Jul 27 2018

A Look Inside the Anti-GMO Movement

A recent EU court ruling on GMO regulations might just hoist the anti-GMO movement on its own petard. The ruling covers so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). I am not exactly clear on the full scope of what counts as an NPBT, but it does include CRISPR. Some reports also say it includes “mutagenesis plant breeding techniques.”

Part of the problem with the anti-GMO movement is that what counts as a GMO is vague and arbitrary. If you follow organic policy, GMO’s include any form of gene editing, but not mutation breeding (using chemicals or radiation to increase the rate of random mutations in plants). In fact scientific critics of the anti-GMO movement having repeatedly pointed this out as a glaring contradiction – opposing precise single gene changes, but not random mutations.

This ruling by an EU court expands the net of GMO farther, revealing the risk of relying on such vague and arbitrary categories. This is important because it means that a long list of breeding techniques are now prohibitively regulated in the EU. This move was in opposition to scientific organizations in Europe:

For the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, the decision represents a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”.

“EASAC reaffirms that breakthroughs in plant breeding technologies, such as genome editing, remain crucial for food and nutrition security globally. It remains to be seen what implications this decision may have outside of the EU, particularly in developing countries who stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change,” EASAC said.

It is generally a bad idea for a society to consistently go against the consensus of opinion of its own scientists for pure ideology, irrational fear, or because of industry favoritism. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, all three are involved.

It may be a bit premature, but many are concluding that agricultural innovation is essentially dead in Europe. This is at a time when we are confronting a huge challenge to feed a growing world population, while trying to minimize our environmental footprint. Ironically, one significant source of opposition comes from environmentalists and green parties. In the end they will be hurting the environment, by opposing tools that can be used to improve agriculture and reduce its impact on the environment.

Inside An Anti-GMO Conference

An interesting article on Biofortified by Inti Orozco discusses his experience at a green party conference. He tried to go there with an open mind to start a dialogue. But that’s not what happened:

In the Green political agenda, the premise that GMOs are to be opposed no matter what is written in stone, and the event was about how to effectively push for that idea, rather than discuss it. Because, I would soon see, there is no discussing it.

Anti-GMO is dogma within European green parties. The full article is worth a read to see what science advocates are up against – entrenched ideology that rises to the level of religious fanaticism. To be fair, not everyone in the green movement or who is currently anti-GMO falls into this category. Many people are simply pro-environment, and grossly misinformed. Because if you are an environmentalist you swim in a culture steeped in anti-GMO dogma.

Orozco describes encounters that I find all too familiar – you demolish one fact-challenged point, and the anti-GMO advocate goes onto the next, and then the next, and then comes full circle in an endless cycle of misinformation. But we do know that some people can break out of this cycle, like environmentalist Mark Lynas. It does, however, take a willingness to listen to the science over dogma.

In Europe anti-GMO ideology has effectively won. It has marshaled public opinion, engage in vandalism to make research impossible, and lobbied for regulations to essentially kill GMOs. The goal is a GMO-free Europe (with “GMO” defined very broadly, according to the recent ruling).

The chilling lesson from all of this is the power of ideology. We often have internal debates among skeptics about the future. Optimists feel that the power of science will slowly win out over time. Skeptics need not panic or fret over temporary defeats. We will win in the long run. Pessimists feels that human nature allows for an indefinite wallowing in darkness and superstition, unless we fight tirelessly against it.

I tend to balance both views. Science does have the advantage of working, and is usually on the correct side of history. I also feel that overall things are getting better. But, the pessimists are correct also. There are plenty of examples of societies in which pseudoscience gains a permanent foothold, and becomes integrated as part of the culture. Chi is accepted in China as a given, and it infects their medical science. There is no getting rid of it.

Anti-GMO dogma now infects Europe, and is part of the culture. It may already be too late. We are getting close to this point in the US as well, and I do think that the skeptical movement has helped keep things from getting as bad as Europe.

This is also my concern about alternative medicine. It is infecting our medical system, like a parasite, sucking away and diverting resources, causing harm, but the whole time developing its own alternative infrastructure. Alternative medicine is becoming institutionalized, and it won’t simply fade away because of science.

The worse-case-science for science and reason is when an idea becomes so embedded in a culture that it is taken for granted and no longer questioned. Worse, questioning the belief is treated as apostasy. That is what was on display in the green party conference that Orozco attended. That is what I see among Alternative medicine advocates – they attack their critics personally, as if they have some character defect.

The fight over GMOs is part of a bigger fight in every society and in our global culture for the role and value of science and scholarship in our world. Here we have a stark divide. On one side we have an almost unanimous and solid consensus among the world’s scientists and scientific organizations. On the other side we have an industry-backed ideological movement based on fear and dogma. Right now dogma is winning. That says something very disturbing.

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