Saturday, February 6, 2016

I Love GMOs (And So Can You!): What I Learned In Two Years

Stephan Neidenbach - @welovegv
Edited by Nandu Nandini @nandunandini11

"Inconsistent views regarding the use of transgenic crop technology in Europe and elsewhere might have been avoided had more people received a better education in biological science." 

In January of 2014 I contracted mononucleosis at the age of 34. Homebound for two weeks, I spent a lot of time on the internet. I came across the Cult of Dusty channel on Youtube, and enjoyed a lot of Dusty Smith’s videos. One in particular stood out, because the title was something I had never heard of before. I Love Monsanto? (NSFW), At that time I had never heard of Monsanto. I had heard about the genetic engineering of crops. I was teaching in a rural school district and there were crops growing in fields across the street from the school. I was intrigued. I had heard that apparently some misinformed urban elites believed that farmers were purposefully poisoning their own communities and children by purchasing genetically engineered seed from this company, rather than seed created by other methods, namely those created by being drenched with radiation and toxic chemicals. Many of the arguments that Dusty refuted in his video sounded a bit like the ones I had seen before about vaccines. Hence a Facebook page called We F***ing Love GMOs and Vaccines was born.

Not long after starting the page a biology student in Russia began following the page and we communicated a bit. I was quite honored to have someone much more knowledgeable on the subject than me take the page seriously. Soon she was followed by farmers and scientists all over the world. I never tried to take myself too seriously. The early days of the page pretty much involved just the posting of screenshots of stupid things anti science people were saying. The first time I created a graphic responding to the argument, “Why are they labeled/banned in so many countries” I used the argument that homosexuality was banned in even more countries. Political, religious, and economic decisions made by other nations should not influence the acceptance of science or decision making in my country. Someone got really offended by that post and took it upon themselves to start emailing my principal. Unfortunately for the anti science cults, public school teachers (as government employees) are free to speak on matters of the public interest. This means that a teacher in Delaware can speak out against GMOs and vaccines, and this Maryland teacher can speak out in favor of them, without fear of losing our jobs. I actually have more freedom to speak my mind than if I actually did work for the Monsanto company.

Next I needed to find a niche. There were already plenty of web pages, like Biofortified, that were focusing on the science. Having had a background in history, culture always fascinated me. I wanted to know and understand why so many people fear these crops. I found my answer in several books by Robert Paarlberg, Sheila Jasanoff, and Matin Qaim.

"It costs rich countries little when a new technology not needed or wanted by most citizens is driven off the market through stifling regulation. But what if the same stifling regulations then come to be adopted in poor countries with unmet farm-production and food-consumption needs?"

In Starved For Science, Paarlberg explains and discusses the many reasons given as to why rich countries fear genetic engineering when applied to agriculture. 

  1. New risks to health and the environment are not logical explanations because no risks have yet been found. 
  2. Current biotech traits on the market do not pose any risks that do not apply also to other breeding methods. 
  3. That drought resistance does pose a threat to the environment because that is a trait that could help wild relatives of certain crops survive. As that trait is also being developed using other breeding methods, it is irrelevant to mention as a risk to genetic engineering ( a point that I would later learn from Matin Qaim)  
  4. Simply disliking genetic engineering (the not natural argument) was also not enough of an explanation either. 
Furthermore genetic engineering is hailed as an achievement in modern medicine. Paarlberg reiterates that the comparison to medicine goes even further because all the other complaints also apply equally to medicine. Patents, giant corporations, the high cost of products, and political lobbying are all used by conspiracy theorists to argue against Big Pharma, yet only with genetically engineered crops are these arguments so accepted by the general public. Paarlberg concludes that there is only one explanation, consumers in rich countries do not perceive a direct benefit to themselves. Without a reason to say “this product makes my own personal life better” primitive food zealots are able to create imaginary risks in the minds of enough consumers. Why else would pharmaceutical products, that can spend five minutes listing side effects in a commercial promoting their products made with the same technology, not quite face this public image problem on the same scale?

