We currently face a wide raft of environmental problems: climate change; ocean acidification; biodiversity loss; nitrogen overuse; concerns over unsustainable population growth and resource depletion; and plenty of others still. In my eyes, these are among the most important threats to global security and the wellbeing of the human race, as they relate to the destruction, or weakening, of our homes and habitats. They require sensible, rationally thought out and well-coordinated responses from across a broad range of sectors and disciplines, given that they aren’t simple, straightforward obstacles but ones which tie together many aspects of society and human activity.
Except what we have is the opposite. We have two groups of actors whose ideologies and worldviews diametrically oppose one another’s – and it shows in the polarised, uncompromising arguments we receive when it comes to environmental issues today. We have conservatives and libertarians on the one side, who say we must keep the status quo and preserve the economic and social liberties that have made modern society so great. Then we have environmentalists, who argue that commercialisation and industrialisation are ruining the environment and our quality of life, so they should be opposed at all costs.
Both sides of the debate can and should be criticised for their refusal to compromise, and their subsequent polarisation of the debate over environmental issues. But today I wish to cast the light on the environmentalist movement and the moral and factual inconsistencies of its negative stance on genetically modified (GM) food. It seems to me that many environmentalists – and I say many because it is such a diverse category – are in just as much denial of scientific evidence as their conservative counterparts. They are just as guilty of cherry-picking evidence to suit their ideological agendas. The problem is, they often do this at the expense of the environment, the very thing they are trying to protect. So it is for this reason that I’m taking aim at the double standards of these so-called “environmentalists”…
… The same environmentalists who mobilise to combat climate change, citing the scientific consensus on man-made global warming as their justification, but oppose GM food on the basis that, as Greenpeace International argues, “there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health”. This is simply not true. Scientists have been gauging both the potential environmental impacts and health safety risks of GM food for a long while now. Their findings are consistent: GM food’s environmental and health risks are either non-existent or negligible.
This was revealed by a bunch of research published last year reviewing years of scientific literature over GM food safety. A review of journal articles on the environmental safety of GM crops published between 2002 and 2012 found that “the scientific consensus matured since GE [genetically engineered] plants became widely cultivated worldwide” and “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops”. Similarly, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a literature review covering 20 years of safety studies, wherein the authors found “overwhelming evidence” that using biotechnology to genetically modify crops “is less disruptive of crop composition compared with traditional breeding, which itself has a tremendous history of safety”. An overview of health safety studies published in Nature Biotechnology in September showed both critics and proponents of GM food agreeing that “genetically modified foods have failed to produce any untoward health effects” so far, though they disagreed over the need for more long-term studies.
Many major scientific bodies and regulatory agencies across the world have reviewed the research about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as well, and have agreed that crop biotechnology is safe for commercial use (see here). Many scientists have heralded GM crops as a potential silver bullet in the attempt to drive millions of people out of poverty and starvation, to allay concerns over nitrogen fixing caused by fertiliser use, to reduce the amount of chemicals and pesticides that end up in waterways and ecosystems, and to reduce the amount of land and resources needed to cultivate crops. What’s more, there’s nothing at all abnormal in altering the genetic makeup of our crops – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years through artificial selection anyway.
So why do many environmentalists continue to argue that the science behind GM food is inconclusive? Why too do they do this while simultaneously criticising climate skeptics and conservatives who challenge the scientific consensus on man-made climate change? And why do they proliferate lies and propaganda about GM food, such as that GM cotton seeds led to the mass suicides of many Indian farmers, much like climate skeptics do with their global warming conspiracies?
One suggestion is that the environmentalist movement is stuck in its ways due to path-dependent inertia. When environmentalists began warning against Frankenfoods, biotechnology was still a relatively new science. It would have been more appropriate to raise concerns over its potential risks back then. But 30 years later and after several hundred scientific studies laying those fears to rest, environmentalists may be reluctant to admit that they were wrong all along. They staked their whole careers and organisational fundraising strategies on a mistaken campaign. (The same thing could very well be true for climate skeptics.)
It could also be that GM food is a threat to the commercial interests of the environmentalists doubled up as “natural” and “organic” food-sellers, who have based their whole industry on persuading consumers to choose their more moral, healthy and eco-friendly alternative to conventional food sources. If GM crops really are cost-effective, high-yielding, carbon-neutral and pesticide-free like they are engineered to be, they would make the appeal of organic food invalid. Portraying GM food as unnatural, unhealthy and harmful to local industries could be a way of preserving the label of organic foods to consumers.
The most plausible answer, in my mind, runs deeper than this. Environmentalists are ideologically predisposed to hate everything about GMOs because of what they represent. GM food symbolises modernity, commercialisation, materialism. These are crop seeds that are made by a scientist in a lab, that have commercial patents and are sold off to individual farmers by a multinational corporation seemingly intent on profiting from killing off nature (and local industries while they’re at it). This is an affront to people who yearn for simpler days, when technology and machine-fetishism didn’t drive society and nature wasn’t commodified or viewed as the composite of material resources.
But GMOs are more than this. They could help out poor farmers who could do with cutting costs by reducing unnecessary pesticides and fertilisers and increasing crop yield per territory cultivated. They could help the environment by reducing the need for fertilisers, minimising the amount of nitrogen that gets fixed into the air, and other chemicals that contribute to the acidification of our waterways; or by reducing the amount of land needed to grow food, an ever-important issue as the global population booms and more and more biodiversity is lost due to increased land use. They represent human innovation and scientific ingenuity, and the ability of the economy to drive up efficiency in the production of the things which satisfy our needs.
Environmentalists hate the notion that environmental and societal problems could be solved by genetic engineers and multinational corporations. They despise modern agricultural techniques, some even dismissing the feats of Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize winning farming management techniques which allowed for the Green Revolution of the 1960s. These strategies helped combat mass famines across Asia – particularly in India and Bangladesh – and much of the rest of the developing world without needing to use more resources, though environmentalists complained that it led to environmental damage due to the overuse of pesticides, fertilisers and water. In some cases this was true, but GM crops can only solve these problems by lessening the need for these environmentally invasive agents. In fact, their usage could usher in a second green revolution, building on the success of the last one.
These environmentalists are as ideologically traditionalist as conservatives. They refuse to accept change, and stubbornly hold on to romantic notions of how we ought to relate to the natural world. These notions are terribly outdated because of the way the human race has evolved. With a global population that’s still booming, and an emergent, growing middle class in developing countries that will be asking for the same luxuries as have been enjoyed by Western societies for hundreds of years, human development will come at a great ecological cost if we are to rely solely on conventional methods of agricultural and ecological management. And it would be unethical to ask millions of people to stop procreating so that we may avoid ecological degradation.
We must diversify the range of tools at our disposal if we are to develop sustainably. We mustn’t put all our eggs in one basket and should instead seek to provide as many options for farmers to better cater for their personal farming requirements. This is a sensible conclusion that environmentalist are trying to deny by renouncing the GM crops.