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February 28, 2002


OGM en Afrique; AID Says No GM to Afghans; 'Uncivil' Response; Ve


Today in AgBioView - March 1, 2002

* OGM en Afrique: French Brochure "Foods from Genetically Improved Crops
in Africa"
* USAID Clarifies Its Position on Biotech Seeds with the Afghan Aid Program
* 'Civil' Society Responds ..to the Scientists Call for Discourse.
* Insider Information about 'Nature' debates on the Mexican Corn
* The GM Food Debate - Letters from Newsweek
* Nontransgenic Crops From Transgenic Plants
* India Asked to Spend $35 m on Biotech
* Delayed World Food Summit booked for June
* Organic Milk Shakedown: A Recipe with a Bad Aftertaste
* Higher Learning?: Press Objectivity, Biotech, and Gaia Worship
* (Rather Long) Review of Book: "Vexing Nature by Gary Comstock"

OGM en Afrique: French Version of the Colorful Brochure "Foods from
Genetically Improved Crops in Africa"

Dr. Martin Chrispeels of the University of California, San Diego has now
developed a French-version of his excellent, colorful and thoughtful
brochure on the issue of biotech crops.

Entitled 'OGM en Afrique' the brochure can be downloaded at


Please recognize that it is a huge file (3.6 MB) and thus will take a long
time to download with slow connections.

You can still download the General and English-Africa editions at
http://www.sdcma.org and look under Publications.


USAID Clarifies Its Position on Biotech Seeds with the Afghan Aid Program

(From Prakash: AgBioView readers may recall an earlier posting of an
Agence France Presse report mentioning biotech wheat seeds as a part of
the AID program to Afghan farmers which we disputed. I have obtained a
recent AID comment on that issue which appears below)

USAID is not funding the distribution of genetically modified organisms in
its programs to provide much-needed seed to Afghanistan's farmers. USAID
is, along with other international development and relief agencies,
responding to a humanitarian emergency by supporting the multiplication
and distribution of adapted varieties of crop seed developed by plant
breeders. These include seed of wheat, barley, lentil and other important
crops upon which Afghan farmers and the general population of that country
depend for food and livelihood. Working with a range of partners, USAID is
endeavoring to provide rural Afghan communities with access to the best
and most appropriate strains of major food crops; in most cases these are
the products of scientific research programs involving the International
Agricultural Research Centers, U.S. universities and national and regional
agricultural research organizations. Parallel efforts to provide
fertilizer and other types of assistance aimed at rehabilitating
agriculture, preventing famine and restoring the rural environment in the
country are also underway.

USAID agricultural research and development efforts involving genetically
modified organisms are restricted to partner countries that have
appropriate regulatory and biosafety guidelines in place. Furthermore,
USAID will not transfer any genetically modified materials intended for
planting without the host government's explicit advanced informed consent
and an independent assessment of potential environmental or safety risks.
USAID remains convinced that all appropriate technologies, including
genetically modified crops and other biotechnology-based approaches,
should be marshaled in the fight against hunger, malnutrition and poverty.
USAID's developing country partners increasingly seek our cooperation in
research and development programs that incorporate agricultural
biotechnology in an integrated and scientifically appropriate manner. They
view agricultural biotechnology as an additional and important tool in
providing adequate and nutritious food, a healthier environment and
expanded economic opportunity for their growing populations.

Excerpts from the Earlier Press Report
>>USAID Helps Afghan Farmers Rebuild Through Donations of Genetically
>>Modified Seed..........The United States Agency for International
>> as begun funding farming projects to help rebuild Afghanistan,
>> a US official said, reports Agence France Presse. Andrew Natsios,
>> administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID)
>> said some of the projects were started in November...)

'Civil' Society Responses....

From: Klaus Ammann
Subject: Debate 2002'0301 a: A sample of civil society reactions about the
scientific controversy on the Quist/Chapela Nature paper

Dear friends,


Here just a package of NGO-responses to the joint statement of scientists
and the critical statements about the Quist/Chapela Nature paper,
collected by Prakash.
I went through all the statements and did not find a single line on a
scientific factual level.

We are now there where scientists arguing with scientific arguments are
accused of mud-slinging by those who refuse to discuss the science behind
it. Brave new world - but alas, in another sense here. This is
post-modernism in its worst variation.