So if consumers in rich countries are inherently programmed to distrust genetic engineering when applied to seed breeding, why is this seen so much more in the United States than in Europe? In Paarlberg’s take on the overconsumption of food and fuel, The United States of Excess, he makes some excellent points on the differences of the two cultures. One huge difference is how the role of the government and individual responsibility is viewed and shaped. Europeans are much more likely than Americans to believe the government has a duty to protect people from themselves, and to mistrust corporations. Americans are much more likely to believe that the government doesn't know what is best for people and that corporations should also be responsible for their own actions. Monsanto, Americans would say, doesn’t want to end up in court facing multi billion dollar lawsuits, hence they are unlikely to put out a product they believe to be harmful. He cites a Pew poll from 2011 showing that 36 percent of Americans believe they have little control of their own fate compared to 57 percent of French and 72 percent of Germans. Even the average American's views on science vary from their counterparts across the ocean. 

The National Science Foundation, Paarlberg explains, found that 90 percent of Americans think that science and technology makes their lives better. The European Union ? Only 66 percent. Neither I nor Paarlberg, are necessarily stating that the American outlook is better. These same cultural norms lead Americans to much more likely fight the government regulating caloric intake and also to assume that they can burn all the fossil fuels they want because science and technology will solve global warming. But, unlike in most of Europe, American women are free to choose what to do with their own bodies. Surrogacy is completely legal in America, as is the freedom to terminate a pregnancy.

"Already by the mid-twentieth century, experts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had begun to insist on the objectivity of the cost-benefit analyses with which they justified flood-control projects. Whereas British actuaries and French railroad engineers admitted that their cost-benefit calculations reflected professional judgments, Corps engineers stoutly maintained that their assessments were not so compromised: their numbers were not subjective estimates but reliable representations of reality."

Sheila Jasanoff expands on this in Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in the United States and Europe. Whereas Paarlberg is clearly pro GMO in all of his writing, Jasanoff writes in an unbiased fashion to examine why biotechnology is viewed so differently in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. She paints the picture of what the primitive food movement probably saw as a perfect storm of events. US scientists themselves in the 1970s decided they wanted to gain the trust of the public and held an open door conference inviting the press to witness and report on how they would ensure the safety of these new experiments, without any government intervention needed to tell them to do so. Precautionary measures were put in place voluntarily that would assign risks based on what was being done. Innocuous cloning experiments, for example, were classified as being of lower risk with less containment required. Experiments with bacteria at the time, fearing escape into the general populace causing outbreaks (thanks Michael Crichton!), were required to be genetically engineered to not survive outside the lab. The  precedent was set and The United States would make decisions based on the product, not the process. Follow this up with 12 years of Reagan and Bush being in favor of deregulation when the first crops were coming to market, and one can easily see how this success played out. Great Britain would end up setting up  government committees to make such decisions, setting a precedent that the process itself required government regulation from the beginning. 

Suffice it to say when this same government failed at handling the mad cow scare adequately, they faced a highly critical public with regards to their decisions on the food supply. Many Germans still connected science with a fascist government that considered its citizens to be subjects of the state with a duty of subjugating nature. The Green party formed an early alliance with Social Democrats to create a committee with the explicit purpose to examine the “prospects and risks of genetic engineering”. The Greens would insist that before R&D could even take place, alternative methods would have to be considered first for any field, not just agriculture. When German protesters took this to the next level and protested a planned factory that was being built to develop genetically engineered insulin, the courts agreed and ruled that the German government had a duty to create laws controlling risks. “This conception of a conscientious state has no exact parallel in Anglo-American law,” Jasanoff explains.

"Many in the wider public are deeply persuaded that GMOs are evil. This misconception builds on limited scientific understanding, false assumptions, and deliberate deception by anti-GMO activists, aided by the mass media and various groups of stakeholders who benefit from this opposition."

With these answers in hand, I had to ask myself where were the defenders of this technology? Why are people so quick to defend the consensus on vaccines, evolution, and climate change? The answer would come to me from Matin Qaim in Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development. To put it simply, all it takes for pseudoscience to win, is for science communicators to do nothing. There is an alliance of non-governmental organizations, the mainstream media, food industries, pesticide manufacturers and politicians that have vested interests in demonizing biotechnology. Is this a vast conspiracy where heads of all these groups meet regularly to discuss how they are going to smear pro GMO scientists? Not at all. A large portion of these groups need to do nothing more than just sit back and watch it all unfold. 

