The title of William Saletan’s July 15 j’accuse in Slate, “Unhealthy Fixation” is spot on, but the subtitle really nails it: “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.” Longer than most blog posts, it’s well worth reading, as it lays out in meticulous and measured prose, with abundant citations, the panoply of shifting arguments and reversals that demonstrate to all who have eyes to see the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the campaign spearheaded by Greenpeace against recombinant DNA techniques applied to improving agriculture. He does, however, elide the difficulty of overcoming this populist fear mongering.
Over the past couple of years we’ve seen something new: cautiously, and one at a time, courageous journalists have followed the data, interrogated their presuppositions, and begun to pull back the many layers of curtains to illuminate the true intentions driving the global campaign against modern innovations in agriculture, aka “GMOs.” Keith Kloor was among the first I noticed, with his column, also in Slate, noting the intellectual incoherence of those who accept the global scientific consensus on climate while denying the even stronger consensus on the safety of GMOs and the techniques used to produce them. He followed that with a piece, driving yet another stake through the heart of the undying lie continually repeated by Prince Charles and others among the privileged and well fed who falsely claim biotech cotton has driven Indian farmers to commit suicide in desperation at the failure of their biotech crops (such a massive failure that biotech cotton seed is now freely chosen by 95 percent of Indian farmers). Amy Harmon produced a number of excellent pieces in the Gray Lady herself, including one exploring the potential to rescue Florida’s citrus industry and save our morning OJ through innovative agricultural research and another on the particularly venomous battle being waged by fear mongers and their hate-filled legions in Hawaii, the land of aloha. Michael Specter detailed the logical failures advanced by one of the anti movement’s favorite sacred cows in The New Yorker. And Jon Entine has done highly praiseworthy work debunking the ridiculously dishonest and manufactured campaign, using honeybees as stalking horses, to attack the latest generation of improved pesticides, which are vastly safer than those they’ve displaced. But all these worthy predecessors merely paved the way for the inevitable, but no less remarkable, welcome, and long overdue dissection from Saletan. Pulitzer jurists, please take note.
Others have summarized some of the key points for those too pressed to give the full piece the necessary time, so we won’t recapitulate much here. But this paragraph, in particular, is worth re-reading:
Another thing we’ve learned is that it makes no sense to avoid GMOs based on standards that nobody applies to non-GMO food. Yes, it’s conceivable that you could overdose on vitamin A or ingest a viral or insecticidal protein from eating fruits, grains, or vegetables. But GMOs don’t make any of these scenarios more likely or more dangerous. In fact, if you look at illness or direct fatalities—or at correlations between food sales and disease trends, which anti-GMO activists like to do—you can make a better case against organic food than against GMOs.
The piece is full of other, similarly delicious and counterintuitive bon mots. Read it; you’ll be glad you did. But despite its unparalleled virtues, it does have two imperfections.
The first is Saletan’s description of one of the perennial anti-biotech, pro-organic campaigners, Charles Benbrook. He describes Benbrook as “the most sensible critic of GMOs,” and this may well be true. But that does not mean Benbrook’s critiques are sensible. Benbrook has spent the past decade and more arguing that biotech crops have increased, rather than reduced the use of pesticides in agriculture. The argument depends on tortured and misleading logic and is contradicted by a massive number of studies in the peer reviewed scientific literature, as well as vast farmer experience, corporate annual reports, and other sources, which have dissected his arguments in detail. The most detailed critiques uncover dubious statistical methods and interpretations of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data that USDA shows are false. It is unfortunate that Saletan seems not to have discovered this in his Brobdingnagian research, but he does call Benbrook out for getting it wrong, and thereby gets the bottom line right. But this is a minor oversight, not an error.
