In Europe, anti-GMO activism has turned increasingly confrontational, which seems to have backfired in one recent case. In the United States, anti-GMO sentiment has taken a different form, which Amy Harmon of the New York Times wrote about last week in this excellent piece:
For more than a decade, almost all processed foods in the United States “” cereals, snack foods, salad dressings “” have contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory. Regulators and many scientists say these pose no danger. But as Americans ask more pointed questions about what they are eating, popular suspicions about the health and environmental effects of biotechnology are fueling a movement to require that food from genetically modified crops be labeled, if not eliminated.
On twitter, Harmon noted that of the hundreds of comments on her article, “what you really see is extent to which GM is proxy for (perceived) ills of industrial ag.” In the comment thread of a recent post of mine, a plant scientist echoes this observation:
People are blaming GMOs for all the ills of big ag. And because of that they can’t think past it to the possible benefits. And to me the benefits outweigh the risks.
The extent to which people oppose a technology because of what/who it has become identified with is fascinating to me. So I got to thinking of where else such logic can also be applied. Below are some examples:
If you require prescription drugs for an illness or medical condition, do you decline the medicine because it was produced by Big Pharma (and their profit motive)?
If you know that many politicians are corrupted by special interest money, do you oppose elective democracy?
If you believe that some climate scientists exaggerate the current impacts of global warming, do you distrust all climate science?
If you believe that environmentalism, in recent decades, has perverted the meaning of the precautionary principle, do you oppose all regulations for industrial contaminants?
If you know that the conclusions drawn from research published in biomedical journals are frequently “misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong,” because of bias, do you reject all peer reviewed science?
Call me crazy, but wouldn’t reform of aforementioned institutions, companies, and practices be the more rational way to go, instead of outright rejection?
Feel free to play along and offer more examples.
So what are the broader cultural, political and economic ripples of the German nuclear phase-out? On the one hand, it will send a signal to the world that nuclear is dated and dangerous and that switching it off is a greater priority than limiting carbon emissions as swiftly as possible. It will also damage the nuclear industry. These two factors together will probably decrease the likelihood that the nuclear industry will succeed in finding ways to reverse its cost curve and make this large-scale low-carbon power source cheaper in the future (unlike renewables, nuclear is currently getting more expensive rather than less).
On the other hand if, specifically as the result of the nuclear phase out, Germany massively ups its level of ambition for renewables and is able to demonstrate that it’s possible to maintain public support for high energy prices to stimulate a clean-energy revolution, that too could influence the world far beyond its own borders.
This is from Duncan Clarke in the Guardian, in what is the smartest analysis I’ve read so far on Germany’s nuclear phase-out. His piece is not, as he puts it, an argument for nuclear power, but rather “an argument for thinking about things the right way.”
It boils down to this: to meaningfully measure the impact of any action on a climate change, you need to recognise that the world is interconnected and measure the effects as widely as possible. In addition, you need to ask the right question, which means ““ just as with a medical experiment ““ comparing “with and without” the action, not “before and after” it.
Anyone interested in climate and energy policy should read this piece.
It goes like this: 1. You fear something. 2. You find a hypothesis to justify your fear. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your case.
That’s from Tim Minchin, who concisely describes the process that leads anti-GMO opponents and apparently many greens to support destruction of an agricultural experiment, that as John Timmer notes, “is actually designed to test a [wheat] strain that has the potential to reduce pesticide use.”
Timmer’s piece is an excellent description of the research and the precautions that scientists have taken for it. For those of you just tuning it, some truly amazing crop research has been the center of a controversy the past few weeks, which is coming to a head today. In future posts, I’ll be returning to a few of the major issues and themes that are now being debated as a result of this particular anti-GMO campaign. (I’m guessing Take the Flour Back didn’t figure on the blowback and mobilization of scientists.)
Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering?
This double standard rankles plant researchers, one who asserts:
And you don’t get to say harassment of climate scientists = anti-science and not say the same thing about plant scientists.
One person who has been vocal in his support of climate scientists is Steve Easterbrook, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses “on the contributions of computing and software to the challenge of dealing with climate change.”
For the climate science community, climategate was a galvanizing event, in which many of them, such as Easterbrook, have risen to publicly defend their honor and profession. Thus, you might think that he (and other environmental scientists) would naturally come to the defense of plant scientists whose work and profession has also come under assault–by anti-GMO activists.
Not when it comes to genetic engineering.
It seems that many in the environmental community have a visceral dislike of biotechnology, especially GMO’s (genetically modified organisms.) It’s an interesting little quirk, which is worth exploring in more depth.
