The Surprisingly Sudden Demise of the Anti-GMO Movement

If you had asked me six months ago if GMOs had a future, I would have replied, sadly, “No”. The forces of ignorance and activism pushing their Age of Stupid agenda were dominating the news, winning regulatory and supply chain concessions and influencing how conventional farmers were planning their crop rotations. But in the last two months, something has happened. GMOs are now seen as the reasonable, beneficial and socially and environmentally important strategic decision for sustainable agriculture.

How did this happen so quickly, over a matter of weeks?

Here today, GMO tomorrow

  • A year ago, the anti-GMO pro-labelling campaign in the US, which guaranteed no negative consequences, was occupying the common-sense middle ground.
    Today, we are beginning to notice that food manufacturers like Hershey’s, in moving from GMO sugar beets to non-GMO sugar cane to avoid public concerns about GMOs, were causing significant environmental and social destruction.
  • A year ago, the media were jumping on reports that regulators were not sharing all of the evidence on GM research, bees and pesticides.
    Today, following a report from the US National Academies of Science that gave GMOs a very positive scorecard (after consulting over 900 publications), even the most campaign-driven UK news-source, the Guardian, had to conclude that in the EU: “We can no longer afford to turn our backs on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in our fields in coming years.”
  • A year ago, pro-organic Mommy bloggers like Mamavation or the Food Babe were ruling the PR playing field on social media, increasing referral revenues, getting prime-time coverage and winning corporate capitulations in a heartbeat.
    Today, Vani Hari’s FoodBabeArmy has mutinied, with her social media interaction dropping like a stone and her Facebook likes stuck at a growth rate of less than 0.2% weekly increase over the last three months.
  • A year ago, I could not get anyone interested in the story of IARC’s conflict of interest and non-transparency scandal behind their glyphosate monograph pronouncing the herbicide probably carcinogenic. For a year, NGOs and activist scientists were abusing the hazard classification as a campaign tool with IARC even getting into the Brussels mud pit, unprofessionally attacking EU scientific organisations.
    Today, IARC has been discredited by the WHO and FAO, countries like France are still opposed to glyphosate but admit it is not on grounds of it being a carcinogen and the anti-GMO activists are fighting a battle without scientific evidence. This week, on May 27, IARC’s expected pronouncement that coffee is carcinogenic will be met with chuckles.
  • A year ago, the idea of new GMOs coming onto the market seemed an impossibility given the negative populist narrative and the regulatory minefields.
    Today, not only has GM salmon just been approved in Canada without public controversy but now New Plant Breeding Techniques are inspiring the public to see the potential of agricultural sciences in solving pressing global food security issues. Groups like Greenpeace and Big Organic are in disarray on how to respond to NBTs.
  • A year ago, the March Against Monsanto attracted families and public figures to
    13227434_492038924332512_852924739868090141_o
    Only about 30-50 showed up to protest Monsanto in Brussels

    marches in the thousands around the world.
    Today, the march was cancelled in some cities out of lack of interest, attracted only dozens in others like my town of Brussels and seemed to rely on nutter issues like the opposition to vaccines and chemtrails to fill the ranks.

It seems like the anti-GMO position today is about as attractive as a free burrito at Chipotle!

What went right?

I would like to think that this turnaround is due to:

  • a maturity of understanding having evolved that not everything posted on social media should be taken as truth;
  • that a group of science communicators and farm bloggers, in the US in particular, have taken back a certain degree of influence in the broader media;
  • and that improper actions by anti-GMO activists have created a significant public reaction.

But then I see what is going on in the political arena in the US, Austria, Poland and the Philippines, and I question those rosy conclusions.

While I believe that the online science communicators and farm bloggers have indeed changed the dynamic, I think, importantly, the public suffered from a certain campaign fatigue. The organic food industry lobby has thrown everything at consumers to make them feel afraid, and for many vulnerable people, it has worked and organic food 12006090_417615431774862_3496592346561778595_nconsumption has increased. But at the same time, the hypocrisy was glaring. When consumers learnt that organic food also contains toxic pesticides, when they realised that organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment and when they concluded that much of the increased costs of organic food was for marketing purposes, they intuitively felt deceived and turned off.

In other words, reasonableness prevailed.

Reasonableness or rationality?

I have been working on a concept I call “reasonableness” which is different from rationality. A rational person follows a logical reasoning (if A, then B, if B then C, therefore, if A, then C), but that implies the capacity to make a decision within a certain degree of emotional vacuum. Today our information arrives within emotion-laden, personal diffusion tools which motivate (and manipulate) how rationality is welded (if A, then B, but I don’t want C!!!). Rather than rational arguments, I am afraid we have to communicate on the basis of “reasonableness”.