But Saletan does, I think, make one error. His concluding paragraph reads:
That’s what genetic engineering can do for health and for our planet. The reason it hasn’t is that we’ve been stuck in a stupid, wasteful fight over GMOs. On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public. The only way to end this fight is to educate ourselves and make it clear to everyone—European governments, trend-setting grocers, fad-hopping restaurant chains, research universities, and biotechnology investors—that we’re ready, as voters and consumers, to embrace nutritious, environmentally friendly food, no matter where it got its genes. We want our GMOs. Now, show us what you can do.
This gets it about 98 percent right. But I think the assertion of “corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public” is more than a little off target. This debate, which should be about how best to meet the food, feed, and fibre needs of a growing population, has devolved into a populist shouting match that is hard to overcome, and which inevitably slows the pace of innovation.
I infer that Saletan is suggesting the “corporate cowards” work for biotech companies, not only Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont Pioneer, Dow, BASF, and Syngenta (the “big six”), but also the myriad small companies sweating to bring innovations to market against the massive opposition the antis have been waging over the past three decades: AquaBounty, Arctic Apples, ArborGen, and many more. But the folks at all these companies have day jobs. Those day jobs involve adding value, for example, to seeds which they then sell to farmers. Which they must sell to farmers. If the farmers don’t buy the seeds, the game is off, and the company goes bust. The relationships between these biotech seed companies and farmers is, therefore, generally a pretty good one, as farmers who buy biotech seeds once tend to repurchase them at very high rates. That says something important, and it speaks to a positive relationship between the seed companies and their farmer customers. This is based in no small part on the fact that the seed companies communicate extensively with their customers, inundating them with information and transparency, all the things the activists claim they don’t do.
Biotech company folks who ignore the wingnuts who offer nothing but shrieking hatred and the lies Saletan documents are not being cowards; they are fulfilling their fiduciary duties to their shareholders and putting their own customers—the farmers—first. Those customers are so happy that when their governments lag in approving new biotech seeds, they will go to great lengths to get them any way they can.
But there are many companies involved along the food chain from farm to fork. Biotech seed companies may be among the first, but the ones actually facing consumers, where the fiercest battles are being waged, are the food companies. Are they cowards for not defending their products from direct assault? I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, either.
Food companies own many food brands, no small number of which have a market cap value greater than the summed market caps of all the biotech seed companies (Monsanto, the biggest biotech seed company, has a market cap of about $50 billion, while Nestle’s is $247 billion, Anheuser Busch’s is $169 billion, Coca Cola’s is $168 billion, Pepsi’s is $122 billion, and Unilever’s is $121 billion).
And in the thin profit margin, cut throat competition among food companies for the consumer penny, the loss of half a percentage point in market share can end the 40-year career of a brand manager or signal the start of a slide that could spell the death of a company. That’s enough to turn even the most impetuous teenager into a risk-averse septuagenarian overnight.
So I’m not sure how much cowardice is involved. Honestly, how many of us would have a ready or effective response to a mob shrieking hateful slogans into our faces, a mob completely impervious, as Saletan demonstrates at length, to data and reason. Saletan writes, “[W]hen you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.” Societies don’t have a good track record of addressing intractable conflicts rooted in dogma. It seems to be one of our signal failings as a species.
In my view, this calls on us all to find better ways to communicate with one another. It demands that we, as societies, renew our insistence on reason and compromise as central values, indeed prerequisites of citizenship, just as much as vaccination should be required as the price of entry to a public school or stadium: if you want to belong to the herd, you have to do your part as a steward of herd health. As ITIF has written, we need a philosophy of tech progressivism—as opposed to tech populism—based on an American tradition of civic dialogue and rational debate.
Advances in cognitive psychology in recent decades have been significant. Our understanding of the different ways we perceive and respond to different kinds of risk has grown immensely. But more importantly, our understanding of the way we think and reason (or abjure reason…) has become much deeper and more nuanced. Another superb journalist, Tamar Haspel, has begun to bring some of these tools to bear on the problem Saletan so compellingly describes. I wonder if we can all find a way to work together to apply these insights.