There is an argument going around that says that opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is “anti-science,” and that such sentiments are part of a wider societal trend that encompasses issues such as climate change denial and creationism. I first noticed this argument in a New York Times op-ed, but have since come across it in the Washington Post and the Economist, and—in a variant form—from the mouth of Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz.
This assertion is wrong on two counts: first because it draws a parallel between issues where there is a clear scientific consensus (evolution, climate change) and an issue where there is not (GMOs), and second because it assumes that science should be the sole arbiter of societal change. The absence of scientific consensus on GMOs is highlighted in a paper by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, which to date has attracted more than 300 signatories. It concludes that, “The totality of scientific research outcomes in the field of GM crop safety is nuanced, complex, often contradictory or inconclusive, confounded by researchers’ choices, assumptions, and funding sources, and in general, has raised more questions than it has currently answered.”
This diversity of opinion within the scientific community is reflected in differing national legislation concerning GMOs. I am of New Zealand origin and live in France. These two countries are major food producers that are at the forefront of agricultural research, and in both countries, the growing of GM commercial crops is forbidden. Neither country is “anti-science,” and neither of them are run by a cabal of sandal-wearing greens; France has the third-highest rate of pesticide use in the world, New Zealand has a per hectare rate of fertilizer application that is 10 times that of the United States. If these countries have chosen to reject GMOs, it is not because they are opposed to industrial agricultural techniques as a whole, but because they have doubts about this specific technology.
Doubt and difference of opinion is what scientific discourse is all about and as such it is something we should welcome. Unfortunately there is a strong movement in the United States to silence dissenting opinions on this topic. So when the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report suggesting that the pesticide glyphosate might be carcinogenic to humans, the Monsanto corporation—which manufactures the glyphosate-based product Roundup and genetically engineered Roundup-resistant seeds—responded by attacking the WHO as peddlers of “junk science”. This kind of insult-slinging does nothing to advance true scientific discourse, and while it is sadly commonplace in certain corporate boardrooms, it is particularly regrettable that the US government also engages in such bullying behavior. In 2007, when France banned a GM corn variety produced by Monsanto, former US ambassador Craig Stapleton sent a wire to the US government recommending that it punish Europe as a whole and France in particular for acting in a way that was damaging to the economic interests of a large US corporation. Stapleton called on the White House to “calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits.”
In this regard, it is useful to compare the US approach to that of Switzerland, home to Syngenta, another major producer of GM crops. In Switzerland, whether or not to allow GM crops is decided by referendum, and to date the people of Switzerland have voted against allowing them. This decision is damaging to Syngenta, both financially and in terms of reputation—Switzerland is not a very big agricultural producer, but it is a blow to any corporation’s image if its own country refuses to accept its products. To date the Swiss government has not decided to “retaliate” and inflict financial “pain” on its citizens to punish them for their behavior. The citizens of Switzerland made a choice, and the Swiss government has respected that; corporations are not individuals, and corporate interest and public interest do not always coincide.
Public interest and the views of the scientific community do not always coincide either. Something can be acceptable from a scientific perspective, but inappropriate for socio-economic or cultural reasons—for example, the consumption of pork is not dangerous to human health but is forbidden in numerous countries. So even if there were scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops, it does not automatically mean that we should commercialize them. If farmers or consumers object to them for cultural or spiritual reasons, we should listen to their objections—particularly since there is currently no compelling evidence that GM crops are helping agriculture move in a direction that is beneficial to human well-being or the health of the planet as a whole.
If we are to shift to a system of agriculture that provides enough good food for everyone and does so within the limits of our planetary boundaries, then we will need an enormous variety of different plant and animal species tailored to the very specific environments in which they are produced, and an equally great variety of farming practices. This is the conclusion of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s roundtable on agroecology, as well as a six-year study carried out by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. Could GMOs be part of that solution? Perhaps. But as long as companies that are intent on recouping R&D costs and maximizing profits by rolling out standardized products and selling them in huge numbers control the production and dissemination of GM crops, then, by definition, such technology is part of the problem and not part of the solution. In the same way that you would not expect a car company to produce a different model for every different town, you cannot expect a crop science company to produce different GM crops to suit every different ecosystem. It would be ruinously expensive, doubly so since the majority of the world’s farmers cannot afford to pay for such crops. GM crops are also long to develop—it typically takes about 13 years to develop and commercialize a new variety. Given the alarming rate at which climate change is moving, GM crops risk being technically obsolete by the time they come to market.
If I were to sum up my own position concerning GM crops, it would be one of genuine doubt—and I don’t mean the kind of so-called skepticism of climate change denial. If independent research can prove that GM technology is safe, if we can devise economic models that would allow us to apply such technology in a way that is beneficial to society as a whole and not just to a few large corporations, and if society as a whole wants such technology, then by all means, we should go ahead with it. But until then, it seems prudent to just say no.
The human race is currently engaged in the mother of all battles to extract ourselves from a fossil fuel economy that promised endless growth and now threatens to destroy us. Let us learn from our mistakes, and think long and hard before rolling out another industrial model whose negative externalities we do not fully understand.