While most actual scientists did not give much credence to an offhand claim by researcher Árpád Pusztai in the mid-1990s that a genetically-modified potato damaged the immune system of an animal, because the results were unpublished and unverified, UK media of the scare journalism kind and British activists took off with it and the "Frankenfood" movement was born.
Here is what Lynas writes about his early efforts (bold mine):
These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.Last spring, 55 members of the US Congress finally became as anti-science as the British and asked the FDA to put warning labels on GMOs, but there is hope for those anti-science politicians because Lynas, one of the people who originally set out to cripple biology - and did, including acts of eco-terrorism - has decided to accept science.
This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.
Some skepticism of new science was warranted, of course, I was concerned in the early days of genetically-modified food also - as I have said many times, given my way, nothing my family eats would be grown, killed, picked, cleaned, processed or cooked by any hands but mine - but an irrational standard for proof that no product can satisfy is just anti-science fundamentalism and I never caved into that. Today, I have far more confidence in conventional farming than I do in organic food, despite being a farm-grown food person my entire life. Yet a segment of the public remains (in some instances) skeptical of GMOs and (in others) educated by activist public relations scare tactics. Even on Science 2.0, we have people who constantly snipe at every biologist and biology study about food. Biologists get the brunt of derisive comments on this site anyway, mostly of the 'you can't prove it's safe' kind about food and then all kinds of crackpot comments about evolution.
But it's nice to see that some activists can be convinced; we're not going to see anyone at the Union of Concerned Scientists accept science in my lifetime, I predict, but then no one would have predicted Lynas would change his tune either. He said corporations were evil, they were greedy, none of the science breakthroughs were real and if they were, they would never help poor people. All the same stuff we have read time and again. Due to that public relations work, any food that is a GMO is spurned by anti-science activists and politicians who ironically claim to care about helping the world's poor - they think a perfectly safe genetically modified ear of corn is worse for poor people than letting them starve.
But Lynas dropped an intellectual bomb in his Oxford Farming Conference lecture (posted on his site). He said he was wrong about GMOs (bold mine):
"For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.If that doesn't reaffirm your faith in the power of science outreach, I don't know what can. Science actually won over someone who was anti-science.
"As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.
"So I guess you’ll be wondering—what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist."
Maybe now progressives can embrace progress.
In Science Left Behind, the anti-GMO movement is listed as one of the many ways the left in America is overwhelmingly anti-science but to me it is tied with being anti-vaccination as the most dangerous crackpot problem we face. Climate change is a problem but there are science and technology obstacles involved in replacing current energy sources and research is tackling it. However, we can stop people from starving right now. There may be political obstacles and there may be economic ones, just like with climate change fixes - what I care more about is that, unlike fixing the climate issues. there is no science or technology obstacle to feeding people. The only obstacle is cultural and in America that means educating food activists engaged in the $29 billion Big Organic movement and getting anti-science environmental activists like Greenpeace to stop making money scaring people about science.
And that is what they do, as Lynas said in his talk.
Politicians listen to their constituents, including the anti-science ones, so in February and March of 2012, a group of politicians tried to promote anti-GMO action at the federal level. Below is the list of those 55 members of Congress who signed a letter to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in support of a legal petition asking the FDA to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
“We urge you to fully review the facts, law, and science, and side with the American public by requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods as is done in nearly 50 countries around the world,” they wrote.
Those bans in other countries are the result of what Lynas called "the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with" - successful because science did not matter to the people he wanted to convince, just the claim that it was about science was all that mattered to them. Likewise, those politicians in Congress invoked science in their letter, but they were really just engaged in the Scientization of Politics. They cherry pick claims to match their political goals.
As you might expect if you know anything about the anti-science food demographic, 53 of those 55 politicians are Democrats. But there is hope for them. If Lynas can admit "I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist" then why can't every environmentalist? Why can't those politicians?
Here is the list of people who signed the letter.
Anti-GMO Republicans in the House:
Richard Hanna (NY-24)
George Miller (CA-7)
Anti-GMO Democrats in the House:
Peter DeFazio (OR-4)
Dennis Kucinich (OH-10)
Louise Slaughter (NY-28)
Keith Ellison (MN-5)
Raul Grijalva (AZ-7)
Peter Welch (VT-At Large)
Hansen Clarke (MI-13)
Earl Blumenauer (OR-3)
Lloyd Doggett (TX-25)
Anna Eshoo (CA-14)
Sam Farr (CA-17)
Maurice Hinchey (NY-22)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Chellie Pingree (ME-1)
Jim McDermott (WA-7)
Madeleine Bordallo (GU-At Large)
James Moran (VA-8)
John Olver (MA-1)
Jared Polis (CO-2)
Charles Rangel (NY-15)
Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1)
Pete Stark (CA-13)
Howard L. Berman (CA-28)
Robert Brady (PA-1)
David Cicilline (RI-1)
Yvette D. Clarke (NY-11)
Steve Cohen (TN-9)
Dianne DeGette (CO-1)
Bob Filner (CA-5)
Barney Frank (MA-4)
Luis Gutierrez (IL-4)
Janice Hahn (CA-36)
Michael Honda (CA-15)
Barbara Lee (CA-9)
Zoe Lofgren (CA-16)
James McGovern (MA-3)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-9)
Jackie Speier (CA-12)
John Tierney (MA-6)
Melvin L. Watt (NC-12)
Lynn Woolsey (CA-6)
Maxine Waters (CA-35)
Grace Napolitano (CA-38)
Anti-GMO Democrats in the Senate:
Barbara Boxer (CA)
Patrick Leahy (VT)
Bernie Sanders (VT)
Daniel Akaka (HI)
Dianne Feinstein (CA)
Ron Wyden (OR)
Mark Begich (AK)
Jon Tester (MT)
Richard Blumenthal (CT)
Jeff Merkley (OR)
Sanders is technically not a Democrat, he just caucuses with them. He instead calls himself an Independent Democrat-Socialist, so he is even more Democrat than Democrats and thus included among them.
What can you do to help bring these people back to the reality-based community? I have argued before that science is a gigantic potential constituency, representing $140 billion annually in the United States. But neither political party cares about science unless it suits their political agenda because scientists and the science audience do not vote on science issues the way teachers and minorities vote in their self-interest; academics and media writers are voting Democrat no matter what and so Republicans don't bother to reach out to them while Democratic politicians can instead target voters who need to be appealed to. But the science audience in America is 65 million people, so if those 55 politicians are told by scientifically literate people outside the academic and media elite that they have to defend science, and not undermine it, the same way people will tell politicians they have to adapt on abortion or taxes or immigration, the anti-science movement is dead in its tracks.
No amount of lobbying by anti-science NGOs will persuade a politician to vote in a way that will cost them a reelection.
Lynas righted a wrong - his downside is that he is now going to be smeared with the 'how much is Monsanto paying him?' allegation the goofy left uses when science disagrees with their beliefs. But for most voters there is no downside in demanding that politicians stop filtering science through their world view.
Biology won a victory against anti-science beliefs this week and it won a victory last month when the Obama administration responded to pressure and stopped irrationally blocking a genetically modified fish I wrote about in 2011 and again in "Science Left Behind". There's no reason to think that trend can't continue throughout 2013 as well. We just have to demand that science be restored to its rightful place, like we were promised it would be.