This week’s science blog is an excuse to point you at Will Saletan’s thorough article exposing the deceptions used by the forces opposed to genetically modified foods. After a year of reporting, he has unveiled a long post thick with links to studies by scientists and claims by anti-GMO activists. It is very very damning. The anti-GMO crowd make the Intelligent Designers look like Marie Curie:
I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.
Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.
Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.
Saletan focuses on three examples of anti-GMO nutbaggery. The first the is the ringspot virus-resistant papaya, engineered to save the papaya industry in Hawaii. Environmentalist groups unleashed every trick in the book: claiming it was unsafe to consume a viral protein that people were consuming anyway; claiming it was bankrupting farmers (because of their opposition); claiming it had not been proven safe. All of these were lies and distortions, pushed by people with an agenda.
Next is crops containing Bt — a protein that kills predatory insects. Anti-GMO activists insist that plants contain Bt are poison … when they aren’t claiming they are ineffective. They do this while pushing Bt-containing sprays as safe and sustainable and attributing harms from Bt sprays to Bt-engineered crops.
Finally, he gets to the golden rice, which we’ve mentioned before. The golden rice could save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children. Anti-GMO activists opposed it because it didn’t have enough vitamin A. Then opposed because it had too much.
That summary doesn’t do justice to what’s going on. All along the way, the anti-GMO forces have been … well, lying. They distort studies, they misquote studies, they ignore studies that contradict their opinion. They denounce things as dangerous when they come from genetic engineering but proclaim them safe when they come from other means.
Now you might say, “Hey, what’s the harm in labeling GMO foods?” Here’s the harm:
GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.
In other words, that safe organic banana might actually have more pesticide, more bacteria and more “toxins” than the supposedly dangerous GMO product. Putting a scarlet letter on GMO products isn’t “informing the public”. It’s trying to scare them into supporting an agenda.
This isn’t a trivial matter. Right now, we are seeing the spread of the UG-99 wheat rust. This rust has the potential to wreck the world’s wheat production, causing mass starvation and economic chaos. We desperately need to engineer strains of wheat that can resist the rust. But if the anti-GMO forces get their way, we’ll only be able to use the slow and less certain process of traditional breeding. Millions could die as a result.
(Saletan, like everyone who defends GMO’s, is being accused of being paid off by Monsanto. Monsanto had a clever reply to this.)
Saletan doesn’t ignore legitimate issues with GMO crops, such as the arms race they are creating in weed control. But those are solvable problems. Solvable problems that are not getting enough attention because the green luddites have us focused on the wrong things.
GMO crops are safe. This is the conclusion of every scientific study that has been done. There are issues around GMO’s that need some work. Let’s concentrate on that.