Environmental activist Mark Lynas recently embraced biotechnology, as the agricultural savior of humanity. His public conversion has drawn heavy attention in mainstream media, prompting gleeful cackles from biotech profiteers. As with any science-based debate, critical thinking and skeptical inquiry offers the best path forward: are there good reasons to follow the pilgrimage of the devout, renounce organics for GMOs, and spread Monsanto’s gospel? (Spoiler alert: nope.)
A recent New Yorker article describes Lynas as an ex-militant anti-GMO activist, who “clung to what can only be described as a religious conviction that [genetically modified] foods were unnatural.”
Lynas publicly renounced non-GMO advocacy, with many many many apologies for not seeing the light sooner. Text and video detailing his come-to-GMO experience can be found here; the New Yorker summed it up as follows:
“I want to start with some apologies,” he said. “For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up g.m. crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-g.m. movement back in the mid-nineties…
He added that the opposition to g.m. was explicitly an anti-science movement. “What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-g.m. Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to g.m. on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because it is marketed by the big auto companies? So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about g.m. turned out to be little more than green urban myths.”
He addresses those myths in the speech:
• I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.
• I’d assumed that g.m. benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.
• I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.
So let’s put that all in a Petri dish and see what cultures, shall we?
Definitions: A Good Place to Start
Pro-GMO folk love presenting themselves as science based, and everyone else as anti-science. So before we unpack all the heavy stuff, let’s do a science-class flashback: what exactly constitutes a scientific worldview?
NOT SCIENCE: “I believe it to be so, and anyone who says differently is wrong.” Often found on both sides of the GMO debate (and offered here on both sides of the debate, consecutively, by the same fellow) this approach is intrinsically flawed. Skeptical inquiry relies on data, on evidence — not conviction or belief. A skeptical scientific worldview embraces the following ideas:
- Science demands evidence. Specific observations under controlled conditions replace superstition, as a means for understanding natural events or phenomena. Evidence offered to support a given hypothesis should be reproducible by other investigators, using the same research methods.
- Scientists try to avoid bias. Data can easily be skewed by conscious or unconcious bias among investigators. Techniques such as randomized sampling, double-blind studies, and the peer review process all help to minimize potential data skew in scientific studies, for optimal understanding of the phenomena in question.
- Science cannot provide complete answers to all questions. Science can speak to cause and effect, to likely consequences of given actions; but scientific methods can’t investigate ‘good versus evil,’ or test the ethical soundness of a given idea or course of action.
OK: Now Then
Back to Mr. Lynas, his reasons for initially adopting a non-GMO position do indeed seem to be ungrounded in scientific thinking: there’s an awful lot of assumption in what he ‘believed’ before his biotech conversion.
I encourage everyone to resist relying on assumption, when it comes to something as vital and irreplaceable as the global food supply. Instead, seek out evidence:
- New Report: GMO Agriculture Increasing Pesticide Use on Corn, Cotton, Soy
- GMO Crops Leading to Increased Pesticide Use in US
- GMO Myths and Truths Report: Myth 5.2, GM Crops Reduce Pesticide Use (reference data here)
Regarding the accrual of financial benefit by corporate shareholders vs. growers, farmworkers, and consumers, GMO-driven agriculture has demonstrably harmed poor farming communities in India and Mexico, by creating financial dependence and limiting food crop biodiversity (respectively). Within our own industrialized first-world food system, heavily reliant on biotechnology for our most commonly grown crops (corn and soybeans), Monsanto profits grew an estimated 25% during 2012; net farm income only grew 3.4%.
Lynas also talks about assuming that ‘Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed.’ Well, you know, that was just not scientific thinking, and a Google search could have helped him see the problem more clearly — it’s patent law doing that, not terminator technology. But logic dictates that it’s still a problem, especially in poor areas heavily reliant on subsistence farming.
Now, I’ve never met Mark Lynas; I don’t know how he thinks about anything, except as reflected in his recent remarks about GMO agriculture. But I have to agree with his self-assessment: that was some sloppy and unscientific thinking, if he relied on those assumptions to form his initial position on biotechnology-driven agriculture.
