Of all the crusades environmentalists conduct, perhaps the most pernicious are those over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Like it or not, the Third World will need more food if people in Africa and Asia are going to get enough to eat, and the best way to do this is with GMOs.
Nearly every major scientific body that has ever issued a statement on the subject—the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Food and Drug Administration—has said that genetically modified foods are safe to eat. They are now joined by a rising number of liberal journalists who recognize that good science is more important than ideology.
Last year I noted how New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter did a fine job exposing the dubious doctrines of Indian activist Vandana Shiva. Specter is now joined by Slate staff writer William Saletan, who recognizes in this fine piece that supporting good science is more important than reflexive political correctness.
The script Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other green groups follow is that Evil Profit-Maximizing Corporations, led by Monsanto, force farmers to accept GMOS so that they would be in their clutches forever. Saletan looks at three genetically modified crops that weren’t created by big business—papayas, the genetic modification known as Bt, and “golden rice.”
- Papayas. In the mid-1990s, Hawaiian papaya farmers were worried, because the ringspot virus devastated their crop. Cornell University researcher Dennis Gonsalves, taking an idea created by Monsanto, proposed transferring an inactive version of the virus to the papaya rind. Since papaya is not a major moneymaker, Monsanto and two other companies licensed development of the papaya project to an association of Hawaiian farmers, who could give away the modified seed as long as distribution was limited to Hawaii. In 1996 and 1997, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture licensed tests.
The tests proved successful, and the war against the papaya began. In 2001 the U.S. Public Research Interest Group declared that “the science of genetic engineering is radical and new” and therefore the papaya experiments should be banned. Others took a preliminary paper to claim that genetically engineered papayas were full of allergens. The Food Safety Commission of Japan investigated this and concluded that genetically modified papayas were safe and could be imported.
In 2013 the Maui County Council, in charge of that state’s biggest island, held a hearing about papayas. Environmentalists, huffing the noxious fumes of conspiracy, claimed that the FDA, the AAAS, and the New York Times (which ran an objective article about the debate) were controlled by Monsanto. They claimed that WikiLeaks proved that the U.S. government controlled the Japanese Food Safety Commission, but 6,000 diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks showed no such thing. They also called for a ban on genetically modified flowers because children might eat them. And of course they then raged against vaccines.
The Maui County Council did ban GMO crops (except for papayas) but the ban was blocked by a federal court that said that the council had no power to impose it.
- Bt In 1901, a Japanese biologist isolated a bacterium, Bacillus thuringensis (or Bt), which was killing the Japanese silkworm, crop. In the mid-1980, Belgian researchers added genes from Bt into tobacco plants. Doing so caused predatory insects to die.
In the mid-1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency approved potatoes, corn, and cotton that had the Bt gene as a genetic modification. Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, and the Pesticide Action Network began suing. But these same groups say that Bt is perfectly safe as a spray. They say this even though farmers who use Bt as a biopesticide spray more Bt on their crops than would happen if Bt were a genetically modified crop. Moreover, the makers of biopesticide sprays include Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer—companies Greenpeace and its allies repeatedly denounce.
But if Bt is so dangerous, shouldn’t consumers know if their crops have been sprayed with it? Slate interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman contacted 15 companies that said their products were “GMO free” to see if biopesticides were used on the corn in their products. Five didn’t respond, two claimed that “organic” meant “pesticide-free” (which isn’t true), one sent ‘weasel words” it didn’t explain, one said that the biopesticides were within legal limits, and three said they didn’t know.
Saletan says these evasive answers on the part of manufacturers who pride themselves on having “GMO-free” foods “is the fundamental flaw in the anti-GMO movement. It only pretends to inform you. When you push past its dogmas and examine the evidence, you realize the movement’s fixation on genetic engineering has been an enormous mistake. The principles it claims to stand for—environmental protection, public health, community agriculture—are better served by considering the facts of each case than by treating GMOs, categorically, as a proxy for all that’s wrong with the world.”
- “Golden rice.” In 1999, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology led by Ingo Potrykus, using Rockefeller Foundation grants, developed “golden rice,” which had beta carotene (or vitamin A) in it. Poor children could eat the rice and not go blind. President Clinton praised the discovery, saying “if we could get more of this Golden Rice…out to the developing world, it could save 40,000 lives a day.” The researchers have since improved golden rice so that it has 80 times as much beta carotene as the original crop.
Greenpeace and its allies, such as Friends of the Earth, have done everything they could since then to block the development of golden rice, denouncing tests of the crop in India, China, and the Philippines. (Many of these test strips were destroyed by eco-activists.) They have claimed that the vitamin A needs of poor children are better served with pills or by having poor people grow vegetables.
Ingo Potrykus thought it ludicrous that Greenpeace would tell poor people who had no land to grow vegetables to get vitamin A. “There are hundreds of millions of landless poor, and they don’t have a house to lean against,” he told New Scientist in 2001.
Saletan says that the anti-GMO movement is severely wrongheaded. “GMO segregation, in the form of labels or GMO-free restaurants, is misguided,” he writes, “GMO labels don’t clarify what is 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.”
“We’ve been stuck in a stupid, wasteful fight over GMOs,” he concludes, that has been waged by “an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science.”