3 February 2014

Environmentalists’ double standards

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The environmental movement professes a deep attachment to science in areas such as climate change but rejects it when it comes to genetically modified crops. Mark Lynas, who used to share the same view, explains why he changed his mind.
Arizona marchers decry Monsanto

An anti-GMO foods rally gets under way in Tempe, Arizona.

It is obviously inconsistent on the part of environmental groups such as Greenpeace to trumpet the importance of the worldwide scientific consensus on climate change while at the same time denying the validity of an equally strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMO crops. Indeed, nearly identical tactics are frequently used both by climate change deniers and anti-GMO campaigners: politically skewed misinformation is spread via the internet and social networks; science in general and individual scientists are attacked and bullied as biased or as pawns of their paymasters; and the voices of a tiny minority of contrarian academics are aggressively promoted to give the public the false impression that “experts disagree”.

To be fair, it was perhaps reasonable back in the 1990s for environmentalists to be concerned about the risks of spreading “genetic pollution”, when the techniques for inserting novel genes into plants and other life forms were first being commercialised. But after two decades during which several hundred scientific studies have uncovered not a single substantiated case of harm specifically to do with transgenics, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, the African Academy of Sciences, and other expert bodies have decided the jury is in. So why has the environmental movement – which professes a deep attachment to science in other areas – refused to acknowledge that the world has moved on from the “Frankenfoods” scare?

This is clearly not a battle that will be decided quickly.

Part of the answer may lie in path-dependent inertia: the natural reluctance to admit that a campaign upon which whole careers and organisational fundraising strategies have been based was a mistake. Another reason is the vested interests that have now emerged against GMOs. It is no accident that the millions of dollars of funding for pro-labelling campaigns in California and Washington State came from big organic foods interests and “natural health” internet sales quacks. This latter point reveals the likely true answer – that opposition to GMOs really acts as a conduit for opposition to modern farming in particular, and even modernity in general. Genetically modified organisms – partially artificial beings and therefore undesirable in any form – are seen as the ultimate insult to pristine nature. It is unlikely, therefore, that this opposition can be addressed with science or indeed rational debate at all. It is a values-level political denialist movement motivated by an implacable opposition to the acquisition and use of human knowledge in an important area of biology.

This is clearly not a battle that will be decided quickly. Nor is it guaranteed that Enlightenment values of empiricism and the rational assessment of evidence will win. It is just as likely that obscurantism and the autocratic prohibition of scientific research and technological development in food, agriculture and medicine will triumph. The sad irony is that this outcome would be both a disaster for human progress and the environment. Anti-GMO environmentalists are thus betraying not only progressive values, but the same environmental cause they are pledged to defend.

Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, is now a fellow at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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