The problem, however, is that he’s still doing it! His new zeal for GMOs utilizes exactly the same kind of sloppy, unscientific thinking as before — it’s undergone a 180 degree directional reversal, but the basic flaws persist.
This individual case study highlights one of the central problems with the public debate about GMO agriculture: lack of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, when industry advocates attempt to seize the scientific high ground.
There were and are science-based (vs. assumption-based) reasons to approach GMO agriculture skeptically, for those of us who value environmental sustainability and human health. The social justice issues inherent in privatizing access to food crops also deserve serious consideration, using sound logic and ethical reasoning informed by observable events.
Since Mr. Lynas’ public Damascus moment has catapulted the GMO issue into the mainstream limelight, let’s go there: from the perspective of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, do biotechnology proponents make a convincing case?
Can GMOs really save the world?
Top 3 Killers of Scientific Understanding: Bias, Bias, Bias
Imagine that Walmart publishes an in-house study, in which Walmart executives find that Walmart brand clothing is far superior to every other brand of clothing. The executives aggressively prevent anyone else from performing any investigation on the clothing in question, and get caught several times trying to bribe or suppress critics. When shoppers bring back clothing that fell apart the first time it was worn, Walmart workers say, ‘Oh no it didn’t!! Our clothing is very high quality — it’s been SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN!!!’
The issue of bias in scientific discovery can be daunting, sneaking in and skewing data despite the best efforts of honest investigators. It can also be overt, predictable, and transparently profit-driven.
Proponents of reason-based (vs. profit-based) decision making constantly guard against bias in data collection and interpretation, to the best of their abilities. The scientific community has developed strategies like double-blind studies, randomized sampling, and the process of peer review to decrease the tendency of researchers to find what they want (or expect) to find.
Since the introduction of GMO agriculture in the 1990’s, the biotechnology industry has been careful to ensure the highest possible level of scientific bias, in researching the effects of their products upon the world.
I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post: for support, rather than illumination.
— David Ogilvy
“JUUUUUUUUUUUST Trust Us!” Isn’t Science
The biotechnology industry itself is in charge of all safety research for GM foods and farming techniques, and has fought tooth and nail to prevent non-industry researchers from studying potential health risks related to transgenic food crops. In some cases industry has actively attempted to keep consumers from hearing about GM problems, by trying to bribe public officials or suppress media reports when harmful effects of genetically engineered food products were identified.
Biotechnology proponents like to frame GM labeling advocates as ‘anti-science‘– but industry’s deliberate experiment manipulation and data suppression is the very antithesis of good science, making any kind of meaningful GMO risk assessment difficult if not impossible.
In one 2010 report on health concerns surrounding Roundup-Ready soybeans and glyphosphates, authors also point out that:
Contrary to claims by the GM industry and its supporters, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never approved any GM food as safe. Instead, it de-regulated GM foods in the early1990s, ruling that they are “substantially equivalent” to non-GM foods and do not need any special safety tesing. The ruling was widely recognized as a political decision with no basis in science.
Even the assertion that ‘GMOs are safe’ exemplifies non-science-based thinking: each new genetic modification differs from every other, and must be evaluated on its own merits (or lack thereof). From a health perspective, human consumption of Bt in corn raises different potential issues compared to Roundup Ready soybeans — there’s no scientific reason to expect that the effects of consuming Bacillus thuringiensis are in any way equivalent (or even similar to) increased dietary or environmental exposure (for example) to Roundup’s glyphosate.
From an environmental perspective, the effects of Bt cotton on surrounding ecosystems can’t be conflated with the impact of ever-escalating Roundup resistance; and stacked-resistance crops offer a completely different set of environmental problems, compared to either of these, such as ‘superweeds’ resistant to both Roundup and Agent Orange poison 2,4-D. With broad assertions that ‘GMOs are’ [insert flattering adjective here], the language of the biotech industry and their flock clearly represents the world of marketing — not the world of science.
