Not (Just) About Science

Fall CSCG speaker series concludes with talk on the future of GMOs.

The Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good speaker series came to a close this semester with a presentation by Rich Wallace, professor of environmental studies at Ursinus. His talk, “The Future of GMOs is Not (Just) About Science,” added to the semester-long, in-depth discussion surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Deciding if, when, and how GMOs should be deployed in agriculture is not just a matter of the science behind them, Wallace argues. Whether or not they serve the common good also depends on critical issues of political economy, power, globalization and values.

His presentation raised questions about GMO-giant Monsanto and the corporation’s widespread reach in both domestic and international crop markets. Wallace explained that soy, corn and cotton are huge cash crops for the United States, and genetically modified Monsanto seeds—resistant to certain pesticides that would typically be toxic to the crops—account for 80 to 90 percent of those cash crops.

Monsanto has recently come under fire for promoting widespread use of a decades-old herbicide it manufactures in order to counter the reduced effectiveness of one of its best-selling GMO products, herbicide-resistant soybeans. The renewed use of the old herbicide has resulted in the loss of millions of acres of farmland across the United States farm belt, spurring lawsuits, regulatory action and even violence in affected farming communities.

Wallace used his talk to raise questions about the morality of companies that monopolize the U.S. agricultural sector and then use their wealth and influence to “bully” farmers, scientists and regulators who may not agree with their methods.

The event left students with plenty to think about. It can be easy to separate yourself from the food you eat and the people and companies that produce it, Wallace says, but “every time you eat, you are participating in an agricultural act.” Wallace believes that because everyone eats, the more aware you are of how your food is produced, the stronger society becomes.

Wallace is co-director of the college’s Robert and Shurley Knaefler Whittaker Environmental Research Station and he teaches courses on land stewardship, biodiversity conservation, food systems and agriculture, and the theory and practice of integrative problem solving. 

The CSCG speaker series began earlier this semester with Nina Fedoroff, a distinguished expert in molecular biology and recombinant DNA, who spoke on the importance of genetically-engineered (GE) crops in feeding the expanding global population. It continued with speakers Dave Mortensen, an expert in ecologically-based pest management and sustainability, and Mitch Hunter, who discussed how many people will need to be fed by 2050.

The series also included a screening of the documentary Food Evolution. —By Mary Lobo ’15