From: Klaus Ammann
Subject: Debate 2002'0228 b: Mexican maize case: Text from Life Sciences
Network March 1, 2002: Insider Information about Nature debates

Dear friends,


I just received, after the circulation of my previous comment in Debate
2002'0228a today several hints that something is going on inside Nature,
so lets hope that science prevails. The strongest hint is the text in the
New Zealand Life Sciences Network, put on the web March 1 2002 their time.
Thanks to Eric Nelson and Francis Wevers and the strong network
information system.

Nevertheless, it is obviously, according to many publications years ago
about gene flow in maize in Mexico, only a matter of time until such
introgression events will be reported on a sound scientific base. What
will be much more important is the discussion about the impact, but this
should be debated on a sound baseline comparison.

There you just have to admit, that gene flow from modern maize is going on
over many decades and did not affect the Mexican landraces, nor did it
destroy the genetic identity as claimed by ignorant opponents.

- Klaus



The GM Food Debate

- Newsweek, Letters, Mar 04, 2002

As a European consumer opposed to the import and use of genetically
modified (GM) foods, I would like to ask: who benefits from the modified
foods, and who runs risks ("Brave New Foods," Science & Technology, Jan.
28)? The Basta-resist-ant variety is engineered not to protect the
environment but to introduce a new brand of herbicides tailored to a
single supplier. Those "eternal tomatoes," beautiful and fresh for weeks,
help traders carry and keep foods for longer times and distances, but I've
never heard the argument that there has been improved taste or nutritional
quality. The frost-resistant type may reduce farmers' losses if planted
too early, with an equal final product. The risk of side effects has to be
borne by the consumer.

Manfred Hamann, Frickingen, Germany
It's not ordinary people who fear and hate GM foods; it's groups like
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, searching for
the next scare tactic, latching onto every uncertainty or
misinterpretation they can, to maintain fear. If they had put their
destructive energy into support for the appropriate use and integration of
biotechnology into agriculture, these NGOs would have done us and the
world's next generations the best favor they could. As it is, their
propaganda against GM-based progress is like agricultural apartheid.

Meredith Lloyd-Evans, BioBridge Associates, Cambridge, England


Nontransgenic Crops From Transgenic Plants

- Robert J. Keenan & Willem P.C. Stemmer Nature Biotechnology, March 2002
Volume 20 Number 3 pp 215 - 216 (Maxygen, Inc., Redwood City, CA 94063 ;

It is possible to produce nontransgenic crops from transgenic plants. The
transgenic sequence is deleted by tissue-specific or chemically induced
excision from plants in the field. An inducible promoter drives statement
of a gene for a site-specific recombinase, such as Cre, which excises a
transgenic cassette located between two recombinase sites (loxP).
Inducible promoters and recombinases that work well in plants have already
been developed. While retaining the benefits of transgenic technology, the
removal of transgenes from specific tissues in crop plants may be a
pragmatic way to address certain public concerns regarding transgenic
technology, such as food safety, gene dispersal (via pollen or seed), seed
replanting, and identity preservation.

Full Text at


India Asked to Spend $35 m on Biotech


The Indian Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of
Agricultural Research (ICAR) are asking the Indian government to spend Rs
17,000 crore (US$34.9 million) on biotechnology research over the next
Five-Year Plan period.

During 2002-03, the first year of the Tenth Plan, the DBT asked for Rs 275
crore but was only awarded Rs 175 crore. The DBT is using the money to
support genomics, transgenic plant and animal research and technology
transfer. It will also support biotechnology parks, biotech cities and
biotech institutions. The Department will use Rs 25 crore for a
Biotechnology Development Fund in collaboration with the Small Industries
Development Bank of India (SIDBI) and setting up of technology incubators.

ICAR wants R&D spending on biotech to rise to 1% of agricultural GDP from
the current 0.3%, to cover new initiatives including in genomics and


Delayed World Food Summit booked for June

21/02/02 - The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will soon host a
global meeting to review progress towards ending hunger. The meeting, the
'World Food Summit: five years later' aims to track progress achieved
since the 1996 World Food Summit and consider ways to accelerate the

The summit was originally scheduled for 5-9 November but has been delayed
in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the United States.

"The purpose of this event is to give new impetus to worldwide efforts on
behalf of hungry people," said Dr Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO.
"We must raise both the political will and the financial resources to
fight hunger. The international community has repeatedly declared that it
is dedicated to the eradication of poverty. Eliminating hunger is a vital
first step."

According to the FAO current data indicates that the number of
undernourished is falling at an average rate of only 6 million each year,
far below the rate of 22 million per year needed to reach the World Food
Summit target. Although headway has been made and some striking success
stories exist in individual countries and communities, much remains to be

World leaders will be requested to outline the measures needed to achieve
the goal, and make suggestions on how to accelerate progress. They are
also expected to consider how to increase resources available for
agricultural and rural development.

