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.

Anti-Chemtrailers
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.

Animal Allies

fff2014

Fur-Free Friday March Chicago 2014

A few years ago I made a vehement stance on the validity of nonviolent direct action in the form of street protest. The example in that instance was an annual event called Fur-Free Friday. Local vegans were tone policing the protest over their disapproval of direct action. Last year took the gluten-free cupcake when they went so far as to try and co-opt the event with their own1. I still do disagree with these vegan interlopers but my position on Fur-Free Friday has flipped. I no longer support it and I feel such targeted campaigns are unethical.

To be clear though, I do not think fur activists involved are intentionally malicious. I believe their hearts are in the right place. I’m using the fur campaign here as an example to illuminate a fundamental issue I feel mires the movement. A movement obscured through the distorted lens of veganism.

Activists as Saviors
For the past 15 years I was doing it wrong. Of all my years as a vegan activist though, the past year with my has been the most constructive. This is primarily due to my involvement with Direct Action Everywhere2. Their adherence to a social justice stance has focused the issue for me. They strive to build a diverse movement which takes into consideration all injustices while fighting speciesism. Thinking more about injustices towards human animals has informed my thinking on the non-human ones.

Animals have no voice. They cannot speak up for themselves and demand justice3. So we are left with the quandary of speaking up for them. But often it seems we speak up for us, about them.

Starting off as “a vegan”, the issue of animal rights was already framed for me. It was a movement about me opting out of hurting animals. Even when actually doing something for animals I wasn’t truly considering them as a person. They were always an object that I was there to rescue. It was about me even if it felt like it was about them. I failed to consider them as the persons they are and respect that accordingly.

The Betrayal of Imagery
One of the most memorable moments that helped shift my view was this post on communicating the message of animals’ personhood. I read that right before last year’s Fur-Free Friday for which I helped organize. Everybody knows the gruesome imagery fur campaigns are known for. I did insist on imagery that didn’t reinforce animals as victims. There was only so much I could do though, as a co-organizer. The posters are recycled year to year in the same tired routine.

If these were humans we would balk at using such imagery. The graphic nature violates the dignity of the victim and reinforces that role. So why then, if we are communicating animals as persons, do we act differently? It’s because, even as animal rights activists, we can be speciesist ourselves even when it’s at the root of animal oppression we’re fighting.

Discordant Campaigns
It’s hard to be an ally. To fully empathize when you never were and never can be a certain kind of victim is practically impossible. But compassion can motivate us to consider the benefit of that doubt. We can buffer in some leeway in our advocacy to account for inevitable ignorance. It helps assure the most constructive move forward. Sometimes when we are trying to the right thing we may be making the problem worse. The science denialists have taught me that well.

Focusing on an issue tied to a particular oppressed group that one is not a member can get problematic. We see this with campaigns that focus on animal use in other cultures and stoke racist attitudes. Leveraging the thread of underlying prejudice in our culture to fast-track gains for a convenient agenda isn’t justifiable. Those unfortunate embedded notes resonate and it’s an attempt to appropriate that dissonant chord. It’s the wrong tune to play though. In this day after all the struggles we’ve seen, lessons learned, we should know better.

Fur Campaigns are Sexist
Fur-Free Friday is twenty years old now. The perennial march is resurrected each year on tradition alone. Obviously that’s weak justification. The sexism behind the campaign may not be intentional, but it’s there. If you find yourself denying it, take a second look4. Women are being harassed, bullied and shamed (while men in animal skins are let off scot-free). It took me ten years to realize this5. It’s time for Fur-Free Friday to retire or reform. We cannot justify oppressing others while fighting oppression.

