Jun 14 2016

GMOs – Have We Turned a Corner?

gmo cornScientific skeptics spend a great deal of their time and effort fighting against pseudoscience, ideology, and entrenched beliefs. This can be a frustrating effort, given that such beliefs tend not to be based in scientific thinking in the first place. It can be so frustrating that Marc Crislip chose as the symbol for the Society for Science-Based Medicine an image of Sisyphys endlessly pushing a rock up hill.

I do think we are having a significant impact on culture, the media, and the bigger conversation on scientific issues, but it is hard to measure, and sometimes even perceive, that impact. The noise of pseudoscience can seem overwhelming. We are mostly left to imagine that the situation would be much worse without our efforts and take comfort in small victories.

This is why I took notice of a recent article by Risk-Monger that claims we have changed the dynamic with respect to public opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He makes an interesting case that there has been a “Surprisingly Sudden Demise of the Anti-GMO Movement.” Here is his summary of the evidence:

– A year ago, the anti-GMO pro-labelling campaign in the US, which guaranteed no negative consequences, was occupying the common-sense middle ground.
Today, we are beginning to notice that food manufacturers like Hershey’s, in moving from GMO sugar beets to non-GMO sugar cane to avoid public concerns about GMOs, were causing significant environmental and social destruction.
– A year ago, the media were jumping on reports that regulators were not sharing all of the evidence on GM research, bees and pesticides.
Today, following a report from the US National Academies of Science that gave GMOs a very positive scorecard (after consulting over 900 publications), even the most campaign-driven UK news-source, the Guardian, had to conclude that in the EU: “We can no longer afford to turn our backs on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in our fields in coming years.”
– A year ago, pro-organic Mommy bloggers like Mamavation or the Food Babe were ruling the PR playing field on social media, increasing referral revenues, getting prime-time coverage and winning corporate capitulations in a heartbeat.
Today, Vani Hari’s FoodBabeArmy has mutinied, with her social media interaction dropping like a stone and her Facebook likes stuck at a growth rate of less than 0.2% weekly increase over the last three months.
– A year ago, I could not get anyone interested in the story of IARC’s conflict of interest and non-transparency scandal behind their glyphosate monograph pronouncing the herbicide probably carcinogenic. For a year, NGOs and activist scientists were abusing the hazard classification as a campaign tool with IARC even getting into the Brussels mud pit, unprofessionally attacking EU scientific organisations.
Today, IARC has been discredited by the WHO and FAO, countries like France are still opposed to glyphosate but admit it is not on grounds of it being a carcinogen and the anti-GMO activists are fighting a battle without scientific evidence. This week, on May 27, IARC’s expected pronouncement that coffee is carcinogenic will be met with chuckles.
– A year ago, the idea of new GMOs coming onto the market seemed an impossibility given the negative populist narrative and the regulatory minefields.
Today, not only has GM salmon just been approved in Canada without public controversy but now New Plant Breeding Techniques are inspiring the public to see the potential of agricultural sciences in solving pressing global food security issues. Groups like Greenpeace and Big Organic are in disarray on how to respond to NBTs.
– A year ago, the March Against Monsanto attracted families and public figures to marches in the thousands around the world.
Today, the march was cancelled in some cities out of lack of interest, attracted only dozens in others like my town of Brussels and seemed to rely on nutter issues like the opposition to vaccines and chemtrails to fill the ranks.

He makes some compelling points, but I am not ready to celebrate yet. I think, in essence, skeptics have picked the low-hanging fruit when it comes to GMOs. The anti-GMO movement had free rein for the first 15 years of their campaign. During that time, unopposed, I think they got intellectually lazy. As a result the anti-GMO campaign is filled with obvious lies, distortions, fraud, and pseudoscience.

Then we started to notice and pick off those obvious lies and distortions. When some serious journalists started looking at what was then a controversy, they did not find a balanced case of he-said, she-said, but rather that the anti-GMO position was a house of cards that quickly collapsed under the slightest journalistic scrutiny.

Here is my quick summary of the most obvious lies:

  • Monsanto (anti-GMO’s demon) does not sue farmers for accidental contamination. They only pursue cases in which farmers have deliberately violated contracts and challenged their patents.
  • GMOs are not linked to farmer suicide in India.
  • Terminator seeds were never developed or marketed.
  • Farmers generally do not save their seeds, and they cannot save and replant hybrid seeds, which already comprise the vast majority of farming (essentially, if a crop is not GMO it is probably a hybrid).
  • While seed companies were restricting research, that is mostly no longer the case, as they have come up with an agreement with academic researchers.
  • GMOs currently on the market are completely safe, and there is no specific reason to suspect that GM technology itself poses any unique risk, or greater risk than other methods such as mutation farming or forced hybridization.
  • Fully half of the published studies on GMOs were independently carried out, not controlled by industry.

Further, it became more clear that the Organic food industry was the major force behind the anti-GMO campaign, essentially looking out for their own financial interests. Meanwhile, organic growers can use seeds created by mutation farming with mutagens and even radioactivity. They can use toxic pesticides. Organic farming is likely worse for the environment, in addition to requiring more land for the same amount of food.

In addition, anti-GMO opposition to Golden Rice and other GMOs that are designed to enhance nutrition made them look like heartless fanatics. These GMOs have the potential to save and improve lives in impoverished areas. Many consider fanatical opposition to these humanitarian efforts morally reprehensible.

All of this means that a reasonable person looking at the evidence should at least have some questions about the anti-GMO position. Further, as Risk-Monger points out, even the seemingly soft position of “just label it” has taken a hit. Fearmongering about GMOs leads to perverse actions by companies that harm the environment.

While I think we have made tremendous progress getting the word out and changing the conversation on GMOs, now is not the time to lessen our efforts. There is still a billion dollar organic industry with its sights on GMOs. Public opinion is slow to change, and there is already some momentum in the political effort to further demonize GMOs through mandatory labeling.

We have pushed the anti-GMO position a bit to the fringe, and exposed their soft underbelly, but now we have to keep up the pressure all the more. We have history to inform us on this. We have managed to push things like homeopathy to the fringe (although we still have a lot of work there as well), and yet homeopathy survives as a multi-billion dollar industry enjoying lax regulations. We have knocked down attempts by the anti-vaccine movement to rise above the conspiracy fringe, but this is an endless game of whack-a-mole.

So, while I appreciate the words of encouragement, and I agree we have made progress, now, in my opinion, the real work begins. The anti-GMO movement will likely just retool itself with more subtle (but just as wrong) arguments and positions. Their efforts may move more underground, not shouting from the rooftops, but lobbying state legislatures below the radar.

If we have turned a corner (and perhaps we have) it is just to round 2. The fight must continue.

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