At the World Food Summit in 1996, representatives of 185 nations and the
European Community pledged to work towards eradicating hunger. As an
essential first step, they set a target of reducing the number of hungry
people by half by 2015.

The World Food Summit will take place from the 10 to 13 June 2002. The
venue must be confirmed.


Organic Milk Shakedown: A Recipe with a Bad Aftertaste

- Steven Milloy; Copyright 2002 JunkScience.com February 26, 2002

Start with one large, well-known company which prides and markets itself
on a record of corporate responsibility and environmental stewardship. Add
a dose of false and misleading health claims, a dash of fear and a healthy
serving of threats. Shake (down) vigorously. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...

That's the basic recipe the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the
Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition (GEFA) are serving to
Starbucks Coffee Company and unsuspecting latte consumers this month. So
while you wait in line for your double-espresso half-caff latte, you may
wonder what horrible crimes your corner coffee store committed to incur
the wrath of the tofu ovo-lacto-free picket line you crossed to get your
morning fix. Rest assured, Starbucks' only crime was in taking the bait
and attempting to negotiate with protest groups seeking to take your
morning ritual hostage.

The OCE and GEFA are the work of several organic-industry funded
Washington, D.C.-based activists groups including the Center for Food
Safety and Greenpeace. Conveniently GEFA is represented by Greenpeace's PR
firm Fenton Communications. Fenton, which is responsible for a long list
of misleading food and health scares, also happens to represent many of
the organic and natural products industry clients footing the bills for
many of these campaigns. You see, this industry's polling and market
research shows that food scares, particularly those involving
biotechnology, increase sales of their highly-priced and highly-profitable
organic and natural products.

Here is a simple warning for companies which seek a mantle of social
responsibly and environmental stewardship - you will become a target for
extortion campaigns by special interest groups who perceive your
intentions as weakness. It's good for business, well your competitors
anyway. And, it keeps the protest groups in the money while the rest of us
work for a living. How do we know you'll be a target? They publicly tell

"We believe that Starbucks is the weakest link in the chain because their
customer base cares about the environment and cares about social justice
and cares about their health... They're being punished partly for their
overzealous public relations stand," Ronnie Cummins, leader of the Organic
Consumers Association told the Associated Press. In letters to Starbucks,
Cummins issued ultimatums that Starbucks meet 100 percent of his demands
or "you will face a significant public relations problem..." Specifically
Cummins threatens, "Imagine a press conference where we stand outside a
Starbucks location and test your Cappuchinos for the presence of rBGH...
Of course we would be delighted if you would move to an all organic milk

Aside from Cummins' inability to spell "cappuccino" and that according to
the American Medical Association and U.S. Food and Drug Administration
there is no such test - milk from cows supplemented with bGH is exactly
the same as all other milk, including organic - Cummins campaign against
Starbucks has created quite a stir at corporate headquarters in Seattle.

To placate Cummins, Starbucks has changed their menus to stock costly
organic soy and dairy alternatives as a choice for consumers who have
fallen prey to the false and misleading claims that these organic products
are healthier, safer or more nutritious than their more affordable (and
often more environmentally and farmer friendly) counterparts. Still, that
is not enough for the protesters' organic protection racket campaign.

Cummins added in an e-mail to his followers, "Starbucks is clearly rattled
by the OCA market pressure campaign... Now all we've got to do is to keep
up the pressure on Starbucks until they meet all of our demands. After
Starbucks surrenders then we can turn our market pressure campaigns on the
other, even larger, food and beverage companies: the national and regional
supermarket chains, industry giants..."

Well, we get the point, if OCA gets Starbucks to cave, no one is safe.

What is the OCA? Who supports their efforts? In past years, OCA's web site
and leaflets proclaimed financial support from various organic and natural
product companies. Yet, until recently this group claimed to have
insufficient revenues to even report federal tax returns for non-profit
organizations. However, in the year (2000) they joined up with the
Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition, OCA's coffers will filled
with over $800,000 from un-named donors. Prior to 1998 OCA was reported to
be a project of the Center for Food Safety, one of GEFA's coordinating
organizations. OCA president Ronnie Cummins is a self-described director
of a for-profit consulting firm, media consultant, social change activist
and writer of children's books on Cuba. While that certainly does not
quality him as an expert on food issues, that hasn't stopped him.

