The GLP is committed to full transparency. Download and review our Annual Report.

With Will Saletan’s Slate takedown of anti-GMOers, liberal debate about GMO benefits now over

| July 16, 2015

It has not been a good year for the fast shrinking core of fervent anti-GMO activists who continue to maintain that crop and animal biotechnology is dangerous or offers no sustainability benefits or is not a powerful tool to address global food needs.

Sure, there are still high profile opponents and enablers, such as Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Organic, once respected for his integrity and independence, but now a poster child for quack science; Michael Pollan, the foodie who apparently feels obliged to share with his hundreds of thousands of followers every crackpot anti-GMO study that shows up up on Greenpeace’s website; black swan economist Nassem Taleb, who has no background in science, let alone genetics, yet continues to promote doomsday GMO scenarios; and sure, even once admired organizations like Consumer Reports and the Union of Concerned Science, which have doubled down on their selective anti-GMO rants.

But the island of opposition amongst respected skeptics, once Australia-sized, now looks little more like a shrinking archipelago. The former majority has been abandoned by their spokespeople and allies. Mark Lynas flipped back to science on this issue a few years ago, followed most recently by Bill Nye. Every major liberal media outlet of note in the United States, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Scientific American and even USA Today have abandoned the leaky anti-GMO ship, and also come out strongly against GMO labeling, calling it, in the words of Scientific American, a “bad idea.”

Something tangible has changed, and it’s permanent. No more indulging the fringe. Until this year, the liberal chattering classes remained doggedly anti-GMO, or at least skeptical to a fault, wrapping their views in the anti-corporate rhetoric that has always played well in Hollywood and the salons of Boston. But not today. With the publication on July 15 of William Saletan’s deep dive in Slate into anti-GMO hypocrisy and deviousness–these are not my characterizations but his–anti-GMOers stand naked and alone, sounding like anti-science cranks, and dangerous ones to boot.

The subtitle to Saletan’s Slate piece, “Unhealthy Fixation“, says it all: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.”

Believe it not, belying the title, the tone of the piece is moderate to a fault. Saletan’s critique is all substance. It’s such a sad and scary story, because the anti-GMO holdouts, like jihadists who believe they are on the side of god, are actually on a societal suicide mission with the more vulnerable and science as their targets.

Yes, Gary Hirshberg, Michael Pollan, Nassem Taleb, Consumer Reports, Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace: you have blood on your hands. Literally.

Here are some highlights:

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering.

Saletan analyzes three major controversies, showing how the anti-GMO activists, with Greenpeace as the global icon for disinformation, advance arguments that slip and slide and flip backwards and against themselves, because they are driven not by science nor a respect for empirical facts, and not even by ideology for that would suggest some kind of intellectual consistency and integrity; no, they are just small minded and ignorant, and their campaigns hurt people. They are not the ‘good guys’; they are the reactionaries

Related article:  Got soy? Consumer Reports drives off anti-science, anti-GMO cliff savaging conventional soy milk

The Papaya Triumph

Today the GE papaya is a triumph. It saved the industry. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The papaya, having defeated the virus, barely survived a campaign to purge GE crops from Hawaii. The story of that campaign teaches a hard lesson: No matter how long a GMO is eaten without harming anyone, and no matter how many studies are done to demonstrate its safety, there will always be skeptics who warn of unknown risks.

Some people, to this day, believe GE papayas are dangerous. They want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.

Organics Are Not Safer

[Labels] are the fundamental flaw in the anti-GMO movement. It only pretends to inform you. When you push past its dogmas and examine the evidence, you realize that the movement’s fixation on genetic engineering has been an enormous mistake. The principles it claims to stand for—environmental protection, public health, community agriculture—are better served by considering the facts of each case than by treating GMOs, categorically, as a proxy for all that’s wrong with the world. That’s the truth, in all its messy complexity. Too bad it won’t fit on a label.

Golden Rice: A Humanitarian Project Zealots Hate

There’s no end to the arguments and demands of anti-GMO watchdogs. They want more studies—“systematic trials with different cooking processes”—to see how much vitamin A the rice delivers. They want studies to assess how much beta carotene the rice loses when stored at various temperatures. If the rice delivers enough vitamin A, they say that’s a problem, too, because people won’t feel the need to eat other plants and will consequently develop other kinds of malnutrition. They claim that criminals will counterfeit the rice, using yellow spices or naturally yellow grains, so people will think they’re getting vitamin A when they aren’t.

Sixteen years after it was invented, Golden Rice still isn’t commercially available. Two years ago anti-GMO activists destroyed a field trial of the rice in the Philippines. Last year they filed a petition to block all field tests and feeding studies. Greenpeace boasted, “After more than 10 years of research ‘Golden’ Rice is nowhere near its promise to address Vitamin A Deficiency.” And a million more kids are dead.

Run, don’t walk, to read the entire piece. It deserves, and will get, serious consideration for every major journalism prize available. I’ll let Saletan summarize his masterpiece:

On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public. The only way to end this fight is to educate ourselves and make it clear to everyone—European governments, trend-setting grocers, fad-hopping restaurant chains, research universities, and biotechnology investors—that we’re ready, as voters and consumers, to embrace nutritious, environmentally friendly food, no matter where it got its genes. We want our GMOs. Now, show us what you can do.

Read William Saletan’s “Unhealthy Fixation: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.

Send this to a friend