he COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are part of a living, evolving ecosystem and often at its mercy. Despite all our accomplishments as a species, a virus accidentally unleashed on the world has wrought enormous destruction around the globe, the effects of which we probably will not be able to fully assess for many years. Although we cannot always anticipate the damage an infectious disease will do, our best bet at surviving the fallout is a commitment to science-based policies that fuel the development of better preventative strategies, most importantly vaccines. The same lesson extends to most environmental and public health challenges we face.
To many people, though, a vaccine isn’t a biological roadblock to the spread of infectious disease, but a scheme hatched by “Big Pharma” and their stooges in government to control humanity. It’s appropriate to maintain some skepticism of corporations and the governments that regulate them, indeed such critical thinking should be encouraged among consumers. Nevertheless, healthy skepticism and cynicism are not the same, and people must learn to distinguish the two if we are going to make progress in our never-ending battle against infectious disease and other maladies that threaten humanity.
While this sometimes seems like an impossible task to science advocates, the pro-GMO vegan community has illustrated how people with deep ideological commitments can embrace science, specifically crop biotechnology and vaccines, without compromising their personal beliefs.
If you want to convince someone to change their mind on a controversial issue, don’t attack their worldview, which all but guarantees they will dismiss your arguments as a threat to their identity. This is a lesson Vegan GMO, a small community founded by friends with a passion for animal welfare, has taken to heart. Rather than attack the ideology of their target audience, the group uses their shared beliefs to encourage acceptance of crop biotechnology and vaccines in the broader vegan community.
The vegan case against GMOs
Vegans sometimes oppose biotechnology because a particular application of the technology may be tested on animals or developed using animal products. This categorizes animals as property to be used for human benefit rather than sentient, living beings—an outlook many vegans find abhorrent.
But vegans do not just make animal-welfare arguments, they often rely on anti-GMO misinformation, like the long-debunked link between consuming GM crops and developing liver and kidney problems. Popular veganism proponents such as retired activist Gary Yourofsky have also latched onto “playing God” arguments based on the assumption that natural food is better food. “God made a tomato perfectly when he created it. Leave it at that,” he argued during a 2015 interview. “Stop altering tomatoes, stop altering everything on this planet. It’s fine the way it was created.”
Jayson Merkley, a pro-GMO vegan and fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, says the answer to this sort of rhetoric is simple: stop testing GM crops on animals, which is sometimes required before a new product can enter the food supply. This simple change in the GM crop approval process would discourage vegans from repeating pseudo-scientific anti-GMO arguments to defend their position on animal welfare.
This may raise concerns about untested products getting into our food supply, but there is little need to worry. After more than two decades of research from around the world, we know that genetically engineered crops—even insect-resistant plants (Bt corn, cotton etc.) that contain natural pesticides—are just as safe as conventional varieties, and more animal feeding studies are therefore unnecessary. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies that regulate GM crops evaluate the safety of new products using a rigorous series of tests based on a concept called “substantial equivalence,” which is designed to demonstrate that the novel food item contains the same levels of macro- and micro-nutrients, anti-nutrients and potentially toxic molecules as its already approved non-GM counterpart. If there is no significant difference, the GM food is considered safe for consumption.
Moreover, crops developed through new breeding techniques like CRISPR generally do not contain “foreign” DNA from another species, as their GMO predecessors did. Regulators in the US, Canada and many Latin America countries therefore do not mandate the same burdensome review process before approving these plants. Instead, the new crops follow the same regulatory path as conventionally bred crops, which typically does not include animal testing. The one exception may be when a brand new trait is introduced into a food crop. As with vaccines (which we’ll examine below), animal testing may be necessary in this case. But this is the exception that confirms the rule we’ve laid out above.
Ironically enough, conventional and organic crops may pose a potentially greater health risk since they are the result of far less precise plant breeding techniques, though of course no approved food is considered harmful and no one is demanding animal feeding studies for organic or conventional crops.
