Ethics & the Environment 7.2 (2002) 185-193
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Vexing Nature? On the Ethical Case against Agricultural Biotechnology, by Gary L. Comstock. Boston/Dordrecht/London: Kluwer, 2000. Pp. 297. Hardback; no softcover listed $99.95. ISBN 0-7923-7987-X.
Since its origins some ten millennia ago, agriculture has shaped culture. In our own era, that shaping has become less visible, perhaps less significant, perhaps even reversed. But whatever agriculture's relationship to the larger culture, there is no surprise that, in a technological era, it has become a magnet for technological development, and now especially for biotechnology. Dramatic changes in such a fundamental social practice raise far-reaching social, moral, and, in this case, environmental questions, most of them complex and controversial. Things change rapidly; and as new processes, products, and information become available, evaluations of the technology can change.
After opposing agricultural biotechnology for almost a decade, Gary Comstock revised his views. That Comstock openly documents his change of mind regarding ag biotech (his abbreviated name for it) is admirable, and the idea of tracking such a reversal in a book is appealing. But this book has a number of flaws that limit its contribution. One set of problems [End Page 185] has to do with the way Comstock presents his reversal (the overall structure of the book). Another set is the weaknesses in some of his key arguments. Still another is the production dimension of the book itself. Together, these imperfections result in the book's not living up to its promise.
Before explaining my complaints, however, I want to offer some praise. Scattered throughout the book are stories about Comstock and his family and how their experiences led him to reflect on the issues. Explaining his use of stories as integral to his presentation, he observes that ethics is not an abstract exercise but requires acknowledging "the rich social contexts in which our problems arise" (p. 7). I wholeheartedly agree. The stories also reveal his personal passion for the issues he analyzes, and I wish he had provided more of them.
Anyone wanting access to the literature on agricultural ethics could use Comstock's discussions and chapter notes as an entree. Moreover, his references to pertinent scientific, technological, and agricultural studies are extensive and demonstrate impressive grasp of non-philosophical topics. To mention but one example: the history of agricultural herbicide use. Although some of the chapters were originally published eight or more years ago, the more recent chapters refer to fresher scientific material; and the earlier publications have value for understanding the historical path of the various controversies.
Discussions concerning ethics and biotechnology often focus on impacts on humans or the environment. Comstock is concerned with both of those, but also with the treatment of agricultural animals, an issue central to an adequate agricultural ethic. So his grappling with it is a positive feature.
Finally, in the last two chapters Comstock reviews and evaluates almost every conceivable argument against ag biotech, dividing them into "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" arguments—that is, arguments that ag biotech is in itself objectionable, and arguments that its consequences are too dangerous to justify its practice. Proponents of such arguments will disagree with some of his formulations and evaluations of them. However, having most, if not all, of them in one place, along with some critical commentary, is a convenience for those who want to review the possible positions in this continuing debate.
Many readers would like to know why a thinker changed views about a significant ethical issue and what was the trajectory of experience, thought, [End Page 186] and ideas leading to and cementing that change. From the outset, we know that Comstock reversed his position on ag biotech; but not until the last two chapters does he fully explain the arguments and experiences that changed his mind. So readers must first work through his earlier, critical views about ag biotech. That exercise is not without value; but with only a few summary statements of the deciding factors to go on, one is left in the dark about which...