Tale of a GMO protest: Pro and anti-biotech activists illustrate ideological, financial divide

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I had the chance to hear Jayson Merkley speak at the United Nations last November. An extremely humble man, he spoke of the guilt he felt for speaking out against agricultural biotechnology before actually reviewing the science. A proud member of Vegan GMO, which believes that science innovations, such as growing biotech crops, helps create a more sustainable and healthier food and farming system. He has become a science communicator advocating for biotechnology.

Like many people in this growing grassroots movement, Jayson recently found himself facing criticism from those who disapprove of GMOs. In early March, Jayson discovered that Vandana Shiva would be speaking at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Shiva has long been an outspoken critic of modern agriculture, and what she seems to view as a loss of culture in her home country of India and a proliferation of corporate interests.

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Vandana Shiva averting her eyes from the demonstration.

Unfortunately Shiva sees biotech crops as a symbol of her concerns, even though not all such crops involve corporations. This is especially evident by the fact that all of her current complaints about biotech crops were once used against traditional hybrids prior to the introduction of biotech in India. (I emailed Shiva requesting a comment on the demonstration at her event, but have not received a response.) 

Acting quickly with the help of March Against Myths About Modification, Jayson organized a group for a demonstration the night of the event. “I contacted people I knew in Portland who had been involved with the MAMyths protest last May,” he explained to me. “Most of them are involved with a group called PDX Skeptics in the Pub, which is just a monthly meet up for skeptics. They made up the bulk of the protesters who showed up.”

You can read more about his experience on the Cornell Alliance For Science blog. “Mark Lynas suggested to me that I should blog about the event,” the biotech activist told me. Lynas is an environmental journalist who once destroyed biotech crops, and is now known for what he calls his conversion to science; he is now an outspoken supporter of biotechnology and a visiting fellow with the Cornell Alliance For Science, “an initiative for science-based agricultural communications that is focused on the global public good”.

Jayson knew Lynas from Cornell because Jayson was a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow, which offered training to participants from around the world in “foundational skills and practical tools to lead advocacy efforts in their local contexts”, and received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This funding from the Gates Foundation has lead to criticism of the Alliance from many biotechnology critics. Global Justice Now described the work of the Gates Foundation as a “ a Trojan horse” designed to force governments to “open the door to cultivating GM crops.” Stacey Malkan of USRTK, funded by more than $200,000 by the Organic Consumers Association and Dr. Bronner’s, an organic soap maker who has funded anti-GMO protests and GMO labeling initiatives, described the Alliance as “messaging for corporate interests” .

Jayson recently found himself the target of a recent piece by Malkan, which alleged that his protest against Shiva was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Malkan did not attempt to reach out to anyone actually involved with the protest.

Related article:  Real story of anti-GMO sensation Rachel Parent: Idealist or pawn of 'natural' marketers?

“Everything we had was paid out of pocket by ourselves, including the gas to get there, the poster board and markers for the signs, everything,” Jayson informed me. “We didn’t have any funding from anyone. Period. The organization for this thing was all me. I heard about it exactly one week before the event and did everything I could to organize a response. I was the only person at the protest who had been at the fellowship last fall.” 

Lauren Uhde, known on Facebook and Twitter as Biology Babe, was also present at the demonstration. Like Jayson, she too was taken aback by Malkan’s attack. “I wish I got paid, but I didn’t! For god’s sakes I’m holding a piece of printer paper with marker on it, and a sign someone loaned me from the last Portland MAMyths event,” Lauren wrote on her Facebook page.

This is not to say that the Cornell Alliance For Science discourages fellows from expressing their opinions; much the opposite. I organized a counter-protest to the Food Justice March in Washington allong with Anastasia Bodnar, a scientist and co-founder of Biology Fortified; writer Jenny Splitterand “Science Mom” Natalie Newell. I reached out to Mark Lynas to see if he would be interested in coming to DC. He connected me with a group of Alliance for Science fellows who had come down for the weekend, arriving in a cramped van, with just enough money for one night. The signs they held were made by Iowa Meets Maui blogger Rhonda Stoltzfus’ children; her family happened to be visiting DC on vacation during our previous demonstration, and joined us. We were a straggly group of protestors.

The anti-GMO march was just the opposite; it was supported by critics of conventional foods and farming, especially those who might gain financially from demonizing GMO crops and food. At the Food Justice March, free samples of granola bars from Dr. Mercola, who runs a large quack ‘natural’ site on the web, were distributed; Dr. Group of the Global Healing Center gave a long speech; and Adam Eidinger was there representing Dr. Bronner’s. Eidinger is Dr. Bronner’s Director of Social Action, and is actually paid to hold such anti-GMO protests around the country. We were shocked to overhear him asking for someone from Virginia because Gary Ruskin (also of USRTK) needed a Virginia resident to file a FOIA request.

It is my hope that Malkan and US Right To Know will amend their article, as many of us have been asking them to do on Twitter. We could all learn  from the Alliance For Science — who regularly invites biotech critics to speak — and science supporters like Jayson who are committed to open communication with those who disagree with him.

Stephan Neidenbach is a middle school teacher, husband, and father living in Annapolis, MD. He holds a BS in business administration from Salisbury University and a MS in Instructional Technology from University of Maryland University College. He started and runs the Facebook page We Love GMOs and Vaccines, follow him on twitter @welovegv.

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