In addition to his recent crusade demanding Starbucks serve 100 percent
organic coffee and milk, Cummins has also led campaigns to ban beef from
McDonalds, demanded tax-payer subsidies for humanely raised organic foods,
and coordinated "global days of action" to shut down supermarkets,
companies and government offices which don't agree to his views on such
issues as animal testing, use of fertilizer and other offenses to his
political and social values.

Cummins is also listed as an organizer of Greenpeople, a group which
services the "eco-friendly" products industry and provides vegetarian
dating services. Similar to his current efforts, Greenpeople employees the
same tactic of targeting the competitors of their organic and
"socially-responsible" member companies by threatening their reputations
and using the Internet for misleading and false disinformation campaigns.
Greenpeople, in addition to hosting OCA's web campaigns efforts against
Starbucks (a.k.a. Frankenbucks in OCA lingo), is also host to dozens of
rogue and heretofore anonymous "YourCompany-Sucks" web sites targeting
everyone from Kmart to Pepsi.

Apparently neither Martha Stewart nor Brittany Spears are safe from the
extortion-like reach of these eco-entrepreneurs who profiteer from fear.
Unlike Starbucks, though, more established companies - comfortable with
public perceptions of their reputation based on good products and deeds
rather than the proclamation of protest groups - know enough to not take
their bait.

So while you're fighting your way past grizzled protestors demanding you
purchase organic-soy milk cappuccinos and lacto-free scones, don't give
them the time of day and they'll find someone else to shakedown.


Higher Learning?: Press Objectivity, Biotech, and Gaia Worship

Todd Seavey, Health Facts and Fears, ACSH, February 25, 2002

Is there a difference between objective reporting and "balanced" reporting?

I had an opportunity to put that burning question to a group of college
newspaper editors when I spoke at a conference on "The Role of the Press
in a Free Society" hosted by the Institute for Human Studies. My argument
was that "balance" and "objectivity" are two different things, though they
are often lumped together. Balance, it is generally assumed, means that
"both sides" in an article will be given roughly equal time and equal
respect. In TV news terms, as I learned while working at ABC News for six
years, it really means that you don't want either side threatening to sue
you, so for practical purposes the truth, on any remotely controversial
issue, is supposed to end up looking like a combination of the two (or
more) sides or is presumed to fall somewhere in between them.

Unfortunately, it is often assumed to be the case that truth and the
reporter's stance should be in the middle of the road even when science
strongly supports the claims of one faction and rebuts the claims of
another. At the conference, I showed a clip from the ABC special Tampering
with Nature, hosted by John Stossel. Some of the students watching felt
that the scientists defending biotech I the show came off looking good
while anti-biotech activists such as Greenpeace looked ridiculous.
Couldn't ABC have found anti-biotech crusaders who sounded just as
reasonable as the pro-biotech scientists? Certainly, with enough effort,
one could make two sides in any debate sound "equal."

But what is the virtue of balancing the two dominant perspectives if one
side or both sides are demonstrably, objectively wrong? To take a
hypothetical example (since the biotech issue may indeed be too
controversial), if the Republicans, under pressure by the religious right,
were to claim that faith-healing is the most reliable cure for cancer and
the Democrats disagreed, saying there is no scientific evidence for this
claim, should a responsible reporter feign indifference between the two
positions? Alternatively, if the Democrats, under pressure by alternative
medicine advocates, claim that quartz crystals have the magical power to
heal (and want an increase in funding for the National Center for
Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a result), but Republicans and
scientists say otherwise, should a reporter treat the two positions as

As a metaphor, I offered the case of a dispute in a society half composed
of Nazis (with all their eugenics-theory baggage) and half composed of
Gaia worshippers. Sadly, some of the students were hampered in the
discussion by what they saw as my far-fetched scenario. When I gave an
earlier version of the speech at a previous conference, one student said
the hypothetical society sounded like something out of Star Trek (as if
that's a bad thing), and this year two students voiced objections, one
calling the hypothetical "unfathomable" and the other saying that he
thought a scenario in which a group was advocating belief in a flat Earth
would be more enlightening. For practical reasons, I may need to change
the hypothetical if I give the speech in the future, though I will say in
my defense that at least one country in recent memory has gone Nazi, and
the Nazi/Gaia scenario is certainly more likely than widespread
flat-Earthism these days, since not even everyone in the Flat Earth
Society, you will disappointed (or relieved) to learn, still believes the
Earth is flat (you can find hints of self-parody and some inside-joke
references to the works of absurdist authors such as Alfred Jarry and
Robert Anton Wilson at one Flat Earth Society website, for instance).

