You’ll never guess who’s been planting biotech crops.
I won’t keep you in suspense, it’s the Amish.
There aren’t very many of them in the United States–only 150,000 or so, according to one estimate. Yet everybody seems to know about the Amish.
Most people think of them as old-fashioned horse-and-buggy types who refuse to embrace modern technologies. But the truth is more complicated. The Amish only reject some technologies, and even then they only reject the ones that they think will diminish family life or contradict their religious beliefs.
For many, this means no phones, no cars, and no electricity. There’s even a sect close to my home that doesn’t use buttons–they fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes.
Yet the Amish are an incredibly diverse group. Their Bible-based faith lacks a strong central authority, which means that different subgroups can make different decisions about how to lead their lives.
It turns out that quite a few Amish farmers are planting biotech crops because they think biotechnology actually improves family life by making it possible to them to stay close to the land.
“I myself like biotechnology,” said Daniel Dienner, an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania. “I feel it’s what the farmers will be using in the future.”
He’s got that right. For him and many of his neighbors, the future is now. About 550 of them have been growing a genetically enhanced tobacco plant for several years. Other Amish farmers are trying out biologically enhanced potatoes that resist pests and diseases.
It isn’t often that the high-tech magazine, Wired, descends on the quaint communities of LeBow County, Pennsylvania. But that’s what it did for an interview with Dienner. “Amish law doesn’t say anything about growing genetically enhanced tobacco,” says the farmer.
Despite this, Amish law does proscribe farming techniques. So Dienner and his big family harvest their cutting-edge crops with mules and homemade plows–no modern machinery is allowed. At the same time, they take full advantage of the latest developments in agricultural biotechnology–and then hang their tobacco in a barn that was built 150 years ago. It’s a fascinating blend of old and new.
We all know the benefits of biotech farming: increased yields, cleaner fields, and an improved environment. Dienner, however, sees it primarily as a way of promoting family values. “It teaches the whole family to work,” he says.
Dienner’s plants may even wind up saving lives, because his tobacco has been genetically enhanced to remove most of the nicotine–the part of tobacco that makes cigarettes so addictive. Half a million Americans die every year from a smoking-related illness, so this may represent a major step forward in the nation’s health.
Steven M. Nolt is an expert on the Amish, and a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana. (Interesting fact: Pennsylvania is the only state with more Amish than Indiana.)
Nolt says that biotechnology may be plain good sense for the Amish. “If it helped them to keep on farming small-scale farms, it would present a benefit,” he says. “They don’t dislike technology per se. They just avoid those technologies that might cause a diminishing of their family life or other strongly held beliefs.”
Whatever their motives, I’m heartened that so many Amish are taking up biotechnology–and I hope it helps them preserve the lifestyle they find so fulfilling.
It just goes to show, once again, that our whole society can gain from biotechnology–even in the most unexpected places.