Meanwhile, Easterbrook has just offered up a long treatise that essentially lays out his misgivings about genetically engineered crops. It’s a holiday weekend here in the U.S., so I don’t have the time right now to go through it in detail. But this section is worth highlighting; it articulates one of the main arguments that enviro-minded folks make against genetic engineering (my emphasis):
Some see GMOs as a health issue. Potential human health effects include allergies, and cross-species genetic transfer, although scientists dismiss both, citing a lack of evidence. While there is some (disputed) evidence of such health risks already occurring, on balance this is more a concern about unpredictable future impacts, rather than what has already happened, which means an insistence on providing evidence is irrelevant: a bad outcome doesn’t have to have already occurred for us to take the risk seriously. If we rely on ever more GMOs to drive the global agricultural system, sooner or later we will encounter such health problems, most likely through increased allergic reaction.
So if I read this right, he is, on the one hand, citing disputed evidence of health risks already happening, while simultaneously asserting that evidence is not necessary. Oh, and then there’s the assumption (remember, no evidence needed!) that sooner or later, GMO’s are going to cause health problems.
Does this sound like scientific thinking to you?
Easterbrook concludes by saying that the wheat research opposed by anti-GMO protesters “should be halted immediately” by the plant scientists themselves.
If I were a biotech plant scientist reading Easterbrook’s post, I might remind him of the time he said that, when scientists
form opinions on a field other than their own, they are likely to be based on a very patchy reading of the field, and mixed up with a lot of personal preconceptions. They can cherry pick.
Or the time he wrote this:
But outside of a particular scientific field, lay observers find it hard to tell nonsense from sound science. So the nonsense spreads insidiously, and the public discourse diverges ever further from the scientific one.
Luckily, there are a few people who are willing to devote themselves to tackling the nonsense head on. Ben Goldacre is my favourite example ““ he runs a newspaper column, blog and book called Bad Science. It helps that he’s a witty writer and an even wittier speaker. (It probably also helps that he’s British).
Yes, let’s go to Ben Goldacre and see what he has to say about GMOs:
I’m no friend of big biotech. I think GM has created a dangerous power shift in agriculture in favour of multinational corporations. So I’m cautious about GM foods, but they seem safe overall. If there’s something new and frightening, then I want to see it published, in full, so we can all sit down and get frightened by it together, on the basis of well-conducted research that we can see and read.
Of course, you can’t do that if the people frightened by it want the research destroyed before it can be published.
That’s the title of a new post I have up at Discover magazine’s website. I’m specifically drilling down into the widespread anti-GMO activism/sentiment within the green movement. As I write at Discover:
The big story on this front of late has been the planned act of vandalism on the government-funded Rothamsted research station in the UK. Scientists there are testing an insect-resistant strain of genetically modified wheat that is objectionable to an anti-GMO group called Take the Flour Back. The attack on the experimental wheat plot is slated for May 27. The group explains that it intends destroy the plot because “this open air trial poses a real, serious and imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry.”
And as I also noted, this planned act of destruction is part of a larger trend in anti-GMO activism–what is euphemistically called “field liberation.” Have a read and weigh in over there. I’m sure there will be some interesting exchanges in the comment thread.
It’s not easy when you stop trusting particular sources of information. It tends to reorder your world. Oftentimes there’s a precipitating event that suddenly puts the source in a different (and unflattering) light.
This appears to be the case for John Callender, a birder, computer programmer, and blogger. Callender is an avid consumer of climate media, particularly blogs. He counts Grist’s David Roberts as “one of my favorite writers on climate issues.” But in recent months Callender’s “taxonomy of the climate change debate” has been thrown into turmoil. In this post, he discusses the response to a newspaper article that reinforced
a decision I made recently to remove [Greg] Laden and [Joe] Romm from my newsfeed. It’s not that I’m in the denialist camp that disputes the science of global warming. But just because one champions scientists doesn’t make one’s own assertions scientific. Laden and Romm have let their adopted role as advocates carry them past the point of being honest brokers of information. They’re peddling self-serving spin as truth, selecting what to pass on not on the basis of skeptical inquiry, but simply on the basis of which untested hypotheses paint their enemies in the worst light.
The sooner more people come to such a realization–about the spinners in their respective camps–the sooner we can have a more constructive debate on climate change.
I have a confession to make. When I shop at a neighborhood foodie store for some organic staples, I sometimes forget to bring the environmentally correct, reusable grocery bags.
For one thing, it pisses off my wife, a woman who hordes clothing catalogs the way I once collected comic books, and whose online shopping sprees help keep UPS delivery truck drivers gainfully employed. When she gets two oversized cardboard boxes in one day, I’ll run out to buy a box of whole grain Cheerios just for the plastic bag.
But there’s another reason: I want that cashier to ask if I’d like a bag. Damn straight I do! (Cue that look from cashier.) I don’t care if it’s just a box of cereal. I can’t hold my iphone with one hand while walking home and texting with the other without slipping the handle of that non-biodegradable plastic bag around my wrist. (Before you sneer at me, too, remember, I live in a small apartment in a dense, urban neighborhood, use mass transit, buy organic, etc, etc. I’ve got chits to spare.)