The central philosophical point of my speech remains, though: It is quite
often the case that there is widespread error in the public thinking and
the media coverage on some topic, especially in matters of science and
public health that aren't immediately deducible from "common sense." Those
reporters who know the facts or can get the facts by acquainting
themselves with the broad consensus of mainstream science owe it to the
public to be objective and not just "balanced." That is, they should be
concerned with reporting the facts, no matter how popular or unpopular,
and not at all concerned about the potential for public backlash nor about
how the truth will affect factional disputes in society.

The college newspaper editors who attended the conference, many of them
from campuses prone to political controversy, were admirably wary of
appearing to take sides in their reporting. However, if half the
population becomes convinced that faith is the best cure for cancer, that
quartz crystals heal, or simply that genetically-engineered tomatoes are
likely to destroy the Earth, reporters owe it to the entire public to
report that one half the population is dead wrong.
If you wish to respond to this editorial please email your comments to
forum@acsh.org. Also, visit the ACSH FORUMS at www.acsh.org/forum/.


Review of Book: "Vexing Nature by Gary Comstock"

- by Paul Thompson, Department of Philosophy, Purdue University, West
Lafayette, IN 77843-4355 US; Published in 'Agriculture and Human Values'



(Forwarded by Gary L Comstock )

(Vexing Nature? On the Ethical Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology
by Gary L. Comstock; Dordrecht and Boston: 2000, Kluwer Academic
Publishers. vii + 297 pp.)

Not only does Vexing Nature? offer the most complete and philosophically
rigorous overview of the arguments for and against agricultural
biotechnology currently available, it also lays out some of the
considerations underpinning Gary Comstock's views on a number of key
issues in agricultural ethics, including the moral standards for
evaluating animal agriculture and the case for promoting sustainable
agriculture, subsistence agriculture, and the family farm. Since Comstock
is without question one of the most important and influential philosophers
to have thought deeply about agriculture over the last twenty years, this
is an important book for anyone who is interested in the future of
agriculture. (It is thus a bit disappointing that the volume has gotten
such a shoddy treatment from the publisher: the index cites page
references above 300 in a book that numbers only 297. None of the indexed
items I consulted have accurate page references.)

Vexing Nature? begins with four lengthy chapters that are highly critical
of agricultural biotechnology. "The Case against BGH" is a 1988 paper
reprinted from Agriculture and Human Values and "Against Herbicide
Resistance" is a 1990 paper reprinted from The Journal of Agricultural and
Environmental Ethics. These chapters blend some of the now widely known
concerns about the possible impact of these technologies with some general
principles of environmental ethics. The third chapter, "Against Transgenic
Animals," consolidates arguments that Comstock published in several
papers, and presents what I take to be his still current views on the
moral standing of animals, and the implication of these views for the
moral evaluation of all livestock production systems, without regard to
whether the animals are transgenic or not. The fourth chapter, "Against Ag
Biotech," also consolidates arguments that he was making in the early to
mid 1990s. Comstock began to change his mind during this period, however,
and the last two chapters are a systematic rebuttal of many of the key
arguments that have been made against agricultural biotechnology,
including many of the opinions voiced in the first four chapters of Vexing
Nature?. Hence, the book winds up being one of the most persuasive and
thorough defenses of applying new recombinant DNA technologies to
improvement of crops, foods, and animals that has ever been published, as
well as one of the most unusual academic treatises you are ever likely to

Before undertaking a critical discussion of a few of the arguments
Comstock has offered in Vexing Nature? I want to make it very clear that I
am in substantial agreement with Comstock's conclusions on the ethical
acceptability and practical utility of biotechnology. In my 1997 book Food
Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective, I described myself as a "cautious
booster" of ag biotech. A certain amount of skepticism and caution
continues to be warranted but I now believe that the energy that has been
and is still being poured into opposition toward biotechnology is a tragic
miscalculation that has diverted our attention from the most ethically and
environmentally pressing issues in agricultural policy and practice.
However much the products of biotechnology have been oversold, and however
badly some of the leading proponents have behaved, I believe that
opposition to biotechnology has now reached a point that damages the cause
of sustainable agriculture and threatens our ability to make effective
critiques of mainstream technology and policy. This makes Comstock's book
of great importance.

