What Democrats In Congress Can Learn From Anti-GMO Activist Mark Lynas About Science
    By Hank Campbell | January 4th 2013 04:30 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    British environmentalist Mark Lynas was an early advocate against GMOs and, as he tells it, that meant he was an early advocate for demonizing scientists.

    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in the mid-1990s that a genetically-modified potato damaged the immune system of an animal, because the results were unpublished and unverified, UK media of the scare journalism kind and British activists took off with it and the "Frankenfood" movement was born.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.

    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.
    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.

    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.

    "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."
    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.

    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.


    Now, if we can get the environmentalist/climatologists kooks who have been doing exactly the same thing with AGW to actually do some science, maybe they will realize there is no worrying tipping point, no run away warming (if climate was driven by positive feedback, wouldn't the planet have burned up long, long ago?) maybe more of the poor could afford the cleanest energy (fossil fuels for the slow) available to keep warm this winter, instead of having to burn wood, one of the dirtiest or shivering in the cold slowly freezing to death.
    Never is a long time.
    They're not analogous. You can try and cast doubt on climate change because the climate can't be thoroughly tested and because there are a lot of knobs to turn but it is not the same thing as denying a precise, thoroughly-tested genetic modification and inventing a slippery slope and declaring that scientists haven't considered evolution so they must be banned.  I cite climate denial denial as not being as pressing as anti-GMO beliefs because we have time to solve it while people are starving right now, not because the climate isn't important.
    People are starving because they can't get food, others are freezing because they can't afford a cheap readily available fuel.
    Never is a long time.
    The reason so many people are against the use of GMO crops is NOT, repeat NOT, because they are anti-science or against the potential of GMOs for positive benefit.

    The primary reason is that Monsanto is pushing GMOs for a nefarious purpose: to make crops more tolerant of pesticides. The result of this is MORE pesticide residue is food.

    The whole tone of this article is wrong headed. People who are for GMO labeling and certainly pro-science. We think that the public has a right to know what is in their food.

    But you don't know what is in your food. Unless you grew it yourself from seeds you have had for a hundred years, your diet is nothing like your ancestors and if you buy 'organic' you are buying an intellectual placebo.  Your diet is nowhere even close to your grandparents. Your microbiome is proof. And their diet is nothing like people a hundred years before them.

    From Lynas:
    When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.
    Sorry, but the belief that scientists who work at Monsanto are "nefarious" is exactly what being anti-science is. It is the exact same rationale global warming deniers use about climate scientists, so good job being in the same category.  

    I remain skeptical you understand the genetic composition of food and could identify a GMO product from any non-GM one, even if you were handed the tools to do so. 

    What changed for Lynas was having to learn how science works, in order to understand climate change beyond the 'corporations are evil' argument by anecdote style you use.  Once he learned how science works and applied that insight to GMOs, he left the anti-science community and joined the reality-based one.
    So here is what I understand you are saying:

    -- you don't believe in the value of organic food at all - you think it is an intellectual placebo
    -- there is no value in eating foods with no hormones, pesticides or antibiotics - it is all hooey
    -- anyone who does not agree with your view on this is anti-science - even though there are respected scientific studies showing otherwise

    I don't doubt that some scientists at Monsanto are well meaning and do a fine job. But I did not say the scientists are nefarious. I said the COMPANY is. It is promoting products that have the RESULT of more use of pesticides on crops, thus resulting in more residues of pesticides in the food we eat and feed our children.

    To just talk about the benefits of GMOs without acknowledging the result of more residues of pesticides in non-organic food is to talk around the issue instead of addressing the issue. The issue is pesticides in food.

    So, the knob of your argument, I guess, is that you don't think pesticides are harmful. Doesn't that sound like the tabacco company scientists who claimed that smoking had not been proven to be harmful before it was proven?

    The proof is slowly coming out about pesticides: they are carcinogenic. This is science, not anti-science.

    I don't doubt that some scientists at Monsanto are well meaning and do a fine job. But I did not say the scientists are nefarious. I said the COMPANY is.
    That is a goofy statement, it would be like me saying Greenpeace is anti-science, but none of the people in it are.   And, no, your simplistic George Bush-ian 'you are with or against me' illogic in your ridiculous three bullet points don't merit any sort of response.

    My recommendation to you - stop using pesticides.  Grow your own food and use none of them.  And grow your own cow.  What I fail to understand is the need to tell other people how to live, including people who do not have your conspiratorial fear of Monsanto.

    I'm amazed that you did not even attempt an intellectual response to my main point: that the current main use of GMO crops results in more pesticides in food, and that since it is being scientifically shown to be bad for one's health, organic food in general is better than non-organic food. Are my three points about you correct or incorrect? This has nothing to do with growing my own food or raising my own cow. It has to do which what food we choose to buy in the store when an organic product sits side by side with a non-organic product. And of course I'm not telling you how to live. You can eat all the pesticides you want and you can smoke all the tobacco you want. Are you a father? Would you actually buy food with hormones, pesticides and antibiotics and feed it to your newborn child when you have a choice to not do so? So stay on point and answer the questions. You are trying to convince congresspeople to your side. Well, stand up and try to convince me. Or is this blog just for close minded people who all agree with each other?

