“Sir, I am afraid for my life and future, afraid because March Against Monsanto has threatened me and my community,” Navid Rakotofala told me amidst a fury of reactions to his unconventional expose prank to explore just how outrageously far “mainstream” anti-GMO activists would go to to spread their message.
Navid is my protege at the University of Toliara in the southwest of Madagascar. He doesn’t attend the university but he has assisted me as a volunteer to translate my courses for over a year now. In exchange, I’ve helped him improve his English by teaching him about the growing field of psychology of science (POS); that is, how our brains create and relate to this thing we call science. There’s no better way to teach POS than to contrast unhealthy and healthy scientific discourse. In my personal opinion, there are few examples of unhealthy science discourse more clear than the extreme vocalists of the anti-biotechnology movement.
Well, Navid took my message to heart, and despite my concerns, he created quite the prank to coincide with the May 30 March Against Monsanto to challenge the way the group’s supporters engage this issue. They often seem more interested in promoting their views regardless of whether the science is behind them or whether people will actually be helped by what they are advocating. He set up an intriguing hoax to evaluate their sincerity. The fall out from this teen’s hijinx are extremely telling, and should serve as a clarion call to those open to reconsidering their scientific and ethical positions on genetic engineering. Navid’s project speaks for itself, let me just share some highlights from how this extremist group responded.
Madagascar is not much involved in this debate. We don’t have any approved genetically modified crops but our impoverished country might benefit greatly if Golden Rice or other enhanced GMO products were approved. For the most part, we are observers to what seems like a loud and often silly debate about GM safety. In the days before the global event, Navid set up a fake blogspot, a fictitious Madagascar branch of the March Against Monsanto.
Navid begins his prank
Over the following days, he started posting anti-GMO and anti-Monsanto manifestoes. Here are his outrageous posts that he put up in the days before the March. Click on a tile to view full-size.
Navid then started posting pictures of his friends whom he had given anti-GMO signs, each more outrageous then the next. “I made the signs and gave them to my friends to see what your group would say,” he would later write to the March Against Monsanto leaders. Click on each tile to view full-size.
Finally, the big day arrived and Navid detailed the fictitious Madagascar March Against Monsanto in lurid detail, making sure to hit all the inflammatory notes that anti-GMO activists strike on their websites.
Navid would later write: “My teacher (who does not agree with this project because of the trickery) told me that your group will accept almost anything regardless of the scientific process, this was my experiment to see if he is correct.” Was Navid’s cynicism warranted?
Anti-GMO protestors’ reactions
Judge for yourself. The reaction to the evolving hoax was fascinating—and disturbing. Anti-GMO protestors around the world had picked up on Navid’s pseudo-campaign, reposting his pictures and putting up posts of their own stating that it was better that people go blind than to support the growing of genetically modified vitamin A enhanced Golden Rice—developed not by Monsanto but by a devoted team of independent scientists and foundations donating their time and expertise—that health experts say could save millions from blindness and death.
The anti-GMOers parroted the words of Trierry Vrain, a former Canadian biotech researcher who has gone rogue, and is now committed to gutting the development of Golden Rice and other independent, life-saving independent GMO innovations.
Navid reveals his prank
By this time, Navid had had enough. It was time for him to end the deception. This is what he wrote on his blog :
To my new friends from March Against Monsanto:
I apologize, I have tricked you for many days now, and I must now stop because I am getting scared of your community, and even though I do not respect your ways, you are humans and I feel bad tricking you into thinking I am one of your group. You mean well, but you are not using science in a good way to help Madagascar.
There was no March Against Monsanto (MAM) in Madagascar. I made the signs and gave them to my friends to see what your group would say. My teacher (who does not agree with this project because of the trickery) told me that your group will accept almost anything regardless of the scientific process, this was my experiment to see if he is correct. In my opinion, he is correct, and your group should not have the same respect as people who are careful about their science. When we talk about science, we must be very careful how we use peoples emotions, otherwise it is manipulation.
Below I will put the pictures from our fake protest and write my real thoughts. During this experiment I was encouraged and instructed by MAM organizers to destroy or damage golden rice experiments. I was encouraged to allow locusts to eat all our food crops instead of allowing the emergency use of insecticides (this is a very difficult problem for the Malagasy people!). The signs and “memes” below were made to have no factual truth and are very offensive to many Malagasy people, and yet you shared them, you say you will use them in your marketing, and you encouraged me to take more pictures of “people with diseases” to spread your message. You encouraged me to mistrust a man from the USA who starts organic school gardens here, just because he also thinks that agriculture is complicated and biotechnologies might be able to help us. You encouraged me to stop working with this man and focus instead on vandalizing my imaginary gold rice experiments. This was offensive and unpleasant for me to experience.
My experiment was also a failure in another way. I made my signs in a way that I thought was so extreme and offensive that they would be rejected by your community. Instead, all of the signs received compliments, and I could not think of anything more extreme until I searched your own website! My signs were untrue, offensive, and even incoherent or contradictory – but after my experiment, when I look at your websites I ask myself “What is the difference?”.
