News - April 26, 2015

Blog: Fifty shades of green

The GMO-debate between Monsanto, Greenpeace and a Wageningen Professor was a memorable event, writes blogger Camilla Ponte. She thinks many lessons can be learnt form it. Not so much on the future of GMOs but on the stance of science.

In a classroom on the 3rd  floor of Forum, a debate took place between representatives from the American agrochemical and bioengeneering corporation Monsanto, the environmental NGO Greenpeace, and a Wageningen professor in Economics and Politics of sustainability. The debate should have been about what role, if at all, GMOs might play in future food production. Instead, the guests repeated their positions over and over again. The Executive Director of Monsanto Netherlands defended corporate interests and spoke by corporate logics. The Greenpeace delegate stubbornly opposed anything to do with GMOs, whether applied in nutrition or in improvement of genetic traits of commodity crops. The WUR professor should have stricken a balance between the two positions. He cited several scenarios that he and his group modeled. Yet, rather than facilitating, he too was throwing in  arguments which sounded value-laden and still needed to be weighted by the audience. Most students in that audience seemed to be biased against any of Monsanto´s arguments, and that did not help the dialogue either.

Although it might be possible to debate what is best in terms of human and environmental sustainability, political decisions, and even research, the debates are often steered by those who have most power to justify their actions. Therefore, I understand the upfront skepticism of the students. And I am grateful to Greenpeace for its role in hindering the interests of big players who might like to overstep the sake of other groups in society and the planet at large. However, I think the trends of policy and market are not only a matter of power, but also of choice and agreement. What science must aim for, is dialogue between the parts and their interests at stake, so that they can make the best informed decisions.

We can learn, or must learn, from this first debate, and get better at this kind of intellectual exercise. To facilitate a dialogue a tool should be used to help the debaters to ‘take off their hats’. Maybe the seating arrangement should have been different, for example placing debaters and the audience in a circle. Instead, the debaters were cast against a wall as if in a frontal fight, and constantly aware that they were defending a world view, rather than a set of preferred outcomes.

It is good to acknowledge that there are more than two positions about sustainability out there — in fact there are “many shades of green” as someone pointed out during the debate — if the frontal fight is ever to turn into dialogue.