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Why Everybody Is Afraid of GMOs

Everyone is creeped out by genetically modified foods. We just are. Any new study that shows their potential harm, no matter how credible, get instantly swept up by the media and seized upon anti-GMO campaigners — which makes sense, to an extent. We're...

Everyone is creeped out by genetically modified foods. We just are. Any new study that shows their potential harm, no matter how credible, is instantly swept up by the media and seized upon anti-GMO campaigners — which makes sense, to an extent. We’re talking about genetically modifying life forms here; life forms we also happen to eat. So when we see claims like: GMOs breed super-weeds, GMOs will give rise to Franken-salmon, or, most recently, GMOs cause rats that eat them to grow tumors and die prematurely, we freak out.


That most recent study has been shown to be pretty shady — researchers apparently colluded with the reporters who would cover it, ensuring it was portrayed with little skepticism. Its findings have also been criticized by scientists, who noted that the rats used in the study were already prone to tumor growth. In a controversial piece on Slate, Keith Kloor takes issue with the left-leaning media outlets and anti-GMO campaigners who nonetheless reported its findings, proclaiming them the “climate skeptics of the left.”

He says the GMO-fear persists today because of the efforts of green groups, progressive media, and unscrupulous scholars. Kloor writes that

I've found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs. In short, I've learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

GMO bananas

Scientists, he says, have by and large found no credible health risks to humans consuming GMO foods. But, as Tom Philpott, the Mother Jones food writer that Kloor takes to task, points out, we’re still not entirely certain what the long-term effects of growing and eating Monsanto-synthesized soy might be. It’s still a relatively young innovation. There’s some valid reason to exercise caution — especially because there’s a dearth of long-term studies on GMOs; the flawed “rat tumor” study was billed as the first. The GMO industry has blocked access to many scientists’ inquiries, making research into their health impact difficult.

Which is why the analogy to climate skeptics doesn’t work. It’s false equivalence. 97% of climatologists working in the field say that humans are causing the planet to warm. And climate science focuses on a phenomenon that’s occurring whether we like it or not; to deny that human activity is warming the planet to a dangerous degree, and to throw your lot in with the 3% that thinks otherwise, is foolhardy when a stable global climate is on the line. The best science says we need to act, and act swiftly. If we don’t, it could spell disaster.


I’s a different story with genetic engineering — you can agree that scientists have generally shown that eating GMOs won’t yield health problems, but still be skeptical that the whole enterprise is a good idea — or simply not want to eat something whose genome has been tampered with, just like you might not eat raisins. Let’s say for the sake of simplicity that 97% of scientists agree that eating GMOs won’t harm you (I doubt it’s that high). We have the luxury to explore the ideas of the dissenters because there’s no imperative to crank out as many GMOs as possible right now, unless you’re Monsanto. We can afford to be all the more careful with the genetically modified food we’re putting into our bodies; there are extant alternatives, after all. We don’t have that luxury with climate change.

And ultimately, for GMO foes, it’s not an issue of denying science, but expressing discomfort with corporations dictating the food production paradigm. That’s because, at its core, corporate involvement is what makes us so leery of GMOs in the first place. They’re not being harvested in transparent, not-for-profit operations dedicated to ending world hunger. Those living organisms are being grown — and patented — for profit by secretive multinational corporations. Mix a massive industrial operation, a distinct corporate profit motive, and an alien-seeming biotechnology that messes with our food, and you have a recipe for widespread distrust amongst consumers. And that brings us to the second major distinction between climate skeptics and anti-GMO purveyors: the money.

Those who inveigh against GMOs are not egged on by anything remotely comparable to the fossil fuel industrial complex; climate skepticism is professionally nurtured by oil, coal, and gas interests. The industry’s influence means that skeptic voices resonate in Congress and in the mainstream media. Anti-GMO crusaders have no comparable access or support network — they’re genuinely, rightly or wrongly, terrified at the prospect of Monsanto dominating the food supply.

Now, I’m not one of the “organic-only” folks Kloor derides in his post; far from it. But I remain skeptical of GMOs primarily because of the corporate culture that surrounds the companies who stand to profit off of them. There’s something fundamentally creepy about patenting life forms (as our courts have decided these companies may do), about Monsanto’s documented willingness to strong-arm farmers to push its products, and about its vast army of lobbyists that can influence policymaking on the Hill. I think such behavior alarms many others, too; corporate malfeasance can “pollute the science communication environment” more than most activist efforts.

Sure, I wish the left would be more clear-eyed in its examination of the issue, and to be more thorough in addressing bad science on the GMO front. There’s no excuse for bad science and bad reporting in any field. But it’s not a few of enviro-bloggers that lead everyone to be afraid of GMOs. The companies that manufacture them have provided plenty of their own reasons. We’re afraid of GMOs not because of the efforts of some determined activists and radical writers. We’re afraid of GMOs because the companies spreading them around the world haven’t yet given us good reason not to be.