And trends suggest that things will get worse. 2010 was the first year when more people lived in urban rather than rural environments; by 2050, we're going to need 30 percent more food and 40 percent more water than is currently available.
Assume the stats are correct, or at least close.  Perhaps you hadn't thought of genetically modified food in a political sense. But consider the different angles.  There's the idea of free market progress driving innovation in response to an under-served need.  The need of course being a growing population requiring ever-increasing amounts of food.  The challenge is that the innovations the led to massive productivity gains in the agricultural industry have pretty much been squeezed to their maximum benefit. Land, farming techniques, fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides and meteorology among others, have allowed the number of people society requires to be involved in agriculture to drop from half the population to about two per hundred.  But the new frontier for the future has to be, or appears to be genetically modified food that can be more weather-resistant or pest-resistant or perhaps simply just more abundant.

So the conservative position is let's develop the new technology right?  Not so fast.  How is it regulated?  We don't want too much government involvement, but what are the implications of too little government regulation.  What about the social conservative view from the religious right?  Is it okay to tamper with genetics?  Probably to some but certainly not all.  Are there any national security risks from using genetically modified foods?  Is the food supply more susceptible to manipulation?  Are there security risks from NOT pursuing genetically modified foods by falling behind other nations or by facing future shortages of food supply?

I haven't entirely wrapped my head around it yet from a personal belief perspective yet, but I'm leaning in the direction of supporting genetically modified food, with caution.  From the same frames as energy independence, agricultural independence and market leadership, there is a logical reason for wanting the free market to find ways to feed more people, with less inputs and at cheaper costs.  Productivity gains are important - the alternative with a growing population is food shortages and potential starvation.  That doesn't however mean that a genetic Wild West is the way to go.  It's not always as simple black and white, is it?
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