    You're not interested in science, you just want to deny it. But you don't like the icky feeling of denying science so you engage in rationalization and claim companies that do science are evil and so you can claim to hate them and not actual progress.  It's pointless to talk about it.  If you have not accepted the science by now, you never will and I am fine with that, but your 'you can't prove it is safe' metric for why you deny science is goofy. I also do not argue with people who believe in astrology now those who claim choking up the ecosystem with CO2 will be better for plants - for the exact same reasons I don't bother with you; you don't know anything about biology.  If you want to engage people, learn what you are talking about and don't spout simplistic denial points you got from other people who don't know anything - but if you do some research, like Lynas you will find the science is more settled than you want to believe.
    Hal,As I have written on this site, the issue isn't whether there is more or less pesticide use.  The questions are what pesticides (some are extremely low risk like glyphosate) and what issues do they address.  Herbicide tolerant crops make it possible to do farming without tillage (plowing) which has huge environmental and water/soil conservation advantages.  There is nothing "nefarious" here.  It is an extremely useful trait that farmers love.  That is why once it was finally allowed in sugar beets it went to 95% in a year.  Try controlling weeds someday in a crop and you might understand.

    As for people wanting labeling, try this experiment.  Ask any non-ag person you know if they would want to have cloned fruit labeled?   You will get 95% saying they would.  Then explain that almost all fruit is "cloned" and has been for thousands of years (vegetative propagation - grafting of cuttings...). 

    Irrational, uninformed fear is not a reason for mandatory labeling.
    Steve Savage

    How can you say that the issue isn't whether there is more or less pesticide use, when that is the ONLY ISSUE that is relevant to many people who strive to eat organic food for that very reason?

    Is your view like Hank's -- you simply don't believe in the value of avoiding pesticides residues in food? That you don't think it is "proven" that they cause harm?


    Video of his talk. I put it in a comment rather than the body of the text because Vimeo is pretty flaky code and if I discover a spelling error and edit the article to fix it, the code will get mangled.

    07 Mark Lynas from Oxford Farming Conference on Vimeo.

    The other myths he self-debunked by actually examining the science of genetic modification as objectively as he tackled climate change (to save commenters from wasting our time, I know they comment based on the title and don't actually read or listen to his talk):

    I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

    I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

    I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

    I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

    I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

    But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.

    What was it that old Greek dude said about the value of an unexamined life?

    Everyone has the ability to reason, but emotional egocentrism is powerful stuff, and sooo immediately satisfying.

    It's good (and fun) to see people come around.

    Your observation that "...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" is strikingly similar to the HSUS policy on euthanasia.

    To quote from my own crappy blog: "Exhibit two. The shelters HSUS supports have the highest euthanasia and lowest adoption rates of all pet shelters. According to Veterinarian Patty Khuly, the shelter euthanasia rate across America is 34 percent. In HSUS supported shelters the euthanasia rate is 97 percent. Why is the HSUS euthanasia rate so high? Because the HSUS position is that animals are better off dead than existing as property or as a pet. Also, most state laws require adopted dogs and cats to be spayed or neutered. This costs money. It costs almost nothing to euthanize a dog or cat."

    There's a real slippery eugenics slope lurking out there.

    There's a slippery slope to anything if someone wants to make one. That is the advantage of using two datapoints and desiring to imply causation.  How anyone can introduce the euthanasia rate in pets as evidence for eugenics due to GMOs is beyond me.
    Gerhard Adam
    Also, most state laws require adopted dogs and cats to be spayed or neutered. This costs money. It costs almost nothing to euthanize a dog or cat.
    Your comment doesn't make any sense.  While I can't verify the actions across the nation, I can tell you unequivocally that here [in Oregon, and California] that when an individual adopts an animal from the shelter, they will pay a fee.  Part of that fee is typically used as a voucher for the animal to be spayed or neutered, so there is no cost to the shelter, nor to the new owner [beyond that adoption fee].

    Moreover, I don't know where you get the idea that it costs nothing to euthanize a dog or a cat, since it involves both drugs and trained personnel in these shelters to handle that.  It is certainly more profitable for the shelter to adopt a dog out, than to euthanize it. 

    In addition, there are now many "no-kill" shelters, so your simplistic explanation simply doesn't hold true. 

    However, let's be clear.  The problem isn't with the shelters but with irresponsible owners that breed and then abandon their pets.  The costs of spaying and neutering are not prohibitive, so when an owner fails to do this, it is their failure which results in most of these animals ending up in a shelter and facing the possibility of euthanasia.  This is even more true, when these nitwit owners have potentially dangerous dogs that have been not socialized properly, not neutered or spayed, and then turned over to the shelter.  These dogs are fundamentally un-adoptable, so there is little choice except euthanasia in most cases.   So if the euthanasia rate is bothersome, then the focus needs to be on the irresponsible owners that have given rise to the problem.

    This doesn't even begin to address the issue of cats.