To sum up:

  • Be an ally in fighting for justice.
  • Actually consider the animal, not just your emotional response to the injustice. Animals are more than victims.
  • Please be sensitive in the imagery you use when advocating for other animals. Consider their dignity, express it6.
  • Recognize and respect other social justice movements. Do not appropriate. Work together even7!
  • Do not cater to dysfunctional underpinnings of the dominant culture as a short cut. If the cause is worth it, honor it with the hard work.
  1. Called it a “Compassionate Holidays Parade” but changed the time to start early
  2. Vegan Chicago Podcast Episode #004 – Activism with Wayne Hsiung & Brian Burns, DxE
  3. not that it would matter anyway ahem…#BlackLivesMatter :p
  4. FUR HAGS and SELFISH BITCHES | Why anti-fur campaigns are sexist and ineffective – a privileged vegan
    PETA Commercial where a woman is beaten for fur. | Youtube
    Video upon video of bullying women on the streets. | Youtube
  5. Ten years ago I read Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement by Gary Francione.
  6. Allies and Images: The Importance of Communicating the Victim’s Personhood — Kelly Atlas, Direct Action Everywhere
  7. Appropriation and Animal Rights: The Intersectional Activist — Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, Direct Action Everywhere

Disease Dangers in the Vegan Community

chicago_vegan_mania_disease

Maybe consider a protective suit at vegan events.

Lack of vaccine awareness and acceptance is a largely unaddressed issue that threatens the vegan community. It’s particularly relevant now, in light of the vaccine crisis we are experiencing. Influenza hit us hard last year in 2014. Infectious diseases that were nearly eradicated, like measles (in the Chicago area!) and whooping cough, are making a comeback. These are life-threatening diseases that a simple vaccination can help curtail. Now as a parent with a new baby, I have a revitalized concern. This is (some of) the story of our struggle in tackling anti-vaccination in our vegan community.

Vegan Chicago Advocates for Vaccination

Vegan Chicago is a vegan support and social group I organize. In 2012 we started promoting the idea of vaccinations to members. We have an interest in creating a safe space for our members. We also noticed a growing contingent of anti-vax sentiments within the vegan community. This was something we felt compelled to address and sought out an expert to speak at one of our speaker events.

We searched high and low for a credible expert to talk about vaccination. With the generous help of our science allies we found a good candidate. It wasn’t without controversy though. The event page started getting swamped by vegans peppering fear, uncertainty and doubt1 throughout. With the well poisoned, the event did end up having a reduced attendance unfortunately. The recording made a good podcast episode though2.

The doctor made an interesting point during the talk. He said herd immunity is a myth. People susceptible to infectious disease are not necessarily evenly dispersed throughout the population. They tend to cluster in communities (like those who tend to avoid vaccines). So there is a lack of any protection for an increased chance of exposure. On top of that, infectious disease is just a plane trip away. So our efforts in bringing together a vegan community may be putting individuals at a higher risk!

The Flu Vaccine

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Fast-forward a year, 2013 and we’re tabling the Chicago VeganMania fest. We’re featuring a poster that’s reminding people to get their flu shot. Now, we know influenza vaccines use chicken eggs in their production. And eggs, as an animal product, are something vegans avoid. But we take the qualification of “as far as is possible and practicable”3 to heart. We advocate for this medical prophylactic over the modicum of egg used. Still though, many vegans balked.

But ok, since so many vegans had this hang-up, we rolled up our sleeves and sought out the rumored eggless version.  We soon discovered that a new vaccine used an insect cell line instead of chicken eggs4. “ANIMAL INGREDIENT, NOT VEGAN!” you say. Well, it’s more wonderfully complicated than that.

The fall armyworm is a common agricultural pest, which makes it a much-studied organism. From this organism there is a continuously cultured cell line for use in scientific research. It was originally procured in 1970 from the ovarian tissues of fall armyworms. Specifically this flu vaccine uses a cloned substrain of these cells (Sf9). A virus is genetically modified to infect these cloned insect cells. The result is the creation of the appropriate hemagglutinin protein required for the final vaccine.5

Fall armyworm.

Fall armyworm.

A similar biotech process is used in creating synthetic insulin. We used to rely on mashing up tons of pig and cow pancreases for insulin. Now we now can create it using genetically modified bacteria. Technology has this potential to help reduce our reliance on animal bodies.6 The same is true here with this vaccine. This can help displace millions of eggs each year. Isn’t that an amazing wonder of biotechnology? The vegan concerns that fall armyworms in 1970 died in the development of this vaccine are absurd. Consider the number of armyworms killed with insecticide every year for vegan food (Organic too btw).