I also believe that individuals have a moral right to apply their own
religious, cultural and even idiosyncratic values in making a decision as
to whether they will eat so-called "GM foods." Such a right would be the
putative basis for policies requiring the labeling of GM foods, and for
European resistance to a technology that was being literally forced upon
them. This is a point on which Comstock is strangely silent, and the moral
standing of consumer values and preferences in a globalizing world is the
most important gap in his treatment. However, Comstock is not silent on
many of the key issues that arise in the agricultural ethics of
biotechnology, and it is more appropriate to take up what he does say,
rather than what he does not.

Let us work from back to front. Comstock's final chapter is a point by
point rebuttal of arguments that have been or might be made against
agricultural biotechnology on the ground that it could be harmful to food
consumers, family farmers, subsistence farmers, scientific research, or to
wildlife, livestock and animals used in research. This chapter is quite up
to date, including a fine discussion of such recent events as the debate
over monarch butterflies and yellow rice. In many of these cases,
Comstock's reply to the allegation that biotechnology risks harm is to
critique the empirical premises. These critiques are of two general kinds.
One focuses on the prediction of harm, either by providing reasons to
doubt that alleged harms will occur (as in Comstock's discussion of the
monarchs), or by noting that there may be offsetting benefits that are of
greater moral importance (as in his discussion of transgenic animals used
in human medical research). The other general critique is to note that
broad forces are at work in bringing about harmful events, and that
biotechnology cannot plausibly be identified as the dominant or proximal
cause when they occur. This second pattern of argument is applied
especially convincingly in Comstock's discussion of bovine growth hormone.
He notes that the dislocation of family run dairies that he cited as a
reason to oppose BGH in his 1988 article actually occurred before BGH came
on the market.

The other "pro-biotech" chapter begins with a discussion of how Comstock
came to change his mind, then proceeds to a refutation of 14 arguments
against biotech that turn upon the claim that recombinant DNA technology
is, in some sense, unnatural. Most of the fourteen refutations are
succinct, but the last is an important discussion of agriculture's place
in the environment that goes on for almost twenty pages. Here, Comstock
reviews a number of standard positions in environmental ethics. He argues
that ecocentric positions in environmental ethics are incompatible not
only with ag biotechnology, but with agriculture itself. At this point I
usually say, "And so much the worse for environmental ethics," but
Comstock is more patient and gives a detailed discussion of points on
which the most plausible interpretations of noted ecocentric philosophers'
views are contradicted by current ecology. He concludes this section by
showing how the ecocentrist environmental ethicist's views are
inconsistent with our considered moral intuitions (and then so much the
worse for environmental ethics). I will return to Comstock's use of
intuitions later.

Comstock has changed his view most notably with respect to arguments that
bear on the possibility that ag biotech will cause harm to the family
farm. Since he made his reputation as the editor of a volume entitled Is
There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? and with the concluding
essay in that collection, which answered the question in the affirmative,
this is an important shift. He has changed his view on two points. One is
that he no longer thinks of ag biotech as the signal technology of modern
agriculture. The second is that he thinks the decline of family farming
worldwide is inevitable. The first point is indicated in discussions such
as the one on BGH. The second point is conceded in a remarkably short
passage in Vexing Nature? Here, he accepts the economic argument that
technological changes benefit early adopters, and that late adopters are
destined to suffer losses that will drive them from farming altogether. He
also accepts an argument offered by Luther Tweeten demonstrating that
efficiency enhancing agricultural technologies benefit the poor because a)
such technologies reduce the cost of food and b) poor people spend a
proportionately larger amount of their income on food. Finally, he
confesses that his earlier conception of family farming was na‘ve, noting
that his uncle's farm is not the "Old McDonald" paradise he had once

Frankly, this seems a rather weak reply to the man who once countered
exactly this type of reasoning with the following words:

[O]our imaginations are powerful things, and stories can change the world.
An alternative story that was at once powerful, true and widely accepted
could change our agricultural paradigm. . . . Such a story must present an
attractive vision of a new agricultural paradigm consisting of diverse
small farms owned and operated by well-educated families connected up by
computers and satellites in an international market system. (P. 168)

Comstock has apparently abandoned a vision of agricultural ethics
committed to the belief that people are living out alternatives to modern
agriculture and that "Our challenge is to tell their stories, and to
devise public policies to help the stories continue," (p. 169). This is,
in my view, deeply unfortunate. While I believe that it is indeed folly to
think that there will be a reversion of structural changes that took place
over the 20th century, I never thought that Comstock was calling for such
a reversion in the first place. Rather, I saw him doing ethics in a mode
pioneered most recently by people such as Alaisdair MacIntyre or Martha
Nussbaum, and though it has not been my style, it is an approach I admire