Then there’s the added satisfaction when I get home and jam that plastic bag into the wicker basket stuffed with plastic bags, which is next to the one overflowing with clothing catalogs.
Now I want you to know that despite this jerky character flaw of mine, I’m a good guy at heart. I give up my seat for pregnant women on the subway. I stop for people that ask for directions. I play catch with my kid.
So I’m not like these morally depraved people.
most famous for his role in being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for his role in creating the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010.
The discussion is wide-ranging. At one point, Venter talks about his work on the synthetic life front, and how he’s now involved in trying to create a cell to “harness photosynthesis.” Here’s the idea:
We’re trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what’s happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we’re recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.
Hence the headline for the Wired interview, “Craig Venter wants to solve the world’s energy crisis.”
What’s interesting to me is Venter’s mindset, which views science as the primary means to solve the world’s greatest challenges. No doubt this perspective is widely shared, but it is also at odds with those (including many scientists) who instead emphasize social change. For example, on the issue of global sustainability, technological solutions don’t seem to have much of a place in the tool box that’s featured in major scientific reports and at conferences. Rather, what we often hear is the need to reduce consumption, population, and economic growth.
I’m not suggesting that one approach should be chosen over the other, but it does seem that our conversations on energy and climate-related issues minimize (and often caution against) the use of technology to better humanity and the environment. On that note, I’ll conclude with the final exchange in the Wired interview.
Wired: I want to end with a big question: In 1990, Carl Sagan wrote that “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” That seems even more true today. Do you think we respect science enough as a society?
Venter: I think the new anti-intellectualism that’s showing up in politics today is a symptom of our not discussing these issues enough. We don’t discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs””sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we’re going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we’ll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don’t see much hope for humanity.
Some time ago, a mischievous person who works in the environmental/science communication sphere brought something to my attention: Laurie David, the producer of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary, apparently became bored with global warming activism and moved on to a new cause.
Nobody says that green activists should remain tethered to one particular issue. So who knows, maybe it’s better that people don’t turn into one-note drones. (We have enough of them, right?) But I do wonder if there will soon come a point in time when greens and environmental journalists move on to the next big environmental issue of the day. History shows this will of course happen.
In my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I discuss the last headline-grabbing green cause and the dismay by some environmentalists that it has now gotten elbowed off center stage by global warming. In my post, I suggest that the climate cause may soon suffer the safe fate. Have a read and tell me what you think.
In the run-up to next month’s Rio Earth Summit, we’re going to see a steady stream of bad news about the global environment. When that happens, let’s hope that some of our respectable media do more than regurgitate NGO press releases and talking points.
Alas, the Guardian shows us what not to do in this article on a report jointly produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Zoological Society of London, and the Global Footprint Network. The Guardian piece is merely a platform for the report’s highlights. It provides no outside assessment of the claims made.
For example, evidently, the NGO report asserts that populous urban centers are bad for the planet. Here’s what the Guardian says:
The world’s cities have seen a 45% increase in population since 1992, according to the Global Footprint Network, and urban residents typically have a much larger carbon footprint than their rural counterparts.
Really? And all this time I thought that my Brooklyn footprint was on the lower end of the scale. I’m surprised to hear that my humble apartment in a high density neighborhood and my reliance on mass transit and local shopkeepers is contributing to a carbon footprint larger than that of non-city dwellers. Perhaps I should consider moving my family to the country or the suburbs, where a bigger house would support more children and a place to put all my fun stuff. True, we’d require several cars to meet our transportation and shopping needs, but I’m sure that wouldn’t raise our overall carbon footprint by much.
Yes, now that I think of it, I bet that a free-standing tudor or colonial in a bucolic setting, in a county with abundant strip malls, would be much better for the global environment (including the preservation of biodiversity).
Sarcasm aside, I started reading through the NGO report, but got hung up at this sentence in an introduction by Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International:
We can meet all of our energy needs from sources like wind and sunlight that are clean and abundant.
Okay, stop right there. I’m going to have to get back to you on the report after I quit choking on that assertion.
Here’s the thing about the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+ 20, because it’s the 20th anniversary of the first such gathering: We’re going to hear a lot about how “the earth is going downhill,” as Leape says in this CNN story. There’s also going to be much hand-wringing over the conference’s downsized goals and chaotic logistics, as this AP dispatch suggests.
It would be nice if equal attention was paid to how humanity fit into the picture, and not just as a blight on the earth. Environmentalists should keep in mind that the have-nots of the world don’t yet have the luxury of being concerned with biodiversity or carbon footprints.
Two seemingly disparate events this week underscore major shifts in the climate discourse–at least in the U.S. One is the defeat of Senator Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary. The other is this NYT op-ed from NASA climate scientist James Hansen.
What’s the connection? Well, each, in its own way, illustrate the newly established battle lines of America’s climate debate. I explain why in my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.