GMO Bananas Uganda Case essay

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The Uganda bananas case is about the regulatory and political issues surrounding genetically-modified crops. The case is written from the perspective of a scientist who has developed a banana that is resistant to a particular Black Sigatoka, an airborne fungus. This fungus can kill banana plants, which makes it a threat where bananas are a staple crop and where there are few remedies once the fungus sets in. The case uses this anecdote to make a larger argument about the merits of genetically-modified foods, namely that they should be allowed in Uganda, lest the nation starve. There are utilitarian arguments in particular used to support the thesis that Uganda would do well to accept genetically-modified crops into the countries, solving all problems save the starting goalie on the World Cup team. Hyperbole aside, the article presents as a simplistic, one-sided analysis of the issue, carefully avoiding too much science and sticking to political rhetoric.

McDonough (n.d.) makes a number of points in his essay A Boat for Thoreau. He begins by noting that the world belongs to the living, but also that we have an interdependence on the natural world, in that we live in the natural world, and when we destroy the natural world we eventually bring harm unto ourselves. McDonough advocates for change with respect to how we view our relationship with nature -- eliminating the idea of waste, using solar income and respecting diversity.

The latter argument is especially salient in the context of genetically-modified foods. One of the things that occurs with genetically-modified crops is that they tend to dominate -- indeed big agribusiness enterprises promote crop monoculture. It is entirely plausible that the bananas in Uganda would all be of the type that resists Black Sigatoka, if an outbreak convinces farmers to pay the company's price for the seeds. This has a negative effect on crop diversity, moving from thousands of species of banana to just one, or maybe a handful. The problem with this is that it runs against nature, something McDonough stands against. Diversity exists in nature because organisms adapt to specific conditions and environments. This is ultimately beneficial for the world, via natural selection. If that means Ugandans have to eat some other crop, so be it, the weak bananas have been removed. When we move bananas on the mere presumption that they are weak, and replace them with a single banana species, we are entirely beholden to the success of that one species, and we perpetuate the Ugandans' abnormal dependence on this crop. Should a new threat emerge for which this GMO banana is unprepared, the same outcome occurs, because there are no other bananas or other crops on which to fall back. Diversity, McDonough rightly points out, is part of nature's success strategy for a reason. Further, he notes that any flaws that go into this GMO banana will be unleashed not only on the organism, but into the environment as a whole.

Another key element of McDonough's argument is that integrative thinking will help us to reconceive new design principles, aesthetics and engineering (McDonough is an architect). This line of thought, applied to the banana case, points to two different conclusions. The first is that rethinking processes is acceptable, and a good thing. So it is with genetically-modified bananas; they do indeed represent a radical worldview. The issue with that world view, from McDonough's perspective, is that it is not integrative. The banana exists in the lab mentality -- it is designed to be resistant to Black Sigatoka, but without any consideration for how this GMO banana would interact with its environment, and with the people who eat it (in apparently heroic quantities). Integrative thinking allows for ideas to be conceived in a more holistic manner. Where GMO bananas are a piecemeal solution to a piecemeal problem, a holistic outlook might yield an entirely different vision of agriculture in Uganda. McDonough, as an architect, is naturally aware of integrative thinking, given the nature of designing large projects. A scientist like Dr. Swennen is not given to such thinking, spending his days working intensely on singular projects with singular problems.

A further theme in McDonough is that regulation reflects a failure, and in this case the need for regulation of GMO crops is something that many people feel is required, lest the companies producing them run amok on our ecosystems. At worst, this is hyperbolic scare-mongering, but in truth there has not been much real world testing of these crops. Dr. Swennen's bananas live in a lab, and have not been tested on a real ecosystem, or over the consumption levels expected of them in Uganda. The science can predict safety, but at what confidence interval? Dr. Swennen is in Belgium, it's not like he will bear the cost of any mistake he makes -- he earns profit but the costs are borne by Uganda's ecology and population. Regulation exists because at some point, there is an incentive for Dr. Swennen to get his banana on the market, and being a human there is the chance that he either made a mistake or would wilfully put a harmful product on the market, or at best he simply is unaware of what will really happen.

Kelman (no date) offers up his own views that can be applied to the banana case. He introduces the idea of the cost-benefit analysis, the underlying logic of the utilitarian calculus so casually chicken-scratched on the back of a napkin by the author of the Uganda banana case. Essentially, there are costs to any action, and the goodness of the action depends on whether or not the benefits of that action outweigh the costs. When applied to money, this is return on investment. In economics, this is Pareto efficiency, and can be considered a form of consequentialism when applied to ethics. Kelman raises the issue of valuing non-market things, which he rightly notes is a rather imprecise science given to proxies and assumptions that can easily be massaged to suit a particular conclusion.

Kelman outlines some of the technical issues with valuing non-market things, and by the fourth one he hits upon a key point -- irrationality. Rationality is a key premise in economics, and the assumption that people always make the rational choice (the one the increases their well-being) makes a lot of economic models flow smoothly. The problem, of course, is that rationality has its bounds. One of those is information asymmetry. In Uganda, people do not have a high level of knowledge about the long-run effects of GMO crops -- heck, the people who invented the crops don't really know about the long-run effects. So when a Ugandan farmer is asked to make a trade-off between something that he is assured will stabilize his crops, thereby allowing him to feed his family and have some bananas left over for the market but has unknown long-run risk, and something that has greater immediate risk up to and including starvation, the farmer is going to choose the first option, every time. It is not that this is the rational choice -- it might prove to be the irrational choice, but without all of the information on the table, a rational decision cannot be made. Many of the decision influencers in this scenario are nonmarket things -- security, health, pride -- and asking anybody to make specific consequentialist calculus is not going to give you a useful answer. People are going to respond emotionally, more than likely, and even those who attempt to rationalize the question are not going to be particular astute or accurate with their reading of the risks of the two options.

Kelman's argument against the cost-benefit analysis is fair, and reasonable. He echoes McDonough's cautionary tone with respect to the risks in particular in the bananas case. While McDonough would note that there are several flaws in reasoning in the argument in favor of the bananas -- the role and value of diversity in nature, the lack of integrative thinking, and the failure of the market to self-regulate -- Kelman offers a simpler argument, that attempts to quantify some questions are inherently futile. The intersection of the two lies with the costs, the ones that arise from the lack of integrative thinking and therefor require government intervention, but have yet to be adequately accounted for in the arguments in favor of GMO bananas in Uganda. Risks are downplayed in the article because of the perspective of its writer, but the risks should not be downplayed simply because there are some benefits to the bananas, or because it is difficult to accurately quantify those risks.

My own perspective is that the Dr. Swennen and others like him are not acting altruistically in this type of situation. Dr. Swennen makes his fear-based arguments when talking to the Ugandans, threatening that the annihilation of the bananas is nigh if they don't approve his product, but then he talks about running out of…[continue]

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