For Madagascar, I think we will be better off if we have nothing to do with March Against Monsanto. I think Monsanto is probably not a good company. I do not know if biotechnology will be good for Madagascar. One thing that I do know is that March Against Monsanto is not an organization that is able to help the Malagasy people learn about the risks and benefits of biotechnology in any meaningful way. Thank you for keeping your signs and “memes” out of our country, we welcome you back when you learn about what science is.
What follows is Navid’s photo expose—his key postings and his commentaries about each of them. Click on each tile to view full-size.
Navid had had enough of the protestors’ callousness and willingness to exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor and helpless. “There are many more things I could tell you about my experiment to see what it is like in the extremist anti-science group #MarchAgainstMonsanto,” Navid wrote, “but I think the examples above give an example of how this group is willing to spread bad information at any cost.”
Anti-GMO protestors’ fallout and backlash
What happened when Navid revealed the hoax–confessing who he was, what he had done and why? The fallout from his trickery has intense. After Navid asked March Against Monsanto activists to stop their anti-science propaganda approach, the very first response was a diatribe from a prominent activist in Amsterdam who threatened the young Malagasy boy, writing he was now “forced” to launch an investigation into the funding of Navid’s school system. Navid, he wrote, had served “a dis-justice [to himself] but also [to his] community. I for one take this personally as I am sure others will.” He said was going to try to get Navid’s and the school’s funding revoked.
Perhaps this European MAM activist was unaware of the school-funding crisis in Madagascar and how callous his threat was. Perhaps he is unaware of the complex socio-dynamics of a white man threatening a young Malagasy student. Regardless, Navid is now safely with his family in the remote and impoverished southwestern bush. I need only hint at the blinding irony of a MAM organizer claiming that someone else’s activism is too personal! Look in the mirror much?
Other activists claimed that Monsanto must have been behind this trickery. Then they pointed a finger at me, that I must be the “biotechnology fat cat” who put this little bird in Navid’s ear. I’ve had a least one MAM organizer troll through seemingly every post I’ve ever made, leaving nasty messages all over my Facebook account, accusing me of trying to destroy the national parks of Madagascar.
Justice for Navid
Let me conclude by outlining why MAM’s thinking here is so funny, sad and dangerous. Navid needs your help to get some justice!
My paltry educational lab in Toliara, the Positive Education Action-Research (PEAR) Laboratory, is a fully volunteer effort to date. Okay, full disclosure, I received a paltry ~$200 USD in honorarium from the University of Toliara twice over two years, but that was certainly not from Monsanto. My efforts have focused on civic education and science education, most recently partnering with the university’s new agricultural research farm to chart a path towards organic school and community-based gardens, along with applied research in organic or non-GMO seed saving trials. I am formerly a certified organic vegetable gardener and grass-fed beef producer in Maine and Pennsylvania. I am a supporter of organic farming who holds a very moderate position on “GMOs in Madagascar”. I approach the issue from the psychology of science field, assuming all humans are fail-able to the evolved emotional reasoning systems of our minds, myself most stringently included.
My moderate position combined with Navid’s appeal to reason have lead to a smattering of personal insults I find deplorable (and this despite my original disapproval of Navid’s trickery, and despite MAM organizers issuing a surprising call for silence among their ranks – embarrassed that their leadership has seemingly threatened Navid’s non-existent school funding!).
With all this noisy drama it is easy to forget the real point of Navid’s guerilla activism; he had one simple and clear request that MAM and the Anti-GMO crowd have yet to address:
“Please stop using the non-scientific and inflammatory approach of spreading false information about genetically modified crops and attacking people personally.”
It’s fine to be against Monsanto if that’s what you believe; it’s fine to believe that biotechnology doesn’t have all the answers we need. In fact it doesn’t. What isn’t fine is to create a political machine with an organizational culture designed around the antithesis of what we know about the healthy role of science. What isn’t fine is to idelogically engage with impressionable youth in the most impoverished regions in the world, and allow junk science or non-science to flow free while authentic education remains scarce.
The keyword here is capacity. We can either build capacity or squander it, the MAM approach offers nothing but a divisive waste of energy. The March Against Monsanto leadership directed Navid to destroy imaginary Golden Rice fields while denigrating my efforts in teaching my students about organic agriculturre because I was a falsely cast as a biotech fat cat.
Madagascar deserves far better, the Atsimo Andrefana region doesn’t have time to make signs and spout nonsense; we need everyone at the table using real science to find real solutions. Everyone should be able to agree to that.
Navid’s project has been a true wake-up call to me regarding how extremist and anti-science the anti-biotechnology movement leadership has become. It may be impossible to change minds, but perhaps Navid’s simple plea, “please, stop using this approach”, is something we can ask, and ask, and ask of the anti-GMO activists until they do?
Dustin Eirdosh, research director, The Positive Education Action-Research (PEAR) Laboratory, Faculty of Life Science