Have anti-GMO activists gone off the rails?

July 22, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Plentiful are the takeaways from Will Saletan’s expertly researched, if a bit viciously anti-activist, barn-burner of piece over at Slate on the various absurdities, lies and distortions in the war over GMOs – lies which, according to Saletan, fall far more in the laps of the obsessive anti-GMO activists themselves than they do the government or the usual Big Ag corporate villains. What a thing.

I’ve long been a casual GMO skeptic, far more wary of any megacorporation trumpeting their own patents as the savior of humanity and the “only” way to feed nine billion, than of those fighting for labeling transparency and food safety.

Put another way: There is simply no way I will ever trust a company like Monsanto, the current high priest of the Church of GMOs and the erstwhile inventor of such humane joy as DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, RoundUp and bovine growth hormones, over an organization like Greenpeace, a flawed and frequently politicized, but still largely vital organ of truth-telling and genuine concern.

But if Saletan is to be believed, something is seriously amiss on the activist side of things, Greenpeace very much included. And it’s ugly indeed.

In sum: Anti-GMO zealots almost across the board have gone off the rails. They’ve become so entrenched, so furiously convinced of their position that no amount of scientific fact can possibly penetrate, much less make them realize they have been, time and again, proven almost wholly wrong.

There’s too much in the piece to summarize here (if you care about the GMO issue, it really is a must read), but suffice to say, it doesn’t look good.

Example after example, Saletan shows how anti-GMOers, far more than advocates (who are far from perfect, obviously), have become the worst kind of hypocrites, repeating lies and long-discredited myths to the point that not only have genetically modified foods, seeds and plants been demonized far beyond their actual threat (which is, scientifically and nutritionally speaking, negligible) they’ve turned the anti-GMO argument into the exact kind of toxic dogma these same progressives usually decry about the conservative mind-set: that is, a nasty calcification of thought, extreme righteousness, willful disregard of fact.

It made me terribly sad, really. Especially because it’s often not Big Ag that’s claiming GMOs are safe and helpful. It’s independent scientists. And farmers. And food experts. And data from countless university studies and research programs. That is to say, non-industry.

Worse still? Activists are often horribly inconsistent, flip-flopping whenever needed to suit their argument, when it’s clear they don’t have the science to back their claims. It almost borders on the anti-vaxxer “debate” – the anti-vaccination position is absurd, cannot hold, has been proven wrong and even dangerous too many times to count. But try telling that to a true believer.

Does hearing any of this make you bristle? It sure as hell did for me.

Nice idea, but doesn't tell you what you think it does, and misses many of the real issues entirely

Nice idea, but doesn’t tell you what you think it does, and misses many of the real issues entirely

A flush of indignation hit me right away as Saletan challenged my long-standing – if not particularly well-formed – ideas about GMOs. Politically speaking, Saletan is a more conservative (read: less liberal) writer and thinker than me; I don’t agree with all his points, or everything he writes at Slate. But for me, expert journalism trumps all; I’m happy to report that, despite my reluctance, by the end I had to admit it – I’d been mostly wrong about GMOs. I needed to rethink my attitudes. I’d have to read more deeply. The discussion has been, for me anyway, quite healthily advanced.

And I gotta say, hallelujah for that.

I mean, seriously. To be proven even partly wrong about any conviction is, ultimately, hugely cathartic. It’s liberating as hell to have some stagnant, unquestioned belief blasted out of your intellectual or spiritual pipes.

That’s not to say it’s comfortable, or at all pleasant – at least, not at first. You gotta work through your resistance, question your own prejudices, soothe your bruised ego. But it is hugely therapeutic. And later, a real source of gratitude.

But there’s a catch: My mental upgrade was possible, I think, because I wasn’t fully invested in the fight. I was never a hardcore advocate, never believed that GMOs were pure evil; I just tacitly agreed with various anti-GMO “experts” that they weren’t fully tested (they are) and we didn’t know the effects on surrounding ecosystems (we do), or that labeling would at least be fair and helpful (it’s neither).

But what if I was a true believer? What if I’d been fighting this strange GMO fight for years, never really questioning my stance or the science behind it? I might be furious right now. I might claim Saletan is obviously on Monsanto’s payroll, or that he’s cherry-picking his facts, or that he must be insane. Most of all, I’d immediately slot him into the “enemy” camp, disregard everything he wrote as warped and impossible, and go right back to attacking.

I might, in short, suddenly find myself in the same position as the worst of the conservative right, akin to some Tea Party nut who’s drunk on righteousness, impervious to truth, unable to admit he’s not merely wrong, but missing out on some serious new technology that, in the right hands, could do wonders for humanity. To hell with nasty old Monsanto; GMOs hold promise in multiple categories.

(By the way and for the record: The argument here, as I read it, is not that GMOs are inherently good. It’s that they’re not inherently bad; they’re safe, have untapped potential, and are already being consumed safely and by the megaton. Also: GMO/not-GMO labeling misses the real problems, and is entirely counterproductive. Just FYI).

Is this not the true definition of “progressive,” by the way? It’s not just a gentle unfolding of happy truths, free of snags or real challenge. True progress often requires blasts and upheavals of what you thought to be true, the shattering of the stuck thing so real flow can happen. Or at least, that’s how it should be.

Here’s my main takeaway from Saletan’s piece: We must not be hypocrites. The liberal ethos, after all, claims a far higher degree of intellectual flexibility and open mindedness than rigid, panicky conservatism. It’s what keeps the Left sane, dynamic, (mostly) free of nutball extremists, and (mostly) connected to reality, while the Right gets the unhinged, psychotic, racist comeuppance it so very much deserves.

And yet, when confronted with a similar issue, many anti-GMO devotees will refuse to budge. Some will lash out in fury. There is no such thing as being proven wrong. There is no middle ground. The game is always rigged.

It’s true of any form of extremism, really: the fight, the zealotry define the participants, provide an identity, a cause, a tribe. Take that away, and life becomes too disorienting, too frightening to understand. Ask any Republican, gun nut, homophobe, climate denier; it’s always easier to cling to a distorted, disproven belief than to do the work of replacing it with a better one.

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Mark Morford

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