But we can take the argument one step further. Unnatural Vegan, a popular YouTube-based science communicator (and former GMO skeptic), says her vegan allies could better promote animal welfare by parting ways with the anti-biotech movement, which in many cases lobbies for animal testing of GM plants no matter how extensive the evidence supporting their safety.
GMOs promote animal welfare
Eliminating animal feeding studies for GM crops is not the only way vegans can be encouraged to accept science. Simply educating them about how genetic engineering has already alleviated animal suffering is another useful strategy. Merkley likes to tell his GMO-skeptical vegan friends that insulin, previously harvested from slaughtered cows and pigs, is now produced via fermentation. Scientists transfer the DNA that controls insulin production from human pancreas cells into bacteria, which then multiply and produce vast quantities of the hormone to treat diabetics.
As a matter of social justice, it is important to mention that creating transgenic insulin does not guarantee all diabetics equal access to the drug, which is still costly for reasons beyond the scope of this article. But this animal-free production method calmed fears of a possible insulin shortage years ago, making its introduction an important step forward for health care and, for the vegans reading this, animal welfare.
COVID-19 vaccines and animal testing
Harmonizing the vegan community’s stance on vaccines and animal rights has been one of the more challenging tasks for science advocates in the vegan world. The answer you get on vaccines often depends on who are you asking, but in general terms, the use of animals in vaccine development and testing is still a point of contention for many vegans. In a debate over the ethics of vaccines published in Vegan Life Magazine, the skeptical side was dominated by people who said they avoid using animals, including medicine that has been tested on animals. But as with GM crops, the rhetoric here was bolstered by traditional anti-immunization arguments, namely that vaccines are the product of a huge pharmaceutical industry that favors profit over health.
Animal testing may no longer be needed as vaccine science evolves. Right now, though, animal testing is necessary to guarantee the safety and efficacy of vaccines for humans. That said, many vegans have taken a nuanced stance on this difficult issue by prioritizing their values. Yes, animal testing is frowned upon, they say, but the current pandemic has reminded us why vaccination is so important. Several vegan associations have made public statements to that end, encouraging their supporters to prioritize their well-being (after all, humans are animals, too!) as a means of advancing their ideological goals.
The Vegan Society, for instance, released a statement in December 2020 encouraging its members “to look after their health and that of others, in order to continue to be effective advocates for veganism and other animals.” By encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their actions and inviting them to make informed decisions about vaccines, the society’s position matches Merkley’s take on vaccines:
We have a strong moral obligation to our communities to be vaccinated to prevent illness. [Taking] medication doesn’t make you less vegan, and I don’t think we need to tolerate ableist views that say otherwise …. Because veganism is viewed as a movement toward the liberation of both human and non-human animals …. this is not a contradiction.
The goal of being vegan and advocating for animal rights should always be to bring about positive change for animals. As long as tests on animals are a legal requirement, refusing to take a medicine on ethical grounds will not help animals who have already been used in tests or spare any the same fate in the future.
The greater risk: myths and conspiracy theories
Science denialism has created an alternative reality where climate change does not exist, GMOs are a colonialist plot to control developing countries, and vaccines are poison pushed by “Big Pharma” to make a profit. These are not just fringe internet conspiracies; they are grave threats to the advances in medicine and agriculture that allow more people to live longer, healthier lives. We have to discredit these conspiracies before they do more damage to public trust in science.
As our pro-GMO vegan friends have demonstrated, the best way to do that is to change the minds of people who find fringe ideas compelling, using their own values to do it. The alternative is to let dangerous misinformation spread unchallenged. Having lived through a pandemic made worse by rampant junk science, we know where that leads.
Luis Ventura is a biologist with expertise in biotechnology, biosafety and science communication, born and raised in a small town near Mexico City. He is a Plant Genetic Resources International Platform Fellow at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Follow him on Twitter @luisventura