Opinion: Activists—not biotech companies—responsible for public backlash against GMOs

greenpeace activists protest a e

Science educator Kevin Folta recently published a blog post about the anti-GMO trolls that dog him in every online forum.

Other distinguished academics have been harassed and publicly disparaged because their research includes the tools of biotechology (genetic engineering). Some scientists fly under the radar, keeping mum about their research in hopes of avoiding the antis’ furor.

My own sister was stunned to hear about the threats and intimidation I’ve experienced as a writer criticizing and scrutinizing the anti-GMO movement, the friendships that have been strained by my stance, the vitriol that has been spewed against me.

“All that over GMOs?” she asked in bewilderment.

Yes, it is rather astonishing for people who are not in the trenches to discover the intensity that surrounds a plant breeding method — especially one that has been in use for nearly three decades, with a solid safety record.

The general public remains largely unaware of the ugliness, the cult-like operations, the slick propaganda, the near-religious fervor of the anti-GMO movement.


Why? Primarily because mainstream media outlets continue to treat anti-GMO activists like credible advocates for environmental and public health, rather than the well-funded bullies they are.

Their actions are rarely called to account; their funding sources are never scrutinized. Indeed, they’re typically not assigned any culpability at all for the contentious and largely manufactured “debate” around GMOs.

A case in point is the recent Washington Post article: “Forget GMOs. The next big battle is over genetically ‘edited’ foods.” Reporter Caitlin Dewey lays all the blame for the “unqualified public relations disaster,” the “public backlash,” the “consumer skepticism,” the global “public outcry [that] has prevented seeds from winning government approval” on industry. Or more specifically:

Since the late ’90s, when Monsanto botched the introduction of genetically modified crops in Europe, consumers have treated the term “GMO” as if it were a dirty word.

Dewey makes absolutely no mention of how Jeremy Rifkin, Greenpeace, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network and other individuals and groups have carefully, deliberately and relentlessly waged a fear-mongering campaign intended to sow public distrust of the technology.

[Read GLP profiles on Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, and Pesticide Action Network.]

genetically modified food billboard
An anti-GMO billboard produced by Center for Food Safety.

This campaign has included the production of slick propaganda in the form of videos, supposedly independent journalism produced by paid sympathizers, advertisements and a steady stream of social media memes and messages.

It has employed despicable bullying and intimidation tactics designed to silence academics, stifle research and scare prospective biotech students, college presidents and politicians.

It has used lawsuits and the threat of litigation, clandestine and undisclosed lobbying activities, and lies about health and environmental impacts to push anti-GMO legislation.

It even coined the now ubiquitous term “GMOs” as a disparaging phrase.


The public backlash against GMOs didn’t occur organically and spontaneously. It was fomented and fed by activists who were motivated by political ideology and/or financial gain, with wealthy philanthropists, anonymous donors and some elements of the organic food industry footing the bill.

Related article:  GMO crops may be necessary to counter impacts of climate change, study shows

I’ve written extensively about this, as has author Mark Lynas, a former anti who switched sides, as I did. The fear-based anti-GMO narrative has been picked up around the world not because it has any basis in reality, but because it’s been systematically pounded into the heads of people who don’t understand science.

As Mark recently noted in the new documentary Food Evolution: “It’s easier to scare people than reassure them.”

To which I would add, especially when groups and activists can make so much money and wield so much influence through fear-mongering.

I’ve documented the money flow that fueled the growth of the anti-GMO movement in Hawaii and the political power gained — at least temporarily — by the politicians who embraced its fear-based, fact-challenged mantra.

Groups like Center for Food Safety, Earthjustice and Pesticide Action Network use conflict as a business model, stirring up fears around GMOs and pesticides to attract followers and solicit donations. The organic industry also has benefitted financially from all the lies spread about crop biotech. Not to mention the Non-GMO Project, which makes money certifying that products like salt, which have never been genetically engineered, are indeed GMO-free.

[Read the GLP’s profile on the Non-GMO Project.]

As the Risk-Monger blogger noted in a Facebook post:

The global market for certified organic food is 110 billion USD; the GMO seed market is worth 40 billion USD (source: vFluence). It is indeed a David v Goliath situation, but who is the David and who is the Goliath?

Despite Caitlin Dewey’s assertion that industry’s rollout was an epic fail, agribusiness companies actually did a very good job of communicating the new technology to their customers — farmers. And farmers, especially in the US, have responded in a big way, overwhelmingly adopting genetically engineered crops that offer pest protection and/or herbicide tolerance traits.

Industry didn’t realize consumers would care — or that activists would launch a global fear-mongering campaign to derail the technology by making consumers worry about made up stuff — until it was too late.

Reporters are slowly beginning to acknowledge that public fears around GMOs are not rooted in scientific fact. But they still haven’t gotten around to telling their readers who planted and fertilized those fears.

By failing to out the activists and disclose their outsized influence on the GMO debate, they allow the fear-mongerers, demagogues and opportunists to continue their work without scrutiny or accountability.

And that’s a real shame, both in terms of honest reporting and the lost potential of agricultural biotech.

A version of this article appeared at Joan Conrow’s website as “Credit where credit is due” and has been republished here with permission from the author. 

Joan Conrow is a longtime Hawaii journalist and blogger who has written extensively about agricultural, environmental and political issues. Follow her on Twitter @joanconrow

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