In January, author Mark Lynas caused a global furor in environmental circles when he neatly reversed his opposition to genetically modified crops in an address at the Oxford Farming Conference. The internet lit up with controversy, and Lynas’s own website had to close its comment board after reaching 532 comments. Notably, he blamed the aesthetics of affluent Europeans—a “romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past”—for the delay in getting lifesaving GM crops to a hungry world that desperately needs them.
So the rights of a well-heeled minority, which come down ultimately to a consumer preference based on aesthetics, trump the rights of everyone else to use improved crops which would benefit the environment.
I don’t know enough about the issue to take a truly informed stance as to whether, at this point, GMOs are, like it or not, the only hope for millions if they don’t want to starve, but I can say something about the terms of the debate. I will speak up in defense of aesthetics, particularly with regard to something so sensual as food.
Aesthetics is the way humans relate to food, regardless of our place within the global hierarchy of privilege. As animals, we judge whether it’s a good idea to eat something by how it looks, smells, feels, and tastes. (“Smell this. Do you think it’s okay to eat?”) We have relied on aesthetics to keep us fed rather than poisoned for millennia. And, importantly, it has *worked*. One could argue, and many have argued, that interference with the aesthetics of food—the manipulation of sweetness, saltiness, color, texture, etc. at an industrial level to get us to drink soda rather than water, eat Pringles rather than potatoes—is a large part of what has brought about the global crisis in obesity and its attendant diseases (heart disease, cancer, and diabetes). And such aesthetic manipulation is precisely the aim of much genetic modification: produce that doesn’t look weary after being shipped across the globe, apples that don’t brown when you cut them. If the aims of GMO are aesthetic, then let’s judge it on aesthetic merits.
But this is a little disingenuous, I admit. What Lynas means by “aesthetics” is not what an individual apple looks like but an entire picture of agriculture that opponents of GMO yearn for: preindustrial, pastoral, picturesque, sentimental. And he’s right, this is what seems to move the anti-GMO movement: an aesthetic appreciation of the past.
But again, we have to ask: is that so wrong? What makes the picture of preindustrial agriculture beautiful? That a family farm is prettier than a factory farm? Partly. A genuine, instinctive connection to the Earth, its processes and rhythms? Partly. A more honest, less cruel relationship with the animals we slaughter for our dinners? Partly. Tastier, more nutritious food? Partly. Rice without arsenic? Partly. It all adds up to a model of agriculture that, compared with what we have now, is more humane, ecologically sustainable, socioeconomically viable, spiritually satisfying, nutritious, and, yes, enjoyable.
Is it unrealistic? Romanticized? Probably. Is the proposed model better? No one knows—It’s untested, a gamble.
When you’re talking about the environment, beauty often correlates with health. A clear-cut forest is not beautiful. A coal mine is not beautiful. Neither is an industrial pig farm. The latter is pretty much something that offends the aesthetic sense in every way. The summer homes of the executives of Smithfield Foods are, I’m sure, in the Adirondacks or the Hamptons, not in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Aesthetic rejection of GM crops is part of the rejection of industrialized food in general, which encompasses issues of monoculture, intellectual property vs. traditional lifeways, consolidation of global food supplies, the impact of global supply chains on climate, the environmental impact of excessive packaging, animal cruelty, food waste, alienating labor and unsafe labor conditions, immigration, obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Aesthetics is the key to unlocking this cluster of issues—and to realizing that they are all related, that tinkering with a few chromosomes here and there does not bring us closer to solving the mystery of side-by-side hunger and obesity, or of starvation when we currently produce enough for everyone to eat, or to establishing a more stable relationship with our food—and, by extension, our world.
Scientists will often praise a theory or mathematical proof for its beauty or “elegance.” It’s an informal criterion that acknowledges the validity of aesthetic judgment, even in a field that supposedly excludes subjectivity. When scientists say “elegant” they mean economical, or “parsimonious.” Humans in general gravitate toward simple, beautiful solutions, knowing that nature won’t tolerate human complexity for long—our most elaborate edifices crumble first, and our complex systems succumb to entropy. Like the instinct toward sweetness, this is a trustworthy instinct, and it shouldn’t be discounted or manipulated into irrelevance.