Deliberate Data Deficit
Where are the peer reviewed studies, on human consumption and potential health effects related to GMO foods? Where are the independent studies exploring potential problems from chronic, developmental, and reproductive toxicity related to eating each type of GMO food now ubiquitous in our food supply?
Those studies exist only in the imagination of future would-be researchers.
According to a 2011 analysis of Monsanto’s data from 19 GM food studies– which is what we have to settle for, since independent researchers are prevented from conducting independent testing or reporting un-GMO-flattering conclusions– results raised what should have been further research questions:
Several convergent data appear to indicate liver and kidney problems as end points of GMO diet effects in the above-mentioned experiments. This was confirmed by our meta-analysis of all the in vivo studies published, which revealed that the kidneys were particularly affected, concentrating 43.5% of all disrupted parameters in males, whereas the liver was more specifically disrupted in females (30.8% of all disrupted parameters)…
The 90-day-long tests are insufficient to evaluate chronic toxicity, and the signs highlighted in the kidneys and livers could be the onset of chronic diseases. However, no minimal length for the tests is yet obligatory for any of the GMOs cultivated on a large scale, and this is socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection.
The limitations of existing toxicity studies, in concert with the ongoing lack of unbiased peer-reviewed research, raise the specter of potential GM food toxicity that hasn’t been found yet because it hasn’t been sought.
A large and growing body of evidence points to potential problems related to GMO consumption, including evidence of nearly nonexistent regulation of these substances with largely unknown effects on human physiology.
That kind of persistent determination to avoid gathering potentially unflattering data represents the opposite of a science-based world view, within the biotech industry and its zealots. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
Bob and Weave, Baby: Bob and Weave!
The chemical companies and their acolytes are quick to suppress, attack, and dismiss evidence that GMOs may not be the promised agricultural Messiah after all.
Evidence that traditional methods outperform genetic engineering, in increasing crop yields? Ignore that! Evidence that traditional non-GMO farming methods result in the same level of weed control, but with cleaner groundwater and less environmental contaminants? Poppycock! Evidence that a GMO-driven farming model facilitates resistant pests, and can be devastating to poor farming communities? Look away!! Ignore the facts behind the curtain!! Because, you know, if you don’t like GMOs you’re ANTI-SCIENCE!!!
That is simply not a pro-science argument, and no amount of jumping up and down and insisting otherwise will change that fact in any way.
GMO Labeling: Science Fears Not the Light of Day
The GMO labeling issue finally made national headlines this year, with California’s Prop 37. The biotech industry spent millions to deny consumers information about their food — and to deny potential researchers the ability to design studies examining any correlations that may exist between GMO food consumption and changes in human health.
Health and sustainability advocates clamor for more data, while GMO advocates fight hard to restrict information access. By fighting ferociously against mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, industry seems determined to prevent independent researchers from designing studies that could begin to even attempt to answer some of the persistent questions surrounding health and environmental impacts of GMOs.
Which group’s actions, then, are anti-science?
Environmentalism vs. Corporatism
In terms of climate change and other environmental impacts, evidence accumulates that systems (such as GMO agriculture) dependent on fossil fuel inputs are fundamentally problematic, and unsustainable at a both local and global levels.
Since their rise to agricultural dominion in the 1990s, global biodiversity has diminished and climate change has advanced alarmingly — more rapidly than most theoretical models anticipated. What evidence supports the hypothesis that continued pursuit of research-intensive oil-dependent pesticide-escalating biodiversity-diminishing biotech crops will do anything other than continue to exacerbate these problems?
That evidence is imaginary; but there’s a very real and growing body of evidence that the chemical companies driving GMO agriculture will do, say, or spend absolutely anything in order to keep their profits in the (ever warmer) stratosphere.
Hungry World: Still Hungry
The biotech industry loves to wax poetic about noble intentions regarding world hunger — meanwhile developing such world-saving products as GMO apples that resist turning brown, or stacked-resistance crops to feed overfed countries with an engineered resistance problem — so that we can grow more artificially cheap corn, to produce more artificially cheap meat, so that we can die early from the Western diseases of overabundance.
