may come as a surprise to learn that some Amish farmers, who have shunned
innovations like the telephone and electricity, have embraced biotechnology.
in fact, a growing number of Amish in Pennsylvania have been using genetically enhanced seeds because they see
them as another tool to help them continue their traditional agrarian
myself like biotechnology," Amish farmer Daniel Dienner
told the Associated Press. "I feel it's what the farmers will be using in the
one of about 550 Amish farmers in Pennsylvania who have been growing a genetically enhanced, nicotine-free
tobacco plant since 2001.2 Other Amish farmers have been growing a biotech potato,
which is resistant to pests and viruses, on a test basis.3
The biotech tobacco has been commercialized
by Vector Tobacco and is used in Quest cigarettes, which are designed to help
smokers quit the habit. Dienner says Vector Tobacco
has been paying about $1.50 per pound for the nicotine-free tobacco — nearly
double the 80-cent-per-pound rate for traditional tobacco.4
The increased income — genetically enhanced
tobacco can earn up to $3,500 per acre compared with $300 to $400 per acre with
has allowed more farmers to continue farming.
"Without tobacco, I wouldn't be at it
anymore," one Amish farmer told the Associated Press. "We have a three-year
contract. I wish it would be 10 years." 6
Amish scholars say genetically enhanced
crops are not inconsistent with the simple life that is central to Amish
beliefs because it helps them continue their ties
to agriculture, allowing families to
Dienner, his wife and
their seven children hand-plant the biotech tobacco seedlings provided by
Vector. They harvest the plants together and strip the leaves from the stalks
and hang them in their barn to dry.
"It teaches a whole family to work," Dienner told the Associated Press.
Amish scholar Steven M. Nolt,
an associate professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana, said
he can't think of a reason why biotechnology would present a conflict with the
Amish way of living.
"If it helped them to keep on farming
small-scale farms, it would present a benefit," he said. "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."
"Amish law doesn't say anything about
growing genetically modified tobacco," added Dienner
in an interview with Wired magazine.7
of the Amish religion, a division of the Christian Mennonites, or Anabaptists,
interpret the Bible literally and follow a set of unwritten rules of the church
known as the Ordnung.
Amish tradition differs from many other modern religions in that its faith is
combined in its entire culture. To preserve their culture and lifestyle, the
Amish try to avoid what they consider outside negative influences.
their reasons for avoiding specific technologies should not be mistaken for a
complete shunning of all technology. For instance, some Amish are willing to use
telephones in public places, but they don't want them in their homes. And some
have adopted modern farming technologies such as milk-cooling systems. But many fruits of technology are avoided because they conflict
tenets of the Amish religion: devotion to God, separation from the outside
world, self-sufficiency and closeness to nature.8
proponent is Amish descendant
Klaus Ammann, a
field botanist and director of the Botanical Garden at the University of Bern and who spoke at the Biotechnology Industry Organization annual conference in June 2003, has firsthand knowledge of some Amish farmers'
willingness to adopt technology. He is a vocal proponent of the benefits of biotechnology and as a specialist on biosafety he says he cannot detect any reason why organic farmers should not adopt modern breeding technologies. Ammannís family is also related to Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish sect that began in Switzerland in the 17th century.
Over the years, Klaus Ammann
has developed ties with Amish communities in Pennsylvania.
"As farmers, they do not reject technology
out of hand but instead examine every innovation closely in an effort to
determine whether it might pose a danger to their religion or way of life,"
said Ammann in a 2001 International Food Policy
Research Institute conference.9
Ammann confirms that the
Amish are very curious about other technologies that might help them preserve
their farming way of life. And because of his own belief that biotechnology has
much to offer, Ammann has spoken at length about
growing biotech crops with his Amish friends.
"To my amazement, they decided to test
samples of genetically modified seeds soon afterwards," said Ammann.10
Ammann is quick to point
out, however, that not all Amish are open to biotechnology.
the key thought is that they have an active spirituality and do not depend on
any kind of 'new green religion' — they decide on their own," he said.†
For more information:
About the Future of Agriculture: Science and Fiction in the Risk Assessment
Debate — IFPRI Sustainable Food Security For All by 2020 Conference
Test Altered Crop — Associated Press
Come to LeBow Country — Wired Magazine