In place of a philosophical approach that celebrated the power and wisdom
of narrative and tradition, Comstock seems to be gravitating toward
schools of thought that were very influential in a few analytic philosophy
departments during the last quarter of the 20th century. This is most
evident in his thinking on the moral standing of animals, and his
derivation of prescriptions forbidding any form of livestock production
that involves the slaughter of animals. Comstock's view on animals is, to
my mind, a puzzling blend of neo-Kantian rights theory, utilitarianism,
and appeals to moral intuitions. The rights theory comes up front, as
Comstock refers to Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights, and takes on
Regan's staunch opponent R. G. Frey. Yet Comstock doesn't really seem to
hold a rights view, as he actually appropriates Regan's discussion of
animal interests to assert that animal lives have value, as opposed to the
assertion that individual animals possess an inviolable subject-of-a-life
(Regan's term). Although Comstock once thought (in Chapter 3) that
production of transgenic animals was wrong in all cases, he now believes
that there are instances in which it is permissible to sacrifice animal
lives when animals are used in the important (but inherently speculative)
pursuit of medical research.

Note to Readers: If the following paragraph on analytic philosophy makes
no sense to you, count your blessings.)

Drawing an analogy to the famous trolley case traditionally used to
examine the putative distinction between killing and letting die, Comstock
convinces himself that the use of biotechnology to produce transgenic
animals has this feature: a medical researcher must choose between
sacrificing the right to life of the determinate individuals who will be
benefited by her research, and the right to life of the animals that will
be sacrificed (see page 271). It is important that these are determinate
individuals in order to get the idea that there is a conflict of rights at
stake off the ground. According to Comstock, a researcher who decides in
favor of the animals has violated the rights of the humans. Clearly that
won't do, hence Comstock can use some of Regan's theoretical apparatus to
support the conclusion that we are morally required to do the research.

But note that if Comstock's logic were correct, anything that the
researcher does instead of doing the research violates the rights of "many
determinate individuals." So if the researcher decides on early
retirement, she has, on Comstock's view, caused the avoidable death for
"many determinate individuals," in a morally culpable way. Those poor
souls among our readers who do know the trolley case will recall that
walking away does lead to the death of determinate individuals in a manner
that some philosophers, at least, believe would make the agent morally
culpable. That is what gives the trolley case its bite. But is a medical
researcher who takes early retirement, who quits research to care for her
own children, or who opts instead to pursue a career in showbiz morally
culpable for the deaths of the people whose lives might have been saved by
her research? This is (at least) a counter intuitive suggestion, though
one can easily imagine a researcher who continues contrary to her personal
wishes out of a feeling of duty. The fact that we would regard such a
person as morally heroic serves to underscore the sense in which it is
implausible to think that determinate individuals could make a rights
claim on the researcher. All this goes to show that the analogy to the
trolley case fails. It may not be crucial to Comstock's final evaluation
of research using transgenic animals, but it does render about six or
eight complicated pages of Vexing Nature? irrelevant.

Comstock goes into the contorted reasoning discussed above because he is
trying to remain true to a rights view. In fact, his conclusions are
plausible because his commitment to rights views is pretty superficial. He
actually seems to be more interested in the comparative value of benefits
and harms, including the loss of life. (Indeed, he should not be so easily
convinced by Luther Tweeten, if he actually held a rights view). This
allows him to argue that the potential for saving human lives in the
future outweighs the value of animal lives, while the value we humans get
from raising and consuming animals for meat does not. Such reasoning is
not characteristic of a true "animal rights" philosophy. It suggests
instead that the term "rights" is being used to indicate a prima facie
value assessment that might be overturned (or outweighed) by other
considerations. This approach is much more characteristic of Peter Singer
than of Tom Regan, yet Singer gets little discussion here. Further
evidence for the superficiality of Comstock's commitment to rights is
found in his refutation of Frey, which turns upon showing that autonomy is
not what makes a life valuable. Rather, it is the enjoyment of high
quality experiences (those that involve the satisfaction of a
future-oriented interest) that makes a life valuable. The idea that lives
are valuable is not typically part of the derivation of rights claims.
Rights are generally established by showing that the possession of certain
capacities grounds a claim upon the actions of others, that we have duties
to respect the exercise of certain capacities in others, whether they
choose to exercise them or not.

