One of the ways environmentalists raise money is to scare people. If you don’t give us money, they argue, the earth will fry, the seas will rise, the few remaining polar bears won’t live within a thousand miles of a pole. and polluters will ravage the earth.
But of all the crusades the environmentalists have launched, perhaps the most dangerous is the campaign against genetically modified crops. The Third World needs better, hardier crops and genetically modified ones are the best way to get them.
In an excellent article in the New Yorker, Michael Specter profiles the harm environmentalists cause through a profile of Indian activist Vandana Shiva. Shiva knows one big thing: genetically modified crops are evil, and anyone who supports them is a tool of Monsanto.
The facts about G.M.O’s are simple: according to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no one has ever been killed or even hurt eating a genetically modified crop. We all wear clothes made from genetically modified cotton, and no one has been hurt by them either. The synthetic insulin millions of diabetics need is made, according to Specter by inserting “human proteins into a common bacteria, which is then grown in giant industrial vats.”
But according to Shiva, the world is divided between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and where you stand depends on what your position is on genetically modified crops.
There are two trends [she told a crowd in Florence this spring]. One: a trend of diversity, democracy, freedom, joy, culture—people celebrating their lives. And the other: monocultures, deadness. Everyone depressed. Everyone on Prozac. More and more young people unemployed. We don’t want that world of death.
Wait a minute. Did she say if you support genetically modified crops, you’re in favor of Prozac, unemployment, and death? Yes, she did. But wait, there’s more! She argues that genetically modified crops have something to do with the global rise in autism, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Sadly, when British environmentalist Mark Lynas announced that he had changed his mind and supported increased production of genetically modified crops, she tweeted that saying that farmers should feel free to plant genetically modified crops “is like saying rapists have the freedom to rape.”
Shiva sees her foes as tentacles in an incredible conspiracy, with Monsanto at its center. Among the groups she claims Monsanto controls are the national and international health organizations that say that G.M.O’s are safe; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose support of biotechnology and agricultural research poses “the greatest threat to farmers in the developing world”; Oxfam, for not making sure that the grains and soy they sent to aid victims of a 1999 cyclone in India were not genetically modified; and Science, Nature, and Scientific American, which “have just become extensions of their [Monsanto’s] propaganda. There is no independent science left in the world.”
Monsanto is certainly rich, but it is simply not that powerful. ExxonMobil is worth seven times as much as Monsanto, yet it has never been able to alter the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is the principal cause of climate change. Tobacco companies spend more money lobbying in Washington each year than Monsanto does, but it’s hard to find scientists who endorse smoking.
It should be noted that not all environmentalists reflexively support Shiva. Suppose, as a middle ground, you support the production of seeds that have been modified by government laboratories, universities, and non-profit organizations. But Shiva opposes any organization that supports agricultural research in genetics. “At this stage,” Nathanael Johnson notes on the environmental website Grist, “she has invested all her rhetorical capital on demonizing genetic engineering. . . . There’s a real danger when a big-picture romantic fixates on one particular devil as the root of all problems.” (Johnson says he generally supports Shiva’s views.)
Two points need to be made. First, of course if consumers want to buy organic foods, they should. That’s the market. But they should be aware of the substantial benefits and minimal costs of genetically modified foods before they spend the extra money.
Second, it’s important for the companies, universities, and nonprofits that produce genetically modified seeds to produce goods that poor people need and want rather than imposing their products on the poor and complaining that the poor don’t know what is good for them if the products fail. At a recent Hudson Institute conference Patty Stonesifer, formerly a member of the Gates Foundation inner circle, told a story about a bean the foundation developed that had far more nutrients than any comparable bean.
But women given the new bean for their families rejected it, because it took four times longer to cook than less nutritious legumes.
The goal should be to work with the poor rather than imposing your views on the poor—including the view of the Vandana Shivas of the world that all genetically modified foods are inherently bad. Michael Specter’s judicious piece informs us that genetically modified foods are far less scary than most environmentalists claim.
P.S. For further reading on the ways environmentalists terrify mothers about the alleged dangers of genetically modified foods, I recommend this article by Julie Gunlock, which appeared as the March 2014 issue of Green Watch.