In 2014 we hoped to bring this eggless flu vaccine to Chicago VeganMania as a pop-up clinic. It was a natural fit and what an opportunity for vegans! There would be a ton of people there from all over the place and the timing was at the start of the flu season. We worked throughout the year to establish a relationship with the vaccine developer and all the people involved in doing a pop-up clinic. Ultimately we were told that the Chicago VeganMania board7 wouldn’t allow us to bring in the pop-up clinic.

What they did allow was the usual hodgepodge of charlatanry. Reiki, chiropractic, organic food, and anti-GMO are examples of such allowed vendors8. It was disappointing and frustrating. Withholding access to this amazing medical innovation doesn’t seem to me supportive of the vegan community. It’s a missed opportunity, at best, to promote true evidence-based health and wellness.

In looking for alternative venues to bring this vaccine to our community we talked to many people. From the Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, hospitals, alderpeople, and park supervisors, everybody was encouraging. There was a hint of: “You privileged vegans won’t get vaccinated when we have underserved populations clamoring for vaccines?!” Yep, I’m living an Onion article.

Vegan Chicago did send out a poll9 to our nearly 3,000 Vegan Chicago members to gauge interest in the vaccine. Over 50 replied in the affirmative and that was a nice surprise! I didn’t expect even that response. So it could be that vegans aren’t so anti-vaccine after all (or that our Vegan Chicago members tend to be more scientifically minded). The original Vegan Society sent me this page regarding their stance on medicine10 and paper11 on their stance on medicine.

Anti-Vax is Not Vegan

The eggless flu vaccine is relatively easier to find this year. When people’s lives are at risk a bit of egg isn’t worth avoiding. But isn’t it damn cool that we can have our kale and eat it too? Fear mongering over puritanical and dogmatic standards is not in the spirit of the vegan movement. Nitpicking something for containing a molecule of animal can cause more harm than the originating vegan intention. It misses opportunities to displace animal products, and it puts animals (human and other) into harm’s way. As we saw with anti-GMO12 animals are now being tortured13 looking for any tenuous confirmation. Animals have suffered enough over this anti-vax nonsense. We are better than this.

It is our moral obligation to impede the spread of infectious diseases. Vaccination is an important tool in the toolbox to do that. Forgoing vaccination is a threat to the bodily integrity of others. This unethical practice has no place in the vegan community (and society at large). Be the immune response to this junk info viral invader. Let’s not offer anti-vax a refuge to fester and perpetuate. It does so when we are complicit in our idle silence.

Further Info:
Vaccines, Vegans, & Autistic Puppies, Oh My! | Skeptical Vegan
Vaccine “Controversy” | Vegan Skeptic
Anti-vax and Veganism | Reasonable Vegan
Vegan Flu Shots: A Guide | Ed v. Food
DNA – Playing God (PBS Documentary) | YouTube

  1. FUD – Fear, uncertainty and doubt | Wikipedia
  2. Vegan Chicago Podcast: Episode #003 – Vaccines with Kenneth Alexander, MD
  3. “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” | The Vegan Society
  4.  The vegans arent going to kill us! Thanks to a GMO virus 😉 | erv
  5.  A Worm’s Ovary Cells Become A Flu Vaccine Machine | Health News : NPR
  6. Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product | FDA
  7. Organizing committee for Chicago Vegan Mania 2014: Josh Alper, John Beske, Kevin Cooney, Mike Durshmid, Anne Marie Fosnacht, Robinlee Garber, Gill Gillono, Jim Glackin, Kristin Konrady, Jeff Olichwier, Marla Rose, Rob Sax, Robin Plotter Sax, Rachel Shippee, Minku Sharma, Sandi Swiss.
  8.  Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud? | Reasonable Vegan
  9.  Vegan Chicago email vaccine poll.
  10.  “Currently all medicine in the UK must be tested on animals before it is deemed safe for human use, but please note: The Vegan Society DOES NOT recommend you avoid medication prescribed to you by your doctor – a dead vegan is no good to anyone!”| The Vegan Society
  11.  Suitability of common drugs for patients who avoid animal products | The BMJ
  12. Vegans Exploit Tumored Rat Victims | Pythagorean Crank
  13.  Antivaccine activists fund a study to show vaccines cause autism. It backfires spectacularly. « Science-Based Medicine