Fake Banner
    Counting The Cost Of The Anti-GMO Movement
    By Steve Savage | January 7th 2013 12:26 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

    View Steve's Profile

    Last week, environmentalist Mark Lynas presented an articulate and painfully honest apology for his significant role in starting the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s.  He said that it was the most successful campaign in which he has ever been involved, but after finally looking into the science, he now deeply regrets what he and others accomplished.  While it is gratifying to have a figure like Lynas make such a turn-about, it does nothing to mitigate the damage of which this anti-science movement has perpetrated on humanity and the environment.  

    Ideally, such a dramatic reversal will induce others in the movement to rethink their positions. but this sort of openness to letting the science speak into bias is likely to be rare.

    Lynas is right that anti-GMO campaigners have been extremely successful at blocking, delaying, or destroying potential crop improvements via biotechnology.  Lynas had a lot of ground to cover in his speech, so he only gave four examples of the ways that his previous movement has achieved its ends:

    • In Europe, politicians influenced by the anti-GMO movement ignored the input from their own scientists to adopt hyper-precautionary and obstructive regulatory barriers to the technology. They have thus limited the ability of their own farmers to satisfy more of the substantial demand that the region puts on global food supplies.
    • The European stance has greatly influenced the policies of many developing nations in Africa and Asia.  Such "rich world thinking" denies poor farmers the advances that could significantly improve their food security.  See Robert Paarlberg's excellent summary of this phenomenon in his book "Starved for Science."
    • The anti-GMO movement has intensified the regulatory environment so that the cost of biotech crop development now requires the resources of a large company. This reduces the potential contributions from smaller start-ups, academics or government sponsored programs. 
    Beyond what Lynas described, there are other mechanisms by which the anti-GMO movement has frustrated biotech crop progress.  The threat of controversy generated by anti-GMO campaigners leads to various forms of brand protectionism which can become a non-regulatory barrier to technology adoption:

    • The threat of protests has been most effective when applied to companies with major consumer brands and enough market leverage to dictate what happens for a given crop.  The classic case of this phenomenon was how MacDonalds, in three phone calls to major frozen French fry producers, put an end to biotech potatoes in the US and Canada.  Potatoes are an extraordinarily difficult crop to improve through breeding because of their complex genetics and vegetative propagation.  Biotechnology was a promising way to deliver traits for important pest issues as well as quality and health benefits, and the major potato buyers knew it.  However; the risk from brand-damaging protests drove the decision. 
    • The specter of consumer backlash (fanned by anti-science propaganda) concerned major wheat importers/millers in Europe and Japan.  Their response was to threaten to boycott all North American wheat if a single acre of commercial GMO wheat was planted.  US and Canadian growers, faced with such a significant drop in export sales, reluctantly asked Syngenta and Monsanto to halt their biotech wheat programs.   For the future the US, Canadian and Australian wheat industries have all decided to block any future blackmail threats by doing a simultaneous launch of biotech wheat when and if it becomes available.  In the mean time there has been a multi-decade delay for positive technologies for one of the most important of global food crops.
    • Anti-GMO campaigning has made the entire topic of "GMOs" sufficiently toxic that the growers/marketers of many crops wish simply to avoid any impact on their crop's "brand" in the consumer market place.  This is what we are seeing today in the US/Canadian apple industry where a small, grower-based company has developed an innovative, consumer oriented trait.  The nervous industry has reacted quite negatively because of concerns about the apple "brand"  even though those biotech apples would only reach the market advertised specifically as biotech-improved.  This sort of thinking has also effectively blocked the use of biotechnology to solve problems in grapes as well as in most other fruit and vegetable crops
    Opportunities Lost

    There is a long and growing list of agricultural, environmental, and health improvement that "could have been" if the anti-GMO movement had not been so effective.  Some of these are only "nice to haves" like a fine wine.  Some of them are significant advances such as potatoes that ward off their major insect and virus pests.  Some of them are things like wheat which is less likely to have mycotoxin contamination.  Some of them are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.  

    What Mark Lynas realized is that it is just as detrimental to the future of humanity to ignore the scientific consensus on crop biotechnology as it is to ignore the scientific consensus on climate change.  The fact that there are groups successfully blocking rational action on both these fronts presents a synergistically dire threat to efforts to feed humanity.

    Addendum 1/7/13

    In an ironic twist, today on the way into a computer store I was approached by a young, Greenpeace worker.  She asked, "Are you familiar with Greenpeace?"  I said, "Yes, I'm a serious opponent."  She said, "That probably means you won't want to sign my petition!"  I concurred and encouraged her to listen to the Mark Lynas speech which I described because she had not heard about it.  I hope she does because her sincere energy to do something good is being twisted into something seriously bad.

