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GMOs: More of a Threat to Political Democracy than Public Health

Campaigners Would be Best Served by Dropping the Hyperbole

“The GMOs are coming! The GMOs are coming!”

Such was the Paul Revere-like tone in a pair of emails that I got this week from the folks at CREDO Mobile and Food Democracy Now, an outfit of farmers and ranchers committed to a more sustainable food system. The email — which warned that Monsanto is ready to bring transgenic sweet corn to major grocery chains — had everything I’ve come to expect in online political messaging: It was pithy, passionate, and full of punch. I was ready to count myself among those who, as the email asked, “refuse to purchase Monsanto’s genetically modified sweet corn.”

Photo by ImageMD The greatest threat posed by GMOs involves how they undermine food
sovereignty and biodiversity.

Yet I didn’t sign my name to the petition and I didn’t “take action now.” That’s because the email contained the kind of exaggerations and distortions I would rather not be associated with. Don’t get me wrong: As a part-time organic farmer and a committed environmentalist, I agree that GMOs are dangerous. By furthering the concentration of the global food system and spreading their genes to wild plant populations, transgenic crops jeopardize biodiversity, food sovereignty, and our ability to respond to the agricultural dislocations of global climate change. But I am not yet convinced that, as the email alert put it, GMOs pose “serious negative health impacts.” The rhetoric went too far. And that’s a shame — because we need the best arguments we can muster to reverse GMOs’ takeover of our agricultural system.

The Food Democracy Now email was a good example of a strategic weakness that I think has bedeviled GMO foes for years. Opponents of genetic modification like to play up the possible and potential impacts that GMOs could have on human health. Meanwhile, they often downplay the demonstrable impacts that GMOs are already having on crop diversity and, by extension, on the resilience of our entire global food system. Campaigners (especially in Europe, where GMOs are highly unpopular) have focused their rhetoric on the least scientifically rigorous of the criticisms against GM technology. The emotive appeals to human health might be effective in the short term, but in the long run they risk being unsubstantiated and of setting up a Chicken Little scenario that activists would have a hard time recovering from. If you predict a health crisis and it doesn’t materialize, your credibility is going to be in trouble.

Look closely at the Food Democracy Now action alert. It warned of a “potentially toxic crop … potentially dangerous genetically modified food” and how “Americans could face direct harm from these products.” To their credit, the folks at CREDO did provide some footnotes to back up this speculation. The sources, however, were weak sauce. One was a link-back to Food Democracy Now’s own website, where you can find a letter from a single plant pathologist (one Dr. Don Huber) warning of a link between Roundup Ready crops and reproductive problems with livestock; no other scientific authorities are cited there. A second link takes you to a UK Daily Mail story about a study done at University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre in Quebec in which 80 percent of women surveyed had pesticides associated with GM crops in their umbilical cord blood. The Daily Mail reported, inaccurately, that: “It is thought the toxin is getting into the human body as a result of eating meat, milk and eggs from farm livestock fed GM corn.” Actually, the report (which you can find here) says nothing of the kind. The researchers tested for pesticides that are sprayed in conjunction with genetically modified crops — such as glyphosate (brand name, Roundup) and bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The fetal exposure came from the stew of chemicals in which we live — not necessarily from eating GM crops.

The most compelling footnote leads to a HuffPo article about a study in the International Journal of Biological Sciences linking GM corn to organ damage in rats. Yes, that’s worrisome, and it deserves further research. But until we get that research, the GMOs’ potential impact on human health remains just that: potential. I checked out two sources I highly trust — the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Health Organization — and it turns out that health professionals’ biggest GMO worry has to do with the spread of allergens. If, say, a peanut gene were inserted into a soy plant, people who are allergic to peanuts and ate products from that soy plant could have a negative reaction. That’s not cool. But it’s certainly not on par with the gene transfer GMO critics ominously hint at — a risk that most scientists dismiss.

I find these exaggerations so disappointing because they are so unnecessary. Rather than dwell on the possible health consequences of GMOs, why not focus on the actual environmental and political problems of these technologies? For example, the documented cases in which artificially inserted genes have jumped from laboratory-bred plant populations to native populations — as has happened with corn and canola and sunflowers. Such migrations are a clear and present danger to biodiversity. So is the dominance of transgenic crops in agricultural fields around the world. According to the USDA, 94 percent of soy planted in the United States and more than 70 percent of the cotton and corn have been genetically modified. Such monocropping is already eroding the genetic diversity that’s key to healthy ecosystems and food security.

In my opinion, perhaps the greatest — and certainly the best documented —  threat posed by GMOs involves how they undermine food sovereignty. As Maria Ishii-Eitemann, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network, explained it at an anti-GMO conference last week in San Francisco, food sovereignty is “our right to save, plant, and grow seeds and crops as we want.” The steady monopolization of the seed supply is eroding that sovereignty. The skills needed to genetically modify seeds are so specialized (and the investment required so immense) that only a handful of massive firms can take it on. Compare that to the thousands — or, globally, the millions — of seed dealers and seed savers who use traditional plant breeding techniques. Call this a concern of political ecology. GMOs are dangerous because they concentrate power — and that’s never good news for democracy.

Trust me: I know that talking about “political ecology” is a lot more complicated than warning people about the (possible) threats to their kids’ health. And I know that people care more about their kids’ health than they do about monarch butterflies or heirloom corn’s virtue of genetic diversity. Emotions always trump ideas. The problem here is that the most proven arguments against GMOs are also the most esoteric, while the argument with the most populist appeal is the one with the least scientific evidence behind it.

I understand that there’s a case to be made for the precautionary principle — we shouldn’t be planting (or eating) GMOs until they’ve been proven safe. At the same time, I think some environmental activists working against GMOs could apply a little more of the precautionary principle to their own rhetoric: Don’t shout out a warning unless you’ve got the science to back you up.

For now, many anti-GMO activists appear to have decided to focus their arguments on health issues because that’s what the public cares about most. I understand the campaigner’s calculus behind that decision. But I also worry that it’s cynical and could prove shortsighted. Hyperbole might help drive an email campaign, but it’s no way to win a political battle in the long run.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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Very good!

By Reasonable people on Wed, July 10, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I think this analysis is right on. There’s a history in the environmental movement - dating back to Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, of exactly the sort of “Chicken Little” rhetoric you’re describing here. It might rile people up in the short term and can at times lead to lasting change, but it usually ends with outrage fatigue and a loss of credibility. It’s especially unfortunate in cases like this one, where there are plenty of well-substantiated arguments to support their position without resorting to ones that, while emotionally compelling, are also riskier places to hang one’s rhetorical hat.

That said, there is a strategic reason to play to the heath concern. Empirical studies have shown that people buy organic produce largely because of a perceived private benefit (i.e. they think it’s healthier, tastes better, etc), rather than the public benefits (i.e. farm workers’ health, less ecological degradation, etc). This would indicate that you’ll get more people to sign a petition or participate in a boycott if you tell them their kids’ health is at risk than through vague threats of corporate hegemony. Maybe the advocates are just playing a cynical strategic game. In which case, this is a symptom of a broader hyperbolic tenor in our political landscape. As long as Republican presidential candidates are claiming that the HPV vaccine causes autism and pointing to snow banks as evidence that climate change is a myth, I’d say more power to anti-GMO campaigners who want to play up a data-starved health connection.

By Kevin Fingerman on Wed, September 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm

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