The Clash of Environmental Values

GMO
and climate change seem currently one of the more upsetting issues not only for
environmentalists, but for the wider public as well. Carbon tax proposals like
the one released by Canada’s opposition party last week (e.g
Financial
Times
) or requests to the
EU by Britain to embrace a more liberal attitude towards GM crops (e.g.
The
Independent
) are the order
of the day in many newspapers. 

Precautionary
arguments of any sort regarding the release of GMO or greenhouse gases commonly
invoke the complex and still badly understood entanglement of different parts
of the environment: Present greenhouse gas emissions may trigger a catastrophic
runaway climate change: An initial global
warming may yield to, say, the release of vast amounts of methane that so far
was bound in the permafrost of the Russian or North American tundra; the
methane further increases the initial warming.  We simply do not sufficiently understand such
type of feedbacks. The same holds true for releasing GMO into the atmosphere:
Via horizontal gene transfer to wild
types or feral relatives, for example, GMO may yield unpredicted and unwanted side
effects.

Releasing
greenhouse gases or GMO are both interventions in the complex environmental
system. But how, if at all, do these two issues, commonly discussed as separate
and isolated questions, interrelate?

A
trivial relation between both issues lies on the investment side: There is only
finite money to be spent; how much is to be spent on precautionary measures
regarding GMO or a greenhouse effect is a question not easily dismissed and
most likely not able to be answered in general, but only on a case-by-case
analysis.

The
more interesting and mostly overlooked interrelation between solutions to the
problems posed by global warming and GMO is, of course, via their influences on
the environment. GMO like draught
resistant tobacco plants
may be used to mitigate the impact of global
warming as they are able to survive with less water.  There are also other instances where a
precautionary approach to GMO may impact on climate change. Quite generally, GM
plants are designed to be more efficient and robust and, for example, needing less
fertiliser and able to cope with worse weather and environmental conditions. This
results in less breaking up the soil, particularly in comparison to organically
grown plants. Farming is the second largest anthropogenic greenhouse sector and
greenhouse gases bound in the soil layer are released when breaking up (This
point was originally made by Knut G. Berdal).

Such
conflicts in realizing concrete environmental values are well known and particularly
well discussed within ethics of technology. It is not the aim to promote a
certain view as regards the moral status or urgency of neither climate change
nor GMO here. It is only to be pointed out that problems that may seem disjoint
at first glance be intertwined in a nontrivial way – just like the successful
implementation of the Montreal Protocol virtually eliminated CFCs, but replaced
them by strong greenhouse gases. Though this claim might seem counterintuitive,
the complexity of (even global) environmental problems may call for more
case-by-case solutions rather than for solutions that try to fix global problems
once and for all for all points in space and time.

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