    Mundus vult decipi
    I don't understand how you can equate the labeling of GMO foods with a ban. Do you really think consumers are that reactionary and monolithic? I would suggest that the anti-hippie tone you employ would be an effective marketing strategy for Monsanto, etc. Furthermore, I suspect most consumers would essentially ignore GMO labels. Consumer activists are a small portion of the overall market.

    Perhaps now that you've embraced science you should explore economics and marketing.

    So your contention is the anti-science crowd does not want to ban GMOs?  They just want to know where they are so they can avoid them while the poor rubes who can't afford organic food get cancer and autism and stuff? That's a rather cynical characterization of of consumers, so you are the one who finds people " reactionary and monolithic", not me.

    But you also make a fine point; if everyone is going to ignore warning labels, then they are just adding cost for the people who can least afford it. Thus, they are unessential not just because they are based on hysteria rather than science, but because they are a waste of money that helps no one. However, the people who can clearly afford anything - like those who shop at Whole Foods - should absolutely put special labels that are meaningless on higher-priced goods; like the 'organic' kind already on their products.

    I am all for organic labels on food. And 'no GMO' labels too. I think the marketplace will fill that need without social authoritarian government, and a $29 billion industry shows they are.
    Lynas' opposition to Genetically Manipulated products was ill-conceived and uninformed but that does not mean there are no sound reasons to favour GM-free. His uncritical support for GM products now is similarly ill-founded as he claims to rely on science but does not understand or apply its rules.

    Labels are to satisfy people's right to know how food was made using novel technologies and what ingredients are in it, not to guarantee safety. Australian and New Zealand laws require the products of new food technologies (e.g. Genetic Manipulation, irradiation, nanotechnology, bush tucker) with a limited or zero history of safe use in food to undergo pre-market safety assessment and to be labelled (Food Standard 1.5). This requirement appears to be in the process of being dismantled, in part as a result of US government and corporate (BIO) intervention in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade negotiations now in process and other pressures.

    Free marketeers, retailers, processors and other participants in food supply chains should all support fully informative labeling, as a lack of information distorts the market by allowing the selective withholding of relevant information from shoppers. Thus, customer choice is not optimised and all food chain participants are losers, if the free market model is not a hoax.

    As to the conventional vs organic debate:

    Australian organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic chemicals or GM in certified organic food production. But Food Standards Australia NZ sets Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) of synthetic chemicals in conventional foods, on the basis of Good Agricultural Practice agreed between our chemical regulator and the companies. See: So, for example, 17 synthetic chemicals may be sprayed on a non-organic carrot, with MRLs totalling 87.24 mg/kg. Approved chemicals are: heptachlor, 0.2 mg/kg; maleic hydrazide, 40 mg/kg; parathion-methyl, 0.5 mg/kg; 2-phenylphenol, 20 mg/kg; quizalofop-ethyl, 0.02 mg/kg; quizalofop-p-tefuryl, 0.02 mg/kg; tebuconazole, 0.5 mg/kg; trifluralin, 0.5 mg/kg; azoxystrobin, 0.2 mg/kg; 2-chloro-N- (4_-chloro-5-hydroxybiphenyl-2-yl) nicotinamide, expressed as boscalid equivalents, 1 mg/kg; chlorfenvinphos, 0.4 mg/kg; 4-hydroxy-2,5,6-trichloroisophthalonitrile metabolite, expressed as chlorothalonil, 7 mg/kg; dicloran, 15 mg/kg; difenoconazole, 0.2 mg/kg; total dithiocarbamates expressed as carbon disulphide, 1 mg/kg; fentin hydroxide 0.2 mg/kg; iprodione, 0.5 mg/kg.

    In the worst case scenario there may be 87.24 mg/kg of toxics on your carrot, still within the law. That is the toxic brew that may be on just one vegetable in your salad! In my opinion, organic foods are a boon to our health and well-being, more nutritious, and in the long run a big saving in medical bills. I assert my right to make an informed decision about what goes down my throat and that requires complete, honest and candid information wherever it's available, especially on labels. That's not anti-science!!

    Hi Bob,

    Philosophically I agree with you. What was not done in the California proposition on GM labeling was actual disclosure for food. It was not making anyone safer and anything with an organic sticker was exempt, along with restaurants and alcohol. 

    If organic food were actually free of toxins, I would agree it is better. What they are free of are synthetic toxins, which is not the same thing.  In America, the situation is even worse; not only are toxics allowed on organic food, a giant list of synthetic ingredients are exempt. But those exemptions are necessary if you are going to create a $29 billion business - and the belief in its buyers that organic food is not a business is brilliant marketing, because it most certainly is a business.

    On Lynas, not everyone understands all science but given a choice, accepting a science consensus is better than denying it.  Not everyone who accepts evolution can explain adaptive radiation but it's better than denying evolution occurs.  On food, I do not advocate a free-for-all, but we cannot stay trapped in the past either. We have lots of mechanisms to insure safety and choice is important, so I am happy you can buy organic food and that poor people can afford to feed their kids with no harm coming to them.