When Activism Kills

by Bruce S. Thornton // Defining Ideas

Image credit: Light Brigading
Image credit: Light Brigading









For four decades genetically modified organisms (GMO) have been vilified and caricatured as “Frankenfoods,” the abominations of mad scientists meddling with nature and putting the human race at risk. Currently, over sixty bills have been introduced in over twenty states that will require food labels indicating if the product contains GMO. Globally, over sixty countries restrict or ban GMO outright, including eight E.U. nations and countries in Africa suffering from famine and malnutrition that could be alleviated by genetically modified crops.

Critics accuse GMO of being unhealthy, increasing chemical pollution, threatening other species, causing dangerous side effects, and harming the environment. But as plant molecular biologist Robert Goldberg of UCLA points out, “In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth, and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we’ve gone back to being ignorant.”

In fact, no one has yet documented a single case of illness from GM foods, even as about 3,000 people a year in the U.S. die of food-borne illnesses, many of them contracted from “organic” foods. All the dangers of GMO that worry critics are speculations of what might happen in the distant future. Mixing genes from different species, critics contend, will create alterations in the organism that will in the long term produce destructive effects, or genetic material from an engineered crop someday may transfer into the human genome.

Meanwhile, in contrast to these theoretical risks, GM foods are improving people’s lives, especially in the developing world. Food is cheaper, meaning more people are adequately fed. Crops are 20 to 30 percent more productive, so less land is needed to feed more people. Pesticide use is diminishing, lessening damage to the environment. And if the bans on GM crops were not deterring some countries from planting it, Golden Rice, genetically engineered to contain vitamin A, could be reducing the one million deaths, and half a million cases of blindness, occurring in the developing world every year because of vitamin A deficiency.

If GM foods have an “astonishing range of potential applications,” according to James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, that could radically improve daily life for billions in the developing world, why this war against their use? The origins of this animus lie more in culture than in science––in an ancient myth about nature and humanity’s relationship to the environment, and in the angst about technology embedded in those myths.

The Golden Age myth historically arose when more complex urban civilizations developed that increased the distance between people and nature. The Golden Age is that earlier existence before cities, agriculture, and technology, a time idealized as simpler and more fulfilling, closer to a maternal nature that is “untouched by the hoe and unwounded by the plow,” as the Roman poet Ovid put it—a time when nature “herself gave all things,” wrote Ovid. In the Golden Age, there was no crime or sickness, no war or competition for wealth, no oppressive social or political institutions.

But this paradise is lost, and the human race degenerates into the Iron Age, a time of wickedness, crime, hard work, war, disease, private property, and greed, the “cursed love of possessing,” as Ovid called it. Key to this degeneration is the rise of technology, particularly sea-faring, metallurgy, agriculture, and mining. Already in antiquity the contrast is set: the idealized, lost peaceful world of life in harmony with nature, and the miserable present world of crime, sickness, and war.

This myth has been a powerful constant in Western literature and thought. In the early nineteenth century, the impact of industrialization and urbanization on the environment and social life seemingly confirmed this ancient wisdom. In contrast to what English poet William Blake called the “satanic mills,” pristine nature beckoned as the restorative of a more authentic existence. William Wordsworth’s memories of the rural landscape, for example, give solace to a life that “mid the din/ of towns and cities” is stunted by the “fretful stir/ Unprofitable, and the fever of the world.” In reality, of course, fantasies of a benign nature ignore the chronic malnutrition, early death, daily violence, famine, disease, and constant pain of life before the advances of technology.

The idealizations of nature remain powerful today. Much of the leftist critique of globalized capitalism recycles with a veneer of Marxist theory the demonization of technology and industrialism that first appears in the myth of the Iron Age. “All natural,” “organic,” and “no GMO” are labels that savvy marketers use to sell food. And of course, the stock-in-trade of dystopian science fiction is the mad scientist whose unnatural creations threaten to destroy the earth and the human race.

The inherent dangers and wickedness of technology and industrialism will lead, environmentalists argue, to apocalyptic destruction caused by man’s unnatural alterations of the natural world, whether these result from GM crops or pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The contemporary twist on these traditional motifs is the patina of scientific research layered over mythic longings and anxieties. Yet despite those pretensions to scientific precision and rigor, the obsession with potential risks has obscured the proven advances new technologies have made, particularly in food production.

