When Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks, people listen. I was on vacation when America’s most prominent scientist made news for railing against GMO fearmongers. “Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food,” he told a French interviewer. It was an impromptu, oversimplified response on a complex, hot-button subject, but Tyson’s stance was clear to all: GMOs are nothing to be afraid of.
He has since expanded on his views in a Facebook post that is well worth reading. (More on this in a minute.) Tyson did not intentionally thrust himself into the GMO debate. Nonetheless, what he said carries tremendous weight. What’s interesting is how some are interpreting this importance.
At Vox, Ezra Klein seizes on Tyson’s statements as further proof of a key difference between agenda-setting liberals and conservatives on science. Sure, the liberal base of the Democratic party is anti-GMO, Klein acknowledges. But this hasn’t mutated into the liberal equivalent of conservative climate denial, because the Democratic establishment–particularly its powerbrokers—-haven’t embraced the anti-GMO views of its base, he argues.
This is true. In the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama paid lip service to the nascent GMO labeling campaign, but has since steered clear of the battle. (And it is heating up.) The State Department during Obama’s tenure has challenged international trade barriers that restrict products containing GMO ingredients. Last year, Obama infuriated the anti-GMO wing of his base when he signed the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” (a much misunderstood bill). Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democratic standard-bearer, has come out strongly in favor of crop biotechnology. As Klein correctly notes, “You don’t see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislation.”
But this is a narrow lens to view GMO politics and policy. Consider the case of AquaBounty Technologies, the company that develops a genetically modified salmon. The transgenic fish has been stuck in a regulatory black hole for nearly two decades. A final decision by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), was set to be released in 2012, but opposition from environmental and consumer groups apparently nixed that.
NGO’s self-identifying as public interest groups are typically aligned with liberal causes. Many people, especially those who consider themselves progressive Democrats, presume these groups to be a force for good, motivated by truth and science. But as journalist Marc Gunther details in a recent Guardian piece, these groups don’t deserve such trust on GMO issues. He specifically cites the AquaBounty case:
The FDA found the biotech salmon do not pose a threat to the environment and are “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon”, with “no biologically relevant difference”. But it may never reach stores, as a result of a hard-hitting campaign launched by the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth.
The campaign has successfully kept genetically modified salmon off the shelves of about 60 supermarkets, including Kroger’s, Safeway, Target, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market. It sent this “nutrition label” (pdf) for the salmon to numerous restaurants and retailers and asked them not to sell the fish. (Note that this isn’t about labeling or choice; it’s about keeping a product off the market.)
Complete with skull and crossbones, the mock label cherry picks data from a 180-page FDA analysis to suggest that the salmon are unsafe and unhealthy – just the opposite of what the FDA found. The label disingenuously misleads consumers.
Much of what constitutes criticism of GMOs from consumer and environmental groups is, to put it charitably, disingenuous. At best, groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth cherry-pick science to emphasize uncertainty (straight out of the climate denial playbook), at worst, they scare-monger and demagogue, using Monsanto as the great bogeyman. In short, mainstream consumer and green groups pollute the discourse on GMOs in the same way that climate skeptics pollute the conversation on global warming.
There are also real-world consequences to the drumbeat of misinformation and fear-mongering disseminated by anti-GMO activists. Mark Lynas, during a speech at Cornell last year, discussed this:
The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.
Thousands died because the President of Zambia believed the lies of western environmental groups that genetically modified corn provided by the World Food Programme was somehow poisonous. I have yet to hear an apology from any of the responsible Western groups for their role in this humanitarian atrocity.
Friends of the Earth was one of those responsible, and I note that not only has no apology been forthcoming, but Friends of the Earth Europe is still actively promoting GMO denialism in the EU in a new campaign called Stop the Crop.
Indeed, such groups are now behind the campaign to oust Ann Glover, a British biology professor and the European Union’s science advisor. Glover has tried to inject scientific rigor into Europe’s GMO policy debate, an evidence-based approach that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other vocal biotech foes do not welcome. (Again, this contrasts starkly with their acceptance of science on climate change.)
It is a mistake to view the anti-GMO movement–which is really a globalized ideology–through a U.S. centric lens. Yes, I realize that leading Democrats reject the anti-GMO bias of their base. But as with climate change, the scientifically distorted GMO discourse is global, playing out on social media and carried forth by anti-GMO activists (who are sponsored by Western NGOs) across rural landscapes in Asia and Africa. The policies and politics of GMOs in developing countries (especially in Africa) flow from that polluted discourse.
As Klein writes in his Vox piece:
Political scientists will tell you that parties, and the ideological movements that power them, are composed of much more than officeholders and electoral strategists. They’re driven by interest groups and intellectuals and pundits and other “validators” that partisans and politicians look to for cues when forming their beliefs.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is obviously a huge breath of fresh air in the noxious GMO debate. He is a major “validator” for those with unformed beliefs on GMOs. So he is a potential game changer. Who or what might be another example of a science “validator” for liberals?
Klein cites the recent work of Nathanael Johnson and his conclusion that GMOs are, as Tyson says, not only safe, but nothing to be afraid of. Klein writes:
Grist could have spun the issue, or ignored the issue, and profited off the resulting traffic. But they didn’t. They pushed against the biases of their base.
Indeed, Grist could have kept playing up GMO fears and misinforming its readers, which is what it did with its GMO coverage right up until it commissioned Johnson to undertake his deep dive into the complex research findings on crop biotechnology. So good on Grist for willing to suddenly pay attention to the actual science and not just what ideologically-driven advocates said at NGOs. (I still wonder what prompted their turnabout.) But I’ll be more impressed with Grist when it treats influential purveyors of GMO myths and misinformation as disdainfully (or at least critically) as it treats those who promote climate change denial.
It’s not as if Grist (or Mother Jones, Alternet, Daily Kos et al) are lacking in material to poke fun at or debunk. They just have to look at what progressive thought leaders, food advocacy NGOs, and outspoken consumer interest and environmental groups say on the subject. On that front, not much has changed since 2012, when I wrote at Slate:
I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to what this guy has to say.
Even better, read his more expansive take and pay special attention to the last point:
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct.