who will save us from the gmo monster?

June 7, 2012 — 3 Comments

A while ago, I wrote about anti-science attitudes on the far left being just as strong as on the far right, with only a few strains of them being called out because the anti-science on the far left is seldom as organized as creationism and religious morality movements. For an example of this anti-sceince, I followed up with a post on a popular article boiling over with pretentious New Age drivel and compared it to creationist rhetoric for a little study of just how unsettlingly similar the tactics of modern woo-meisters and fundamentalist zealots can be when they’re proselytizing. Now, thanks to a post from UK science blogger Martin Robbins, we can have a look at another example of anti-science on the far left, a theme it treats in much the same way that the far right treats global warming. I’m talking about genetically modified foods, the research avenue despised by a whole lot of environmental activists with such fervor that they destroy experimental crops, threaten researchers, and hold rallies protesting what they ironically call "Frankenfoods" in reference to a creature killed not by a callous scientist who thought human life had no value, but by angry and ignorant villagers who saw it as a threat.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room straight away. Genetically modified foods hold potential for some very real abuse by companies who will own the patents on them and there are certain companies that engage in very unethical business practices when it comes to selling GM crops, just like there are companies that will engage in unethical practices in any industry and put profit over safety, customers, and basic decency. But the actions of the companies that do or would abuse GM crop technology don’t mean that modifying crops to have greater yield or be more resistant to certain pests in their environment is invalid. We’ve been modifying staple foods for millennia, steering the evolution of the crop species we farm by artificial selection and now, we have the tools to directly inject the changes we want. But surely that means we could inject something horrible into the crops’ genomes, something that could kill us all or cause cancer, right? We ran the same risk by tweaking how crops grow in the past because we had no way to analyze what they really did during our manipulation of their environment and couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t spawn a dangerous toxin. Of course we could have an expert try to address the environmental activists’ concerns about this. Oh wait, no, no we can’t.

… Nor did [the protestors at Rothamsted] want to listen to any scientists: an attempt by researcher Jules Bristow to ask for a right of reply was met with “we’ve heard it all before” after which she was loudly shushed. (After I’d left a few people came over for more constructive chats, but they seem to have been very much in the minority.) Debate was unwelcome for the most part. [S]cientists were just another part of the [GMO] conspiracy, and placards took absolute positions like “Nature does it better” — try telling that to plague victims, or anyone with wisdom teeth.

Hmm, I wonder where the idea of scientists being sinister conspirators propagating lies for profit was just as popular? Oh right, with global warming conspiracy theorists who believe that a UN-led New World Order is out to steal their homes and turn them into farming co-ops, you know, just like those dang commies would do if they won the Cold War. Real science is rarely completely cut and dry on every possible issue and there’s always a gotcha, a rounding error, or a model that needs to be corrected, which is why an ideologue can take something that sounds vaguely scientific and run with it to justify a particular fear or push a pet agenda which may or may not actually follow what the scientific consensus actually says. This is how warnings that what we emit into the air is raising global average temperatures and that this requires our attention gets turned into an urgent call to go 100% renewable and green tomorrow or the Global Warming Monster will rip your face off or play hacky sack with your spleen on one side, and witch hunts to root out those behind the conspiracy to undermine America’s sovereignty and defraud taxpayers with bogus studies on the other. Likewise, the last word on GMOs is twisted to mean that greedy international conglomerates are paying scientists to justify their scheme to poison billions of people for fun and profit.

Of course GM foods are not a panacea for hunger in the developing world, that’s a far more complex issue in the first place, but they have their uses and research into their creation and safety should happen without the threat of Luddite vandals demolishing the research specimens just like the ignorant villagers killed a bizarre creature they didn’t understand and which, with the right safeguards and care, may have offered new ideas to defeating death were it to be handled by experts. Do we know everything about how GMOs reproduce or how safe they are? No. But we don’t know everything there is to know about the organic food that so many virulently anti-GMO protesters eagerly inhale at the dinner table and recommend as the ultimate goal of all farming. We need to continue experimenting with GM crops to find answers to the difficult questions that anti-GMO crowds raise. But of course these activists don’t really care about the answers. They’re too busy projecting their fear of profit-minded corporate malfeasance into the GM debate, just like global warming denialists are busy trying to project their fear of socialism and international legal bodies into climate models…

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  • Brett

    I wonder why it became so virulent in Europe, but not elsewhere (and not really in the US). My earlier theory was that GMO anxiety was present because people don’t see real, clear advantages in further gains in agricultural productivity and thus tend to dwell on any and all forms of danger, but that doesn’t really explain the differences between countries on the issue.

    My best guess is that part of the anarchist Left in Europe got shaped by the environmental movement’s emergence in the 1970s, and translated their anti-corporate and anti-authority ideologies into new “eco-friendly” clothes. Said Left was always much stronger in Europe, and combined with the factor I mentioned in the first paragraph to create intense fear about GMO crops among part of the population.

    Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t throw too many stones. Does most of Europe (aside from the UK) have the same weird anti-vaccination paranoia that percolates in part of the US? We’ve got our bizarre “contamination” paranoiac phenomena as well.

  • Badbass

    While I have no problem with genetically altered foods, I do fear abuse of the patent system. Take Monsanto, for example. They own 100% of all grain seeds in North America. Yes, they are altered and patented, to resist their most widely known product. Roundup. If you farm, don’t dare reclaim your fall seeds, you will be prosecuted, for patent infringement, and be blacklisted to all seed suppliers. Who does this benefit, besides Monsanto, and how? If you want to better the world’s food supply, you shouldn’t use such draconian measures to impose upon it. As a reference, Colin Powell was the lead attorney in filing the patent, and the iron fisted way in which it is applied. And he got a cool government job after that. Who’s stroking who here, folks? Like I said, it’s not the process, it’s abuse of the patent system.

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