Reasonableness has a different “logic”: I know A, I understand B and a reasonable person would conclude C. This is a virtue-driven (aretaic), normative logic and thus has an in-built emotional element (being reasonable). We all think we are reasonable people and we look at trying to make decisions according to what would be perceived as “being reasonable”.

With GMOs, people are looking at the risks, benefits, the pro-GMO scientific consensus, realities from the organic food industry lobbyists, types of people running fear campaigns, potential solutions to global food security issues and concluding that it would be reasonable to support GMOs and unreasonable to impose organic food on others. Showing up at Saturday’s March against Monsanto was not considered, by a vast majority, as reasonable. The National Academies of Sciences, with its 900 scientists mostly supporting GMOs was seen as reasonable. Gary Ruskin and Vani Hari’s behaviour in continually attacking conventional farming was not perceived as reasonable.

I will develop this concept of reasonableness in more detail when I get a chance to get back to my “How to Deal with Stupid” series, but I would like to end with an anecdote of unreasonableness from my Hugs from Science event (see main photo) at last Saturday’s March against Monsanto event in Brussels.

March against Monsanto organiser: You can’t stay here! You are not against Monsanto!!!
Risk-Monger: But I am just talking to people about the scientific method!
MAM organiser: You can’t do that – this is a March Against Monsanto!
RM: I am only offering to give people hugs!
MAM organiser: You’re not welcome here!
RM: But people here are really feeling stressed out and vulnerable. Look, most of them are smoking!
MAM organiser: Me too, I’m smoking!
RM: Would you like a hug?
MAM organiser: Noooooooo!!!!!!

You can’t make this stuff up – one can only enjoy the opportunity to live it!

36 Comments Add yours

  1. I sure hope that you are correct, and I understand your points, but maybe I’m still too worried about the massive Big Organic funding and lobbying machines. They’re certainly not about to give up, and the legislative fight is ongoing. But it would be awfully nice to see less bullshit and woo and pseudoscience in my social media feeds for sure. I am sure that we can’t get complacent, though.

    Keep up the hugs!

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks – no doubt there is still money and fear in the anti-GMO lobby but when momentum shifts, scientific bodies are starting to stand up, the media is becoming more balanced, the activists start to unravel, then the money matters less. The next step is to see the food manufacturers ignore the threats and stand up for the science – that will take some time but if their bottom line is getting hurt (eg – the increase in price of cane-based sugar) and the mainstream consumer is reasonable, then that will come.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jack says:

    I always enjoy David’s columns and am pleased to see a bit of optimism in this one. After fighting these issues for 30 years (mainly on synthetic pesticide issues), I’m not as confident that we are turning a corner, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing the good fight. The “fearmongers” are pretty good at finding the soft underbelly (courts, municipalities, celebrities, clueless state legislators, and spineless company management boards) to target their anti-campaigns. We need the scientist’s support, but we really need to find those public figures who are smart enough to see through the NGO propaganda and brave enough to stand up for sound scientists. I’m still looking!

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Jack – I think the increasing tide of unreasonableness has crested (as one person put it on twitter in response to my blog – we have hit peak-loon) and there seems to have been a rapid series of reasonable reports, decisions and events. I generally feel that emotions can shift very quickly and with the wind out of their sails, any decline in funding for NGOs will lead to a rapid change in focus. Maybe wishful thinking, but NGOs operate on perceptions, and if the perceptions don’t change, they change strategies.

      Like

    2. Jonathan Swayze says:

      Yes – I’ve been waiting for the same. Something like a David Suzuki changing his tune. A Mark Lynas type, but a “big one” from US TV. Not people already on-side with science, but people who are anti-science NOW and change their mind.

      Its not happening fast enough because the tribal dynamics reinforcing anti-GMO belief are so strong.

      I’d love to see Susan Sarandon change her mind publicly, for example, and recognize the environmental benefits of GM solutions publicly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. riskmonger says:

        What we need is a little star power to reassure people that conventionally farmed food is OK, safe and healthy. A simple 30 second commercial with George Cloony saying: you are OK, your food is OK, don’t panic!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Jonathan Swayze says:

        Maybe a light at the end of the tunnel?

        https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/05/26/315920/

        Like

      3. riskmonger says:

        Cass is an interesting person!

        Like

  3. T says:

    GMO is still very dangerous. Your so-called article is just the big-agro machine in play and you fell for it.

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      I think I fell for the 900 scientists who were consulted by the American National Academies of Science who confirmed what we already knew – that GMOs are not dangerous. If you have other evidence more compelling, please do share, or explain why the NAS did not.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Mike says:

      I recently read an article where one of these 900 scientists was interviewed. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name. He said that he found it quite strange that people were making a fuss about GMO’s now when we’ve been eating them for a very long time. He estimates many trillion of meals consumed by most everyone on the planet and yet to find any horrible illnessess associated with them. The argument against GMO’s is a non starter. The food is here and has been for a long long time. At one point, all corn was purple and all dogs were wolves.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. riskmonger says:

        Thanks Mike – we are selective in our bias (I refer to precaution as a normative concept) and driven by our interests. Look at the people pushing against GMOs and pesticides – do they have an interest driving them? No amount of evidence or facts will deter them!