Inorganic fertilizers, for example, are often decried as dangerous and “unnatural.” Part of the appeal of “organic” foods comes from their claim that no such fertilizers are used, implying that there is some danger to them. In fact, a 2012 Stanford University meta-analysis of existing studies found that organic foods carried no significant health or nutritional benefits. Moreover, the animus against inorganic fertilizers ignores the role they have played in increasing food production and reducing famine in the developing world.

The father of the “green revolution,” Norman Borlaug, saved perhaps a billion lives across the globe with his high-yield agricultural techniques using artificially engineered plant varieties and inorganic fertilizers. In India, the yield of wheat per acre went from 800 pounds in 1963 to 6,000 pounds today. As a result, 100 million acres of virgin land did not have to be cleared and farmed to feed a growing population. Yet the international environmentalism movement constantly opposed Borlaug, just as it is today blocking the development of GM crops in Africa.

GMO technology promises to be the next agricultural revolution, one that can increase yields even further, reduce the use of pesticides, roll back deforestation, and provide not just calories but needed nutrition to billions across the planet. Are there possible risks and unforeseen consequences? Of course there are, for nothing humans do is risk-free. Our network of roads and highways confers numerous social and economic benefits, yet it costs 33,000 deaths and many more injuries every year. Hospitals save millions of lives, yet medical mistakes and misdiagnoses kill over 100,000 people a year. Those are costs we accept and risks we run every day, most of us without noticing, let alone obsessing over them. The rational approach is to weigh benefits against risks, always with the fundamental aim of improving life for the greatest number of people both now and in the future.

The irrational battle against GMO is just one front in a larger environmentalist war against the modern world. Climate change is another, one equally reflective of the dislike of industrialism and capitalism, which have created and distributed more wealth to more people than was even imaginable a century ago. The attack on hydraulic fracturing, part of the war against carbon, irrationally harms its own goal to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, for the switch from coal to natural gas, which emits half the carbon of coal, to generate electricity can “green” the environment more than anything the environmental lobby does. Particularly in the developing world, economic development, which for now is dependent on carbon-based energy, is the best way to protect the environment in the long run. Spending money on improving the environment is the luxury of those who aren’t worried about their children eating for one more day.

Armed more with an ancient myth about a lost natural paradise, the critics of GMO are keeping billions in the developing world from enjoying the nutrition and adequate food that Western elites take for granted. As Borlaug said before his death, such critics have “never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

Those who have the luxury of abundant and reliable food can afford to decry the economic expansion that is the developing world’s best hope of mitigating the myriad problems afflicting their people. It is criminal for rich Westerners to agitate for policies that keep the benefits of biotechnology from those desperate for its boons, and to pass the costs of their idealism onto those least able to suffer the consequences.

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11 thoughts on “When Activism Kills”

  1. Today, on FoxNews, they were interviewing two doctors, of the female persuasion, on the subject of Ebola. They were asked what we as individuals could do to fight Ebola. One of the two replied: ‘Rev up your immune system.’ When asked how one would go about that, she replied: “You know, wash your hands frequently and eat organic foods.” How comforting. I fee that the problem is already under control?

  2. Are you telling us that you’d encourage GM seeds in your own fields? I somehow doubt it. Sorry, but you are wrong, wrong, wrong!! GMO’s are bad for everyone and it’s one reason Germany has made every effort to keep them out of our fields!

    The idea of starvation or limited food supplies in any country, especially developing countries has little to do with access to GMOs as much as it does with adequate distribution systems or by simply improving production methods for traditional non-GMO foods. I have personally seen tons of food destined for Africa rotting in the sun at the docks in Spain and Italy simply because of a lack of shipping.

    Those products that do make it there are often lost either while in transit, or when they arrive as they end up sitting on local docks rotting because they don’t have an adequate infrastructure to get food to the intended distribution points. Perhaps you should visit some of these places and see for yourself how poorly maintained vehicles are or even less maintained the roads are. This lack of infrastructure directly results in both lost yields and increased prices to consumers if and when it does arrive.

    Droughts and sever weather can kill GMO crops just as easily as non-GMOs. If poorer countries had improved their infrastructure it would be much easier to provide food from productive areas to non-productive areas. That’s why you can get California grapes to New York in less than 48-hours in a refridgerated truck, but not from productive areas in Africa or India to less productive ones in an open, unrefridgerated truck.

