How dare biologists create something not found in nature!
Well, mankind has a lot of experience in trying to keep nature from killing us - the war between man and nature is a grudge match whose history and resentments run deep. When scientists stop trying to keep nature from killing us is when we should worry.
But in the First World idyll that anti-science environmentalists have manufactured about the ancient past (15 years ago, before genetic modification became common), all things that are unnatural are bad. Only natural is good. Ricin = good, for example, even though scientists know it is very bad. But something that can't express a protein that could harm a human being and is instead a precise genetic modification created by experts to control pests with fewer pesticides = bad to environmentalists. Scientists are out to run us off a cliff, they contend. (1)
Quick, when you learned that rogue genetically modified wheat was found in Oregon did you think that Monsanto was being sneaky in a hotbed of anti-science hippies or did you think eco-terrorists probably did it, since they had also just destroyed beet farms there? If you don't think eco-terrorists did it and that instead Monsanto jeopardized its multi-billion-dollar business to slyly introduce a product they have never even tried to get to market, I know how much organic food you buy. (2)
Today's dose of unfounded paranoia was provided by Gaia Health last year. I secretly love this piece despite its hysterical use of scare quotes and repeating obvious factual statements as 'oh really' questions, which likely provides a lovely shot of dopamine for readers who think that sort of silliness is clever but really gives no insight at all.
So why do I love it?
This graphic, which shows a man - presumably an executive at Syngenta or DuPont or whoever we are supposed to demonize this week - boning a genetically modified scorpion. Sure, it's silly but the paranoid premise of the article is silly so it's appropriate:
Why are environmental activists so sexist? They never show female executives having sex with GMOs. Credit and link: Gaia-health.com (3).
And the market for paranoid is clearly there. At the time of this writing, this thing has 1,100 likes on Facebook, even though the study they were ranting about was from way back in 2002. No one in their community noticed because they use study links the way drunks use lampposts - for support rather than illumination. It works. While independent science media feels nice, it doesn't pay the bills all that well. It would be much more lucrative to spout conspiratorial nonsense and watch the pageviews roll in.
Let's examine where this bit of Scaremongering goes off the rails.
The basics of the story are entirely correct. Scientists work on lots of things all of the time and one of them was to be a cabbage that would use less pesticides by expressing a protein insects hate, using genes from the scorpion Androctonus australus hector.
No surprise there. But then something weird happens. The author notes that when a scorpion-based pesticide was tested a decade ago, the scientists wore body suits. To rational people, if you spray any pesticide up close and are not wearing some protection, you're an idiot. The only thing dumber than not wearing a body suit, since the manufacturers of every pesticide tell you not to bathe in it or drink it, would be sticking a tube and some surfactant directly into your stomach and ingesting pesticides. Activists also do that to animals to try and show harm.
Scorpion poison sounds awesome but it is dangerous - it's especially dangerous to insects, which is the exact reason that honing in on a precise modification that could ward off pests and yet not express anything that could harm a person, like the amino acid sequence of the scorpion insectotoxin AaIT, is a terrific idea. But no, if anyone wears a mask while spraying an pesticide it must be evil - which means that Gaia Health regards 100% of the pesticides used by organic farmers as evil also.
What does that have to do with this genetic optimization? Nothing, but an anti-science audience is going to get hopped up when it is invoked, with the 1-2 punch that a business might like to make this cabbage for human consumption. It doesn't matter that fewer pesticides is a terrific idea for Gaia and humans combined, we all know what the author is really saying: Evil scientists want to turn you into a pesticide sink and if environmentalists don't stop them anything outside the walls of a Whole Foods is going to be the storyline of Fallout 5:Environment.
Do you want to avoid a world of frankencabbages and human pesticide sinks where you will have to fight genetic mutations in order to get organic pineapples? Then donate money to Union of Concerned Scientists and vote Democrat. Fallout logo: Bethesda Software
I'd say that anti-science hippies are stuck in an organic food of "Pleasantville" but they are a lot more destructive; they have far more in common with the John Birch Society of the 1950s than they do nostalgic comedies.
(1) Except climate scientists. While biologists, immunologists and nuclear physicists are not to be trusted on food, medicine or energy, climate scientists are lovingly caressed - unless they stop predicting short-term environmental doom.
(2) And how you vote. Anti-science hippies don't vote Republican. It's extra non-sensical that scientists - overwhelmingly liberal and voting the same way as activists - are not to be trusted and that activists insist President Obama is on the take from 'chemical' companies.
(3) Though they don't bother to acknowledge that they stole the graphic from TBWA\France, and French AIDS organization AIDES, which was as ignorant as the anti-science hippie movement, because they compared AIDS to a monster. Maybe they assume that since France hates science, French graphic artists don't mind.
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