The Case Against GMO

As an ex-anti-GMO activist I felt an obligation to right the wrongs of my past and became a “pro-GMO” activist. I double-downed hard. I’d wager right now that few people are more “pro-GMO” than I am. This is not easy for me to say but I now suspect that being pro-GMO is as wrong as being anti-GMO.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure it was fair to be pro OR anti.1 It wasn’t so much that I was pro-GMO but more that I was anti-anti-GMO. That nuanced distinction gets lost quickly in conversation especially with those already polarized into anti-GMO positions. So I adopted the “pro-GMO” rhetoric for advocacy.2

My efforts spanned years with such projects as MAMyths and VeganGMO. I explored the nooks and crannies of this issue from a variety of angles. My particular focus though was the social justice implications, which is what kinda got me in this mess in the first place. Now, with this perspective I think I have been doing it all wrong, again.

This got a bit long so before we go on I’ll give you the tl;dr version:

  • GMO is a conspiracy theory.
  • Some of the underlying GMO concerns are legit.
  • GMO is not scientific.
  • Saying “GMO” is making it worse.
  • Truth deserves a movement.

After fighting the fight from all angles it now appears to me more than ever that GMO is basically a conspiracy theory. Take the Chemtrail conspiracy theory for instance. If you haven’t heard of chemtrails, it’s this notion that planes are spraying biological agents on people for sinister purposes. All those lines in the sky planes leave behind, chemtrails. It’s easily debunked with the fact that they are a natural result of engine exhaust called contrails. But many haven’t heard of either because it’s so fringe.3

There isn’t a pro-chemtrail campaign in defense of aviation. They don’t call themselves “anti-chemtrailers” even though that’s what they are. There is “anti-GMO” though when GMO is a complete fabrication. Wikipedia literally lists the Chemtrail entry as “Chemtrail conspiracy theory“. You know how GMO is listed? “Genetically modified organism“. GMO is just as bad as chemtrails but treated as a real thing.

GMO may actually more closely resemble UFO.4 Both are acronyms but taken literally do not represent the descriptive understanding. An “unidentified flying object” is understood to be of extraterrestrial origin. So much so that investigators started to adopt “unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP)” for accuracy. UFO was big in its heyday but is now relegated to science fiction, if that.

The most boisterous anti-GMO group March Against Monsanto (MAM) is also in the chemtrail camp along with a slew of conspiracy theory nonsense.5  The underlying cynical distrust of corporate organizations and influenced institutions are shared in common. It’s not totally unjustified but the hypervigilance against those threats though can warp reality and backfire.

It would be great to see GMO get the treatment it deserves like any other irrational conspiracy theory. Turning that phrase into an embarrassment would help shift the conversation and discount it in the public eye. Whenever I think of GMO now I will substitute “UFO” and treat it accordingly. Right now that’s not what we have. GMO though, is getting more and more mainstream exposure now through the shrewd labeling tactic. It’s starting to soak into mainstream culture through the products they see on the shelves. Most people don’t really care enough to have a strong opinion either way. But it’s these marketing tactics that can influence them to lean towards a non-GMO purchase or worse, a tick mark on a ballot. That adds up to repercussions on future investment and exploration of science and tools that are needed so desperately.

Anti-GMO is Actually Not Quite Wrong
One thing I heard a lot while tabling on behalf of GMO/biotech at the March for Science was “I’m for GMO but not Monsanto”. In a science crowd. This isn’t very surprising because pro-GMO people hear it a lot.6 You can drop all the facts you want but the issue remains seemingly unfazed.  GMO usually stands for something greater than the sum of the letters in the acronym. It is not an unreasonable concern. Big picture perspective; we are burdened with the sins of the past. That is, there is a historical context to this situation such as corporate corruption as documented in Merchants of Doubt and unfettered pesticide application as described in Silent Spring. Corporatism and misuse of technology has a precedent. I knew this of course, but in my zeal to defend technology I wasn’t being sensitive enough to that legacy. Certainly it’s easy to list the number of ways biotechnology has and can help life on this planet but there is context to consider.7 Anti-GMO is still causing loathsome injustice but I have a renewed empathy for the spirit of their fight. It’s like an autoimmune response except now weaponized with tobacco science style FUD tactics borrowed from villains of the past.

It is no wonder that in defending GMO I often get painted as a shill. How many times do I have to hear “I’m not against GMO but #MonsantoTho” before I get it through my thick skull about what’s really going down here? GMO means something different to detractors. Something that is not unreasonable.

GMO is Non-Science
Even with the experience of GMO focusing on corporatism, efforts to quell fears over GMO have focused on the science. Funny thing though, scientists are loathe to use the term GMO in any professional capacity. It doesn’t describe anything accurately enough to make meaningful sense. Journalist Nathanial Johnson did a special series on Grist called “Panic-free GMOs“. Thirty-freaking-plus articles later finally concluding that “none of it matters” and “It’s practically impossible to define ‘GMOs‘”. European Union legislators regulating biotechnology tried to define GMO scientifically and had a helluva time:

Scientists have never called for a general deregulation of biotechnologies; rather, they have been recommending that each new cultivar, created via any method, should be tested and assessed based on its traits and its unique profile of risks and benefits. The same approach is outlined in the Codex Alimentarius, which outlines international food safety standards.

This rational appeal has gone unheeded, however, and the fake “GMO” concept has been born. It has created a bizarre flaw that amounts to a rickety fence tentatively erected on a fuzzy border to separate the bogus category “GMOs” from more traditional breeding methods—including physical and chemical mutagenesis—even when the traits thus obtained are the same.8

And so it goes where lawmakers try to bridge this gap between the irrational demands of the public and the scientific understanding. Something has to give. Which wheel is squeakiest?