    For example, in 1932 the French colonial authorities in Mali planned to irrigate 2.47 million acres to grow cotton and rice and develop hydropower in the Mali desert. More than 30,000 people were forced to move to the desert to work on the largest aid project attempted by French colonial authorities. The African workers largely ignored French attempts to change traditional agricultural practices and by 1982, only 6 percent of the region was developed and the infrastructure was falling apart. The World Bank took over the project in 1985 and has shown limited success with rice farming.

    Let’s look at the facts;

    GMOs are unhealthy. Even the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. They cite animal studies showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility.

    GMOs contaminate by cross pollinate and their seeds can travel from field to field without restriction. It is impossible to fully clean up a GMO contaminated field or gene pool.

    GMO’s actually require more chemicals. Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Overuse of Roundup results in “super-weeds,” resistant to the herbicide. This is causing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides every year.

    Government oversight is dangerously lax. Most of the health and environmental risks of GMOs are ignored by governments’ superficial regulations and safety assessments. The reason for this tragedy is largely political. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, doesn’t require a single safety study, does not mandate labeling of GMOs, and allows companies to put their GM foods onto the market without even notifying the agency.

    GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. Just look at the bee problems in California, which have been directly attributed to GMOs.

    Whereas sustainable non-GMO agricultural methods used in developing countries have conclusively resulted in yield increases of 79% and higher, GMOs do not, on average, increase yields at all. This was evident in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report Failure to Yield―the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.

    In April 2009 German Federal Minister Ilse Aigner announced an immediate halt to cultivation and marketing of MON 810 maize under the safeguard clause. The ban was based on “expert opinion” that suggested there was reasonable grounds to believe that MON 810 maize presents a danger to the environment.

    Sorry Victor, but you’re simply wrong about the benefits of GMOs over traditional farming with non-GMO seeds. Coming from someone who grew up on a farm yourself, I’m rather surprised you’d even support something like this. I’d love to hear what a survey of your neighbors thinks about this subject.

    – Karl

    1. Karl, you sound like you’re a person who will believe and regurgitate every negative talking point you’ve heard about genetically modified crops. The first half of your post documents issues that have nothing to do with the issue, and the second half is a list of assertions, none of which appears to be in evidence, with each having it’s own customized appeal to some authority.

      Take one item that you claim is true about GMOs, like “they require more chemicals” and document why you believe that. That will make me far more receptive to your argument.

      And please cite the science itself. Don’t just appeal to the authority of some name or group. Keep in mind that complex statistical correlations in noisy natural systems, or presumptive computer models may not be dispositive, or even persuasive. Because sometimes, like in climate science, a field can get corrupted almost completely, and the science itself becomes more propaganda than objective. If you fail to make a valid argument, and your science doesn’t persuade people, please understand that the “green” movement has forced objectivity out of many issues where activists seek political advantage and domination, and thus have bent the science to be merely a means to that end.

  3. Without referencing every article against GMO’s (and there are many from both US and European scientific communities) let’s make this very simple. When Mr. Hansen plants GM seeds in his fields, and encourage his neighbors to do the same thing. then we can have a conversation. He often states how liberals say one thing and do another. If he really believes what he says, let’s see how well it works in his own fields.

    Regards – Karl

    1. Mr. Horst,
      I do plant GMO crops so perhaps we can have a discussion, although I doubt you will provide more than an emotional diatribe based on your purported ‘facts’ from advocacy scientists of your political persuasion. I imagine that you do not, out of hand, reject the European Commission. “A decade of EU-funded GMO research” referenced below follows up the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation’s first overview of the accumulated results of ‘EC Sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms published in 2001 (EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms, edited by Charles Kessler and Ioannis Economidis, European Communities, 2001, EUR 19884. See also http://ec.europa.eu/research/quality-of-life/gmo/ )


      Simply put there is a wealth of European Commission data which demonstrates that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.

  4. I love this essay, but I think there’s a more fundamental moral point that Hanson missed here and that’s the moral “ideal” of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is portrayed as the greatest moral good and this is what really drives environmentalism. We strong, rich and fat humans need to sacrifice to be morally good, right? We don’t need even more food or another power plant spewing pollution. The more we “sacrifice,” the better we are morally. Anyone who advocates the evil morality of self-sacrifice advocates for environmentalism, directly or indirectly.

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