Many factors play a role in world hunger, but most often in developing countries the central problem is one of resource distribution. In other words, it’s not that we don’t produce enough food to feed everyone; it’s that often poor people can’t reach it. Among poverty-stricken areas of developing countries, evidence suggests that traditional low-tech farming methods work better than ultramodern industrial oil-dependent patent-protected profit-driven biotech methods, for feeding hungry families.
World hunger is a problem of poverty, not one of production.
Where Science Stops: Social Justice, Food Monopolies, and Moral Reasoning
Evidence suggests many reasons to remain skeptical of the world view offered by biotech evangelicals. But even beyond the problems related to biased research, or ever-increasing pest resistance, or unexplored potential health impacts, or negative impacts on biodiversity — beyond any of the science-based reasons one might reject industry dogma — we must step beyond the domain of science, and recognize the ethical implications of allowing corporate privatization of the global food supply.
A GMO-driven agricultural system privatizes access to one of life’s most basic needs — seeds for food crops — for the gain of the few at the expense of the many. Science can’t tell you whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea; moral reasoning must step into the fray.
Physicist, ecologist, and social justice advocate Vandana Shiva asserts that those who assume GM crops produce more food for hungry people are “sadly mistaken.”. Introducing genetically engineered seed means introducing toxins (such as Roundup) to whole ecosystems, including other crops growing alongside GM corn, soy, or cotton. Effects of these toxins, and the facilitation of resistant superweeds in surrounding fields, often result in LESS food being produced for the farmer and his or her family.
Government studies have repeatedly found this to be the case in India, after the introduction of genetically modified crops. Far from facilitating increased food production, Shiva says, when you make traditional farmers dependent on patented GM seeds,
“You are creating hunger; you are creating disease. Superweeds taking over your fields are a recipe for hunger; pests overtaking your fields are a recipe for hunger. But worse, seed patents are a way of getting money out of poor people. This is NOT a solution to hunger and poverty: this is aggravating the crisis that poor people already face.”
Each new genetically modified trait inserted into a food crop takes about $139 million, to develop and then bring it to market. With so much to recoup, and with patent law dictating repurchase of seed for each new crop, do we really stand prepared to believe that poor farming communities in developing nations will benefit from this expensive technology?
The world hunger problem is already chiefly one of inequitable resource distribution; GMO seeds and their related chemistry pose yet another distribution challenge. Is it ethical to pour our world resources into development of these unsustainable strategies, guaranteed to cultivate dependence on global megacorporations, rather than traditional agro-ecological techniques that can sustain poor families without reliance on cash economies or external supplies — without actively reducing the amount of food they can produce, to feed hungry families?
I think that’s a difficult ethical position to reasonably argue, or to support.
Conclusion: Science and Reason Trump Biotech Catechism
Scientific thinking and moral reasoning work together to lead towards better understanding of the universe, and towards better decision making skills. Believing what you’re told makes you a useful tool for whoever tells the best story — but is unlikely to change the world in any positive way, except for whoever’s using you.
Is there a way to use biotechnology for food crops to do more good than harm, to the world?
The only scientifically sound answer to that question is that within the current bias-ridden, self-regulated, data-deficient, tranparency-phobic biotech industrial model, we have no way of empirically investigating that question.
Given the magnitude of potential detriment to human health, environmental integrity, and food security within poor communties, ethical reasoning argues for applying the precautionary principle, and viewing GMO agriculture (in its current form) with considerable skepticism.
Food issues don’t get a pass on sense or science. Neither Mr. Lynas nor anyone else should ‘believe’ in GMO agriculture or ‘believe’ it’s a problem. Skeptical inquiry and data-driven decision making, combined with thoughtful moral reasoning, will lead to reasonable agricultural strategies and food policy designed to benefit the public good; but they can only lead there if we follow reason, not ‘belief’ in the biotechnology industry’s self-serving parables.