The organic food industry has an understandable financial interest in demonizing biotechnology. Biotech crops are not allowed in organic farming, and if they can convince people it is for their safety, they can boost sales. Considering how many conventional food companies now own organic food subsidiaries, and sell organic versions of their conventional products, they too don’t have much to lose when pseudoscience is allowed to propagate. Grocery stores and food producers may have a vested interest in fighting labeling so they don’t have to put warning stickers on their products, but they sure profit off of the fear mongering done by the anti GMO movement. 

A great Twitter conversation with organic farmer Rob Wallbridge, whom I love to discuss economics with, made me realize how much of the organic premium that people pay goes to the companies, not the farmers. When pesticide traits hit the market, competing pesticide manufacturers were threatened. DuPont was even caught donating money to an anti Monsanto organization. Europe held most of the market share on pesticides for many years and were easily motivated to sit back and do nothing while an American product was taken through the wringer. There are people in Bangladesh who firmly believe their own pesticide companies are working with the anti-GMO movement there to fight the acceptance of Bt brinjal. Politicians, like Alaska Senator Murkowski, will be extremely eager to jump on the anti GMO bandwagon when they feel it competes with a local industry. She might only be targeting salmon, but by saying transgenic salmon requires additional regulation because of the nature of how it was bred, she is feeding right into the process based regulation NGOs are seeking. 

Furthermore media outlets themselves are rarely of any help. Which is more likely to get an audience’s attention ? Images of rats suffering from giant tumors, or the retraction of a poorly done study ? NGOs such as Greenpeace are given free reign by many politicians and media outlets because they are seen as “non profit” and therefore "pure" in some way. But, is their need to keep members hooked and sending in dues and donations really any different than Monsanto needing to keep profits up and their shareholders happy? Monsanto at least has a system of checks built into their operations. They have to keep their customers happy, because they need a steady profit flow to keep their shareholders happy. This at the risk of being taken to court decades later for harm done, even unintentionally. What customers does Greenpeace need to keep happy? Who can take Greenpeace to court decades later if the banana or orange industries are allowed to die because of their lobbying and fear mongering? Who can take Friends of the Earth to court for doing everything in their power to prevent a solution to vitamin A deficiency? That is unclear as they are not corporations with built in check systems. Why is unintentional harm from a company more of a crime than intentional harm from an NGO?

“Mind-control groups cannot tolerate opposition of any kind. Either people agree with them and are seen as potential converts, or they are the enemy.” 

Now what? Where do we go from here? I gained some insight from two more writers in fields I had not counted on to help guide me. Steven Hassan’s Combatting Cult Mind Control began to help me reevaluate how to go on the offense. I became interested in cults after learning about the Transcendental Meditation movement’s involvement with the anti GMO movement. They are everywhere. A core part of their belief system is that, “Pure food is essential for good health and clarity of mind, and the supreme value of food purity is required to enliven total Natural Law in the life of the individual and society, bringing perfect health and enlightenment to the individual, perfect balance, harmony, and invincibility to every nation and permanent peace to our world. “ You read that correctly. John Fagan, Jeffrey Smith, Claire Robinson, and Steven Drukker believe that removing biotech crops from the food supply will lead to invincibility and world peace. John Fagan being the man who helped create Genetic ID, one of the major testing laboratories used by the NONGMO Project. Fagan also helped create the fear, uncertainty, and doubt around GM soy in England in the late 90s. His FUD campaign there had the secondary side effect of killing the successful Zeneca transgenic tomato. By being labeled with the process of creating them, he managed to lump them together in the minds of the British with Roundup Ready soy, even though the two were completely unrelated.  Jeffrey Smith who runs the Institute for Responsible Technology wrote Seeds of Deception as well as Genetic Roulette. Claire Robinson who, along with John Fagan, works with GMO Free USA, Earth Open Source, and GM Watch.