I’ve said hundreds of times that there’s a scientific consensus that GMOs are safe. But how is that possible when GMO isn’t scientific? GMO cannot be both a scientifically meaningless term and recognized by a scientific consensus. Is science being undermined by making this fallacious point?

Don’t Think of a GMO
I made the mistake of falling for the myth that a rational exchange of information will change people’s minds.9 Looking for a new approach I read cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s book: Don’t Think of an Elephant! He breaks down the idea of framing. Words trigger conceptual structures comprised of emotions, narratives and metaphors. It’s the same type of cognitive science that marketers use but the ideas are the products. Associating an issue with familiar concepts makes them attractive, sticky, and viral. A good frame composed of a few words can make a response difficult as it requires a lot more work to unpack. Detractors become reactive rather than proactive.

All of this was sounding familiar making me think that maybe GMO is the frame! Those simple three letters along with decades of rhetoric have effectively framed the issue into the monster we see today. If this is true, the framing is reinforced every time “GMO” is mentioned, pro or anti. All my work of saying I’m “pro-GMO” may have been undoing my own biotech advocacy work.

It’s an elegant rhetorical device that spans the partisan dichotomy of Lakoff’s typical measure. Somehow it’s been bound up in representing the ills of society that resonate with people regardless of their political affiliation. But wait, it gets better because GMO serves double as a manufactroversy. By creating controversy where there isn’t any it effective nullifies science in public policy debates. We see that happening all over the place with labeling schemes, restrictions, regulations, and bans. Again those same tactics used by merchants of doubt in the past have come back to haunt us.

What to Do From Here
If Lakoff’s ideas are legit10 and GMO is their frame then priority should go towards the long slog of reframing the issue. Ideas must compete with theirs but those ideas need development beyond reactionary apologetics. “GMO” and “Monsanto” should probably be struck from the vocabulary. Any amount of contrived acrobatics in avoiding those words might be less harmful than playing into those narratives.

It’s not just the framing issue that gives me pause though in using “GMO”. Being annoyed by people who are wrong is a privilege I have. If that’s near the top of things I have to worry about I’m pretty lucky. I started this path as a debt to undo any anti-GMO contribution I may have had in the past and to fight for implications of justice. But slowly I think it became something less. I found myself in a troll party of skeptics. A group of people like me thumbing their noses for the lulz. I don’t think this is good enough for me anymore.

And hey, I’m an activist through and through. I get polarization, freezing targets, dramatizing the issue, disrupting social norms, keeping it enjoyable, all the classic lessons. I have put a lot of effort into the pro-GMO campaign and I tried all the usual justifications. I’ll tell myself I am co-opting their language, meeting them where they’re at, reappropriating their buzzwords. Are those strong reasons or am I falling for the sunk cost fallacy trap?

With my activist hat on my instinct is to build a movement. For that I look for allies and communities. Who are the allies for biotech?11? It can’t be companies. I’m not going to rely on profit-motivated entities as allies. Seeing the numbers of food producers taking on the Non-GMO Project labels (or making their own) have made me once again become cynical of capitalism. They are guilty once again of throwing science under the bus and exploiting consumers.

Part of this whole business may be whats been plaguing the skeptic movement all along. The hypocognition in dealing with this newly recognized phenomenon of pseudoscience might be something we never got around to dealing with in the first place. I hear the frustration in finding words to describe the situation we’re in. If we can account for the rabbit hole traps of our crude thinking organs with new common concepts and a lexicon perhaps we have a chance. Maybe this GMO business is the canary in the coal mine of a much bigger issue that plagues modern humans. Once we have the luxury to realize thinking critically is important for the truth we lose the perspective that it’s more than avoiding something that’s wrong. For outsiders it could seem like smug pedantry. The truth is important for justice and deserves a framework of protection. This is not an entirely new concept though as Ghandi coined “satyagraha” understanding the value of truth in a cause for justice. Utilizing today’s knowledge tempered with lessons of yesterday makes for a well-informed strategy for the future.

–citations and asides–

  1. “Is it fair to be “anti-GMO” or even “pro-GMO”?” You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr
  2.  There is a nuance to pro-GMO though. It wasn’t “I ❤️ GMOs”. It was “I ❤️ GMO” sans the plural ‘s’ because it was the technology I liked, not the trait. I must admit there could be some trait I would not ❤️. So GMO in my book stood for biotechnology in general and that I loved for its awesome promise.
  3. There is though plausibility in the form of cloud seeding, crop dusting, mosquito abatementGeoengineering, etc
  4. My spouse made that point to me while I was on a tirade, she rules. ❤️
  5. Tami Canal is the founder of March Against Monsanto and admits they are indeed anti-vaccine and anti-fluoridated water.
  6. My Experience Giving a ProGMO Talk at Skeptics Events, Myles Power
  7. But of course, anti-GMO is similarly insensitive when their actions take away life-saving solutions.
  8.  The meaningless pseudo‐category of “GMOs”, Giovanni Tagliabue
  9. Information Deficit Model, Wikipedia
  10. I haven’t read a solid critique of Lakoff yet. This field is new to me and I know better than to put too much stock into one person’s ideas. My zeal for this will likely be tempered as I dive deeper.
  11. We’ve been looking for allies the past year in re-crafting the mission and campaigns for MAMyths. We have a few leads and suspicions but it’s probably not going to be easy to gain trust in this environment.

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