        Like

    3. J says:

      I have some GM aloe vera gel that you can apply to that burn, T.

      Like

    4. Kurt Wickstrom says:

      I would like to know what your basis is to claim “GMO is still very dangerous” when 900 scientists agree they are not. As for your comment about the big-agro machine, what about $15.4 billion in sales (in 2015) Whole Foods (whole paycheck) funding the gmo fear mongering? On an annual revenue basis, did you know they were actually bigger than Monsanto? It is a shame when facts and science get in the way of logic and impact our decision making……….and we believe some of the pseudoscience and fear based rhetoric funded by Whole Foods and others because their business model of creating demand for organic and then charging significant premiums is at risk once people finally realize that advanced farming methods are safe. A

      Like

  4. Hel Thanatos says:

    GMOs are only necessary for starving people, for everyone else, they pose unnecessary risks.

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      I think all people should be treated equally as we all share the same dignity of humanity in our person (Kant). Fortunately, GMOs have been widely tested, and the NAS has consulted 900 scientists to conclude that all people can safely enjoy their benefits.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Lance says:

      They’re not necessary for starving people. Normal crops can be raised just fine. You don’t need the toxic GMO stuff.

      Like

      1. riskmonger says:

        I don’t think there is a question of needing or not needing – it is a simple numbers game. Can we feed the present growing population without agricultural technologies? Most people would say no – some say we need to reduce the population. Others think that we need to cut food waste. I am pretty sure that affluence, fewer starving people, has created richer diets that is further stressing our agricultural systems.
        Malthus faced this issue in the 19th century and thought we would have a serious population die off – people like Erlich in the 60s had thought the bomb would go off before 2000 – in both cases, the doomsday scenarists were wrong because they had underestimated human innovation and ingenuity. GMOs are not about starving people, it is about ensuring a safe, reliable food chain, food security and better health where possible.
        The antis have been fed KoolAid from the neo-Malthusians who are hoping for a crisis. I am hoping that humanity will continue to innovate to protect its populations – your view that these scientists are trying to poison us is, simply put, pure poison to thinking people!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. marc draco says:

    It’s way past “wine o’ clock” but this is reason to open a bottle of the decent stuff. 🙂

    Always nice to see Charles Payet too – another voice of reason and damn fine dentist I believe!

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Best comment of the night, but only because I am on my third glass of Merlot to celebrate my 53rd birthday. I am aware of the risk of my exposure to glyphosate in the wine, but I think the dose is low enough to manage the poison!

      Like

    2. Marc – yes indeed, I’m still watching and participating in these discussions, although not quite as actively as in 2015. Our practice continues to grow, resulting in less free time for me. And thank you for the kind words!

      Like

  6. sagerad says:

    “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

    Also, there’s been history since Fukuyama declared “the end of history”.

    Like

  7. Jonathan Swayze says:

    I’m actually a lot more fatalistic. I’ve had family members and close friends come to identify with a conspiracist mindset that includes anti-GMO as a fundamental plank but it is probably not the root, and exists amongst many other planks which include anti-vaccine, media control, 9/11, chemtrails, fluoridation, and many other related ideas you may be familiar with.

    So I think your scope is too narrow to consider the anti-GMO belief in isolation and to consider it with respect to GMO-specific arguments and not its correlates. Anti-GMO is deeply associated with the “natural” variants of conspiracist belief (Lost Eden, The Fall, the profane nature of technology, the unquestioned greatness of unspoilt “naturalness”) and incidentally associated with broader ideas like wanting to share your knowledge of True Evil, being a member of the Army of Light and how earth is the eternal site of conflict between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil.

    We are getting religious here, and when I see the “stickiness” of people who have succumbed to this nesting of ideas I become a bit fatalistic about things.

    A) I think that to hope for people to not believe these things is to hope for there to be no Christians. It is unlikely – and may even veer you into a dark tribalism if you indulge these thoughts too much. Furthermore, these are members of a tribe. The tribe passes their lore from father to son, friend to friend. People may choose the tribe first and the ideas second, in many cases. Once a tribe has come into being, it rarely goes away completely. The best we can hope for is they become a less relevant, less populous, less impactful tribe. Maybe they get their own grocery aisle and menu options and we subside into a Cold War with less active conflict and a more peaceful resting point.

    B) I worry when I see large stressors acting on the population today – some systemic (economic distress, conflict), some of our own making (narratives of outrage and anger) that the context will be created to encourage more and more people to seek out religious solace, and this will be one of the places they go to in increasing #s over the next century.

