Nathanael Johnson lets the anti-GMO movement off the hook

For the last six months, Nathanael Johnson has been writing about GMOs for the lefty environmental magazine Grist. The goal of his ultimately 26 part series was to try and bring some journalistic sanity to a topic that has gotten nasty in recent years. As Grist editor Scott Rosenberg is quoted on Dan Charles’ blog:

GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.

On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.

I’ve enjoyed reading the series. Johnson has investigated a wide range of issues related to GMOs with a generally empirical eye – trying to find data to help answer questions, while avoiding the polemicism that dominates discussions of the topic. Although I don’t think everything he has written is right, the series is a very useful starting point for people trying to wrap the heads around what can be a complex topic. He has clearly tried to delve deeply into every topic, and to not let dogma or propaganda from either side affect his conclusions.

Unfortunately, if the series has had an effect on what I presume is its target audience – the anti-GMO readers of Grist – it hasn’t shown up in online debates about GMOs. When I and others have pointed to Johnson’s series in response to outrageous statements from anti-GMO campaigners, he is dismissed as either a naive fool or just another Monsanto tool.

So I was surprised to read his concluding piece in the series, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters“.

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

His basic point is that a lot of hot air and political energy is spent trying to decide between two alternative futures that aren’t all that different.

In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.

In the other alternate future, where the pro-GMO side wins, we see less insecticide, more herbicide, and less tillage. In this world, with regulations lifted, a surge of small business and garage-biotechnologists got to work on creative solutions for the problems of agriculture. Perhaps these tinkerers would come up with some fresh ideas to usher out the era of petroleum-dependent food. But the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions would prove transformative. Genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt. Newer tools are already available, and scientists continue to make breakthroughs with traditional breeding. So in this future, a few more genetically engineered plants and animals get their chance to compete. Some make the world a little better, while others cause unexpected problems. But the science has moved beyond basic genetic engineering, and most of the risks and benefits of progress are coming from other technologies. Life goes on.

In many ways he’s right. GMOs on the market today – and most of the ones planned – are about making agriculture more efficient and profitable for farmers and seed providers. This is not a trivial thing, but would global agriculture collapse without these GMOs? Of course not.

But Johnson makes several key assumption in arguing that the stakes are low.

First, he says that “the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions [GMOs] would prove transformative”. The obvious response is “How do you know?”. We rarely see transformative technologies coming. And remember that we are still in the very early days of genetic engineering of crops and animals. I suspect that you could go back and look at the early days of almost any new technology and convincingly downplay its transformative potential. That is not to say that genetic modification will definitely transform agriculture in a good way. Most new technologies ultimately fail to deliver. But the proper stance to take is to say that we just don’t know. What we do know is that there are many pressing and complex problems facing the future of agriculture. And, given that there is no compelling reason not to allow GM techniques to proceed, why take this tool out of the hands of scientists?

Second, Johnson cites “newer tools” are coming along that will render GMOs in the way we view them today somewhat less important. It’s not clear what these tools are – but I’ll assume that they are genome editing and things like marker assisted breeding – both tools that allow for highly efficient creation or selection of traits without crossing the dreaded “species barrier”. But given the vitriolic opposition to GMOs that exists today, does Johnson think these new technologies are going to get a free pass? After all, these tools are being wielded by the companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, etc…) who anti-GMO campaigners see as the root of all evil. Does anyone really think that the future of these technologies is not linked to how the debate of todays GMOs gets resolved?

And this, to me, if the big issue. Yes, as Johnson argues, the fate of the world does not rest on whether or not farmers can grow and sell glyphosate resistant soybeans. And it is also probably true that the world will neither be destroyed nor saved by transferring traits from one species to another. But that is not the right question to be asking.

Johnson tries to frame this question as a question about the role of technology:

People care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science. These larger stories are so compelling that they often obscure the ground truth.

But that isn’t it either. What is infuriating about the anti-GMO movement to me – and I suspect most other scientists – is not that people are disputing the wonder of science. And it’s not that people are somehow rejecting technology – because they’re not (the same people who hate GMOs are happy to tweet about it from their iPhones while using satellite wifi on a 787). Or that they’re attacking corporations, industrial agriculture or the free market economy. No. That’s not it.

What is most disturbing about the GMO debate – and why it matters – is that the anti-GMO movement at almost every turn rejects empiricism as a means of understanding the world and making decisions about it. The reason GMO opponents have largely rejected Johnson and his series is not solely because they disagree with his conclusion that GMOs are not an existential threat to our existence – but because they reject his methods. They do not appear to believe that the kind of questions that Johnson asks – “Does insect resistant corn reduce the amount of insecticide used on farms?” – can even be asked. They already know the answer, and are completely unmoved by evidence.

The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life. The world faces so many challenges now, and we can only solve them if we believe that the world can be understood by studying it, that we can think up and generate possible solutions to the challenges we face, and that we can make rational decisions about which ones to use or not to use. The anti-GMO movement rejects each piece of this – it rejects decades of research aimed at understanding molecular biology, it rejects technology as a way to solve problems and more than anything it rejects our ability to make rational assessments of risk and value.

So when Johnson – who has spend considerable time and energy defending the role of empiricism in the GMO debate – throws up his hands and the end and says “Meh – none of this really matters” – he is letting opponents of GMOs off the hook. He is giving them permission to continue demanding that voters and politicians reject reason and evidence and ban a technology based on ill-founded fears and bad evidence – to continue thinking that they are saving the planet while, in reality, they are bringing us closer to its destruction.

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