Not all lives are of equal value by Comstock's quality of life standard,
hence we must ask: why doesn't the quality of life I derive from eating
meat trump the quality of life that a meat animal foregoes at the moment
of slaughter? Comstock's answer to this is, again, more like Singer than
Regan. The gustatory pleasure of eating meat is trivial, while the loss of
a future life for the animal is not. As I read the argument here, we again
get to an intuition. The relative value of these two outcomes is purported
to be intuitively clear, and this is a point I will return to in a moment.
First, we should note how Comstock draws rather unsystematically from
traditions in moral theory that are generally thought of as mutually
incompatible philosophical alternatives. He is a rights theorist who
stresses the value of lives. He is a moral realist who talks about
interest-based preferences. Frankly, I don't find this all that
problematic, but that is because I think of moral language and moral
concepts as arising from problematic situations that people encounter in
real life. In my view, the consistency of our theoretical apparatus should
be subservient to our capacity for collaborative problem solving with
other people. The idea that we should adopt a consistent theory of
morality and then apply it to real life decision making is a philosophical
conceit promoted within the school of analytic applied ethics alluded to
above. Comstock, on the other hand, would appear to have committed himself
to that school, not only in the posture he takes throughout this book, but
also in his approach to the Iowa State Bioethics Institutes for which he
is justifiably well known. If so, this kind of inconsistency should be
embarrassing. If not, it is puzzling why the elaborate theoretical
apparatus is introduced in the first place.

I would have fewer complaints with analytic applied ethics if it were
clear that rigor and theoretical power were truly being substituted for
gut feelings and the implicit commitments we make in using ordinary
language, but most of this work begins and ends in appeal to intuitions
that are often rather unintuitive, rendering all that effort pretty
questionable. Too often these intuitions depend on living the rarified,
isolated, and monkish kind of life that is typical of academic
philosophers. This is evident, I think, in the way that Comstock sets up
the problem of animal ethics from the standpoint of someone deciding
whether or not to become a vegetarian. Oh, I can admit that any pleasure I
derive from eating meat is pretty trivial, but I do not think that the
people who produce, transport, slaughter, and butcher animals are doing so
for trivial reasons. In fact, their lives depend upon it. And while it is
true that if none of us ate meat these people would have to find some
other livelihood, I find it vulgar, insensitive, and false to suggest that
they have dedicated themselves to providing me with trivial sensory

Part of the reason Comstock's way of setting up the problem has become so
popular is that the question of whether or not to be a vegetarian
resonates with the average college undergraduate who has never had to make
any hard decisions about how to earn a living. From there, philosophy
teachers can tease their students into the philosophy of Mill and Kant,
and the pedagogical benefits of the approach make it seem ethically
justified. I am a contrarian, I guess, in thinking that a more responsible
approach in ethics is to begin by trying to understand the perspective of
people in very different walks of life. I believe that we must involve
these people in the philosophical diagnosis of why a situation is
problematic. If we set up an analysis of the problem in which they cannot
see themselves or imagine themselves having a voice, our analysis is wrong.

My intuitions tell me that the men and women who find themselves employed
in ranching, meatpacking, and other aspects of the livestock industry face
much more uncertainty and peril to their livelihood than I do. They work
at jobs that are descended from practices of animal husbandry that were
effective (and morally acceptable) survival and reproduction strategies
from human and animal alike. What is morally unacceptable about that
industry today has to do with the way that technology and profit seeking
have conspired to create circumstances that are intolerable to the humans
and animals who are involved in it. Ironically, one of the greatest
barriers to reform in the livestock industry is the perception held by
many producers that those who call for reform are dedicated to ending
their way of life altogether.

Comstock and I have some disagreements on animal ethics that we will
undoubtedly be hashing out over the coming years. I have certainly not
offered an adequate refutation of his views in this review. When someone
looks at a plate of ribs and asks, "Am I morally permitted to partake?"
there are any number of personal experiences, moral ruminations, and
articles of faith that one may legitimately apply. I would argue strongly
for each individual's right to follow their own lights in making that
choice. The bullies and rubes in ag science departments who mock
vegetarianism need to show some respect for those who select the
vegetarian option, as Comstock himself needs to show a bit more respect
for those who choose "no-biotech." But I think that the perspective of the
disarticulated food consumer who knows nothing about where food comes from
in either a biological or historical sense should not come to be equated
with "the moral point of view." Here agricultural ethics conceived as a
scholarly activity grounded as much in history and narrative as in
analytic meta-theory could prove a useful antidote. While Vexing Nature?
is a vital and important document in the philosophy of agriculture, here
is my hope that Comstock has not quit the terrain of history and
literature forever.