    I think back to the movie Contact, and the Luddites who destroyed the Gate/Wormhole and there’s a reason Sagan included this plot element. In the movie there is a backup Gate and all works out in the face of the forces of anti-modern Irrationality.

    We don’t have a backup earth, and I don’t see any reason to invest myself overmuch into optimism with respect to what our own Luddites will inflict upon us over the course of the next century when I consider the likely economic, environmental and societal stresses likely to press upon our feeble minds.

    We don’t have a great history of thinking so clearly in those kinds of contexts.

    I suppose I am looking longer into the future – on a 500 year timescale maybe going through some deep pain that we can assign in some way to the Natural Luddite/Army of Light will help future generations comport themselves in ways to avoid “What Happened in the first decades of the new Millenium”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Jonathan – I agree with you on the shift to eco-religious thinking – I once registered for an environmental event and put as my title: eco-theologian – no one batted an eyelash! See a blog I had written in December: http://risk-monger.blogactiv.eu/2015/12/11/how-to-deal-with-stupid-part-310-eco-fundamentalism-the-rise-of-environmental-dogma/. One thing I worry about, more than you, is that I feel the eco-zealots won’t stop with a special row in the grocery – part 8 of my study on Stupid is on nudging – how they will not stop until everyone is like them. And by then, the environmental and social destruction from their thinking will be horrific!

      Like

  8. David L. says:

    I believe they looked at 900 studies, rather than consulting 900 scientists. The number of scientists involved in the studies would dwarf 900, so your point is bolstered.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thank you David – I stand (happily) corrected!

      Like

  9. Jimmy Miller says:

    I’m sad to say that I used to be anti-GMO. I used to think the science was tainted by the hands of Monsanto being all over the FDA, and there was no way I would believe that glyphosate could be harmless when sprayed on our food. To be honest, I still have a hard time with that one. But when the untainted and independent scientific reviews started making the rounds, I started to change my mind, and if independent science says that Roundup Ready foods won’t harm you, I have to believe it. And now I am a believer in GMO’s. It’s a hungry world out there and people have to eat, and I don’t see a way we can feed this ever-expanding population without GMO’s and expanding our knowledge on how to grow food efficiently and quickly with minimum spoilage through science. Thanks to folks like you educating us, maybe we will stand a chance of survival even though we’re breeding ourselves right off the planet.

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Jimmy – no need to regret what you used to believe. The best advocates for GMOs are those who started out as skeptics!

      Like

  10. TMTisFree says:

    Hello, your posts are generally very good and well researched, thank you. But please avoid the word “consensus” in the same sentence as the word “science”, the two are mutually incompatible by definition: there is no such thing as a scientific consensus. As the late M. Crichton said, “Historically the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is settled.” It just is not how Science works (cf the climate scam).

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Well spotted and quite correct – I saw your comment and thought: “What, I said that??? Where???”. I reread the text nervously! It was indeed shorthand in a long list of faults of the unreasonable – I was thinking that there has been no credible scientific study that has shown GMOs to be a risk. But quite right, that does not a consensus make!
      Over the years, I myself have written strongly against the push for a scientific consensus, as a cop-out of policymakers to charge the research community with doing their work, on how the IPCC has become a political organisation and my concept of commonality as a tool to manufacture consent and shutdown discussion under the mirage of a consensus.
      Thank you for putting me in my place – I promise I won’t be so careless again!

      Like

      1. TMTisFree says:

        No harm, it’s difficult not to fall using unconsciously these oxymores that, we have to recognize, activists are master to create and repeat. On the subject, here is a good short and effective video defending GMOs by the “Dead Wrong” economist Johan Norberg: http://youtu.be/lpR_7EQTDfM I especially like his use of positive message (end of hunger) to support his case, and even use of (unsupported by evidences) activist’ memes to convince.

        Again, thank you for your hard work to reveal the true face of NGOs and activists.

        A PhD farmer from a country (France) in which even the “scientific consensus” has morphed in an “ideological consensus”.

        Like

      2. riskmonger says:

        I think that video puts it about right – just need to find a good word for when the science is clear!

        Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks for this Emmanouil – I was rightly corrected above when I used a shorthand on scientific consensus – trying to get a consensus is not something scientists do, but what social scientists and policymakers want. The two articles you quote were by, as far as I could see, social scientists – not plant biologists or ag biotech specialists. That is fine, I am sure they are competent people, but they are not looking at the same things. To find a scientist or two who disagree with the overwhelming body of knowledge and then say: Aha! … well, no, I would not call that scientific.
      Just a point in passing – whenever I see Shiva’s name in an article, warning bells go off. I am afraid, and here there is a “consensus” among the plant biologist community, that she is a fraud.

      Like

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