Hassan’s BITE model paints a picture of many movements and organizations within the anti GMO movement. Dictating dietary restrictions is a classic form of behavior control. Deception and the discouragement of accessing is another method commonly seen, especially the way any journalist or scientist who is pro GMO is automatically assumed to be owned by corporations. Actual thought control is regularly seen as they regularly refine words and create new language. The very term, NON GMO, is a perfect example. Are they denying that artificial selection involves the modification of genes? Are they stating that a bowl of corn flakes is one whole genetically modified organism, rather than made up of many ingredients? Emotional control is probably the most obvious. Instilling fear and creating devils, such as chemtrails or “Monsatan” keeps their followers from accepting any source outside their own inner circle. While helping break someone free from cult mind control is a time consuming and difficult process, one piece of advice from Hassan appealed to me. He has seen a lot of success in exposing cult members to other cults. Once they see comparisons between what they are going through, and what other cults are doing, they can stop and think. This is why graphics on We Love GMOs and Vaccines that compare the anti GMO movement to other anti science movements have always gotten a lot of engagement. Even the name of the page, albeit prior thought, turned out to be a nod to this technique.  Activating prior knowledge is a technique most good teachers use to help students connect with information they already know. This really isn’t any different.

“Exposing a bad idea to the critical glare of other minds provides at least a chance that it will wither and die.” 

Related to exposing the common traits between the anti GMO movement and others, is satire and science communication. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker seeks to prove that the human condition is improving, but explains why it will continue to do so based on historical data. Anti GMO terrorists like Gary Ruskin and Stacy Malkan, with their harassment of public scientists, truly believe and preach that they are under attack themselves. They are able to justify their actions because they believe if they stop their movement, it will, according to Pinker, “find itself on the wrong end of an invading army.” One connection, of many,  to the decrease in violence over the centuries was the writing of and tolerance of satire. As seen in Gulliver’s Travels, a satirist can get someone to stop and look at themselves from the perspective of an outsider. “A satirist can make someone appreciate the hypocrisy of their own society and the flaws in human nature that foster it.” 

Recently The Onion wrote a cute piece on a tomato escaping confinement at Monsanto. Monsanto took a risk and ran with it. They posted several pictures of an employee in a cubicle “bravely” fighting back against these tomatoes and saving us all. This type of self depreciating humor probably reached more people than any amount of Ketchum PR could, and was probably achieved with a fraction of the cost. Does Syngenta want to create a cheap promotion to calm everyone down about being bought by ChemChina? How about “Hey, at least we aren’t Monsanto!”. When several journalists on Twitter called me out on putting a long nose on someone in an article, they were right. We should insult ideas, not necessarily the people behind them. When Nicholas Taleb  and Vani Hari go on insane rants about PR campaigns, it is because they simply assume we are doing what they are doing. They are in essence doing what in Psychology is called "projecting". They truly believe they need to launch an attack on the neighboring village, before the neighboring village does the same to them.

Pinker reminds us that before Gutenberg invented the printing press, books were handwritten. This made them expensive and accessible only to the wealthy (kind of like organic food). As the efficiency of creating books improved, they became more accessible to the general populace (similar to conventional food, otherwise known as…. food). The blogospheres of the 1800s, (letters written and exchanged all over the world that discussed and reviewed books) took root, the spread of democracy and free thought became fate. Pseudoscience was an early adopter and took advantage of this early on. Food woo goes back to screaming 19th century upper class white women in New York telling everyone to only eat white bread. With social media the effect was similar. Cranks, not scientists, were the first adopters of this medium. 

In a classic case of correlation versus causation, many assume that Monsanto’s attempt to fix its public image involved hiring all these people (like myself) to do just that. But like Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both filing patents for the telephone the same day, many of us merely followed similar paths to get here. Scientists began to realize that social media allowed a very easy method of communication to refute these claims. Companies realized that social media allowed them to speak to the public in innovative ways. Layman skeptics like me and others simply began to find each other, years after seeing the messages based on fear that we started questioning. Farmers found they could teach city folk about their farming practices with a smartphone without even getting out of their tractors.

Ketchum didn’t connect me with Professor Juma, Professor Folta, Kavin Senapathy, Yvette d'Entremont, and Karl Haro Von Mogel. Mark Zuckerberg gave us a platform to reach out and connect with each other. Sixteen years ago a Monsanto PR firm actually did have to reach out to people and buy them lunch to bring them to a counter protest. 2015 was the year that was no longer true. Would it be fun to one day actually make money off of this? Sure ! Who doesn’t dream of making money doing what they enjoy. But it will be on my terms. Whether it is writing children’s books, a novel, starting a nonprofit agency to teach about agricultural biotechnology in schools, or just volunteering my time to organize eco modernist protests, these past two years were just laying the foundation.

Creative Commons License
This work by Stephan Neidenbach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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