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  

    GMO protest image from University of Washington


    Very nice. It would be great to know how much pesticide and bacteriostatic agents could have been NOT dumped into the environment if we had GE disease resistant crops. How many developing counties might be food exporters rather than importers? Most of all, the learning curve has been delayed. We have basically two traits installed after 15 years of harmless cultivation. It should be thousands.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    For the future the US, Canadian and Australian wheat industries have all decided to block any future blackmail threats by doing a simultaneous launch of biotech wheat when and if it becomes available.
    Steve, can you please explain in more detail what exactly you are saying here? I don't understand.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Back in the 2001/2002 time frame, Europe and Japan could credibly threaten to buy all their wheat (and they buy a lot) from Australia and other non-North American sources.  The major what grower organizations in Canada, the US and Australia have publicly stated that if they can ever get something like a drought tolerant wheat via biotechnology, they will commercialize it in all three countries at once which would essentially block the EU or Japan from making the same boycott threat again.  The winners would be the scores of poor nations around the world who are highly dependent of wheat imports and who have been suffering the most in recent years as global trade prices have risen to unprecedented levels because wheat yields have not been increasing as fast as global demand.
    Steve Savage
    I'm not sure what Mark Lynas was smoking before or after his flip, but it is really irrelevant. It is obviously a PR coup for the "anti-GMO people are anti-science" voices like Kevin Folta. The real deal is that anti-GMO people are extremely pro-science, just anti monopoly and anti pesticide. The idea that GMO crops will reduce pesticide use keeps being pushed despite the science that shows it to be a complete falsehood. The real anti-science crowd in the GMO world is actually the biotech companies themselves. Monsanto has ruthlessly suppressed any researchers who dared to publish any findings against GMO crops. (http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/gmo-scientists-under-attack/) Further, the real play in GMOs has nothing to do with feeding the world. It has everything to do with patents and control of those patents. Seeds grown by nature cannot be patented. But seeds altered by genetic engineering can be. And once they are, the patent holders have enormous monopoly power. Ask the farmers who have been sued out of business by Monsanto. Or the 250,000 farmers in India that killed themselves over the debt they because saddled with by Monsanto's practices.

    Marty,what you have just repeated are the myths from the echo chamber of disinformation from which Lynas managed to escape.  I personally know hundreds of scientists with no ties to  biotech companies who would be a part of the consensus Mark described.  I have also known hundreds of farmers who would completely disagree with your portrait of Monsanto.  If you don't actually interact with scientists in this field or with farmers, you might do well to expand your sources beyond those that feed your biases.  I would say the same to those who only get their political information from Fox.  The internet age is an information age, but it is also a disinformation age.  Everyone (including me) has to be open to the possibility that they are getting bad information.  Everyone also needs to avoid falling into conspiracy theory thinking.  Its not an easy thing to do, but on very important issues it is worth it.

    By the way, a knee-jerk rejection of pesticides is unwise and it is also worth looking at the scientific consensus that says that industry is well regulated and plays a critical role in the food supply.


    Steve Savage
    I like Marty's Argumentum ad Monsantium slur on Kevin. Yes, all those government-funded university academics are well-known for being shills for right-wing corporate interests.

    In reality, it is not just Kevin. It is everyone who understands even the basics of biology. When all scientists say you are anti-science, it is because you are anti-science.  You may not like being called it, Marty, you may want to think you are super-rational and intelligent, but so do astrologers and ghost hunters. You're inventing demons and invoking magical belief, just like they do.
    Marty,much of your information is incorrect. For example: suicides by Indian farmers is not related to GMO. Please read the following:



    My comments are for Steve, not Marty. Sorry Marty!

    John,I agree with Marty of the Indian farmer suicide myth.  If you actually look into it there is a sad backstory that is a good example of the challenges of third world agriculture.  In parts of India there has not really been any sort of reasonable farm credit or crop insurance option for their millions of small scale farmers.  Planting crops - any crops not just GMO - requires some up-front expenditure for fertilizer, seed, pesticide, hand equipment...  For many of these small farmers their only option for a loan comes from what we would consider a mafia.  If a farmer's crop fails for any number of reasons (drought, flood, pestilence...) the farmer may not be able to pay the debt.  The loan sharks then often threatened their family.  Very unfortunately, the Indian government paid a $2,000 death benefit and some farmers chose suicide over harm to their family.  There never has been any unique association of this tragic "system" with Bt cotton.  In fact, something like 7 million Indian farmers are very happy to grow Bt cotton because it does not require them to go out an spray it frequently and it is LESS risky in terms of the sort of crop failure that leads to loan shark problems.  I believe that some international companies (than everyone wants to demonize) have stepped in to offer civilized loans and insurance.  I'd have to check on the status of that.  It is certainly the solution.

    There is a good summary of this by the "Skeptical Vegan"

    <!--StartFragment--> <!--EndFragment-->

    Steve Savage
    Not terribly recent (2009) but this is a pretty good article speaking to the indian suicide myth (as it pertains to GMO).


    Argumentum ad monsantium is hilarious. Count on me using this at my next social engagement.

    I'm really not a scientist. If anything, I did pretty bad on science in school. (Sorry!)

    Yet when I do my ever so curosry reading of the research, I find something which I find telling.

    The pro GMO crowd can cite authoritative science, health, and regulatory bodies, alongside very prominent and respectable science journals which publish study after study verifying how GMO's are safe.

    The anti-GMO crowd spends most their time citing "GMWATCH", truthaboutgmos or a bunch of fringe sounding and looking websites/blogs.

    Now this doesn't disqualify them right away, as knowledge is knowledge, wherever it be found. But after 30 years, we still haven't seen one of these prominent bodies step forward. That's got to tell us something. Even moreso because when you present this fact, nobody presents evidence for why this is the case if they are right, but screeds about how Mansato is evil.

    Now maybe my knowledge is limited, as again, I'm not a scientist. Can those who promote the anti-gmo crusade credibly answer the query. Once again, why does every single prominent health, medical, and science body come to the conclusion that GMO's are safe? Is Monsato really that much craftier than the craftiest of Bond villians?

    Kmtierney,Your observations are correct and your logic is perfectly sound.  The anti-GMO folks will cherry pick the studies that find some issue with GMO food (usually ones that have been discredited later).  It is the job of the scientific panels to do the sifting - that is why the European Food Safety Association recently very publicly rejected the "Serliani" study as did a great many other scientific bodies.  The anti-GMO crowd usually then goes into full-blown conspiracy theory-thinking:  "They have all been bought off by Monsanto..."   That is what they now say about Lynas.
    Steve Savage