10 September 2013

Five tips for pro-GMO types: how not to sound like a douchebag

Hey you. And you, and you, and you.

Look, I get it. You respect the scientific community and believe them when they say GMOs are harmless. That’s fine. You don’t like the alarmism and the prevalence of bad science and pseudo-scientific arguments in the public sphere on the topic of genetically-modified foods, and you are offended by what you see as the dishonesty of people who argue for greater control over them. More power to you. You don’t like methodologically spurious studies (like the now-infamous Seralini study) which claim to show health risks from GM foods. That’s great – neither do I. There is an intellectually valid and morally supportable case you can make there, even if I don’t happen to agree with it. But – please take this as advice from a friendly critic who also happens to value decent science – here’s a few tips for arguing in ways that make you sound more convincing, and less like a complete and utter douchebag, to people who might otherwise be sympathetic to you (if you care about that sort of thing, that is).
  1. Stop defending Monsanto. That’s really issue number one. Yes, it is true that one can discuss academically the merits of genetic modification of food crops without mentioning Monsanto. And yes, it is true that Monsanto’s competitors, like DuPont, behave in similarly evil ways. But, given that Monsanto controls a good quarter of the global market in proprietary GM seeds (with DuPont controlling yet another fifteen per cent), from a broader empirical and social perspective it’s intellectually dishonest to take faux umbrage when they get name-dropped, and then proceed to run interference for them.

    Monsanto may not be Weyland-Yutani or OCP or LexCorp, but they really are about as close as you can get in our modern world to a megacorporation whose exploitativeness, crassness and evil actually do extend to cartoonish proportions. Their enforcement of their patents and their marketing strategies, which together reduce farmers to dependency on their products every bit as surely as Walmart’s economic strategy reduces its workers and its shoppers to dependency, is evil. They religiously subscribe to the idea of regulatory capture, given the revolving door they enjoy with the FDA. And now they essentially have their own private army. So if you don’t want to be accused of being in league with Monsanto, stop attacking Monsanto’s critics for being critics. Our concerns have logical and empirical grounds.

  2. Stop pretending GM food is some kind of silver bullet for world hunger. Speaking of alarmism, the population-based alarmism of Malthusian greens is far more prevalent, and far more insidious in terms of intellectually- and morally-bankrupt social applications of science, than anything the anti-GMO crowd could drum up (even though, I grant you, the two do tend to overlap somewhat). Long story short, don’t play into the Malthusians’ hands – it makes you look like looneys and ignoramuses.

    Hunger is not caused by food scarcity. This is a matter of empirical fact (see also here and here if for some reason you’re allergic to HuffPo). Hunger is caused by maladministration and systemic distributional inequities, not by technological limitations or by a population bomb.

  3. Stop defending Monsanto. Seriously. As far as systemic distributional inequities go, they and their IP-extremist business model are simply not part of the solution to the problem of world hunger anyway. They’re part of the problem.

  4. More consumer advocacy is better than less. Always. European countries all demand labelling for GMO products. So does China. And that is a perfectly reasonable demand. Claiming that GM labelling is unnecessary because GM has not been proven harmful to health is disingenuous, given the rationales for equivalent labelling legally mandated by the FDA. Even though everything that goes into a food product is (presumably) already harmless to human health, we still legally demand that the producers put a list of ingredients and health facts on the packaging. The same should be done for the genetic origins of the food used in the product, regardless of the health effects or lack thereof.

    What it really all boils down to is this: if you really value scientific advances for the contributions they have made to the breadth and depth of public knowledge, then actively trying to constrain that knowledge doesn’t just make you look like an arsehat, it makes you look uncertain of the correctness of what you claim is a rational belief. Logically speaking, if GM food has all the benefits its boosters claim it does, and if the detractors of GM have no rational ground to stand on with their criticisms, why not proclaim it loudly and boldly, with bright shiny labels for everyone to see? Advocating for keeping consumers in the dark does the pro-GMO position zero favours.

    (For that matter, neither does doing end-runs around the Chinese Centre for Disease Control in order to test new GM foods on Chinese children. If these particular GM advocates really had the conviction they and so many others claim to about the health risks of GM foods, they would go through the requisite IRBs first. Just so y’inz know, this is the reason my wife refuses to buy GM rice – not because of the health risks, but because of the unethical behaviour of the researchers and companies involved.)

  5. For the love of Science, STOP DEFENDING MONSANTO. Full stop. If you are in favour of GMOs, it’s just not necessary, and it’s just not worth it. Rentier capitalist outfits which bend all existing rules and which are textbook examples of public choice theory in action, are never going to benefit your cause in the end, particularly in such a normatively-weighted controversy like this one.

Just something to think about, here. To be clear, I’ve always held forth that those who deny biological evolution are morons. I think the people who deny that climate change is happening are either dishonest or misinformed at best – though I’m not in the same boat overreacting to it that the green Malthusians are. I’m on record as holding that faith-healing cults like Scientology and Falun Dafa are misguided, if not outright scams. I should be in the prime audience, and an easy sell for the pro-GMO crowd.

But I am on the side of looking at appropriately-scaled technologies to boost crop effectiveness and yield, because I think that ultimately greater power should be placed in the hands of the farmer to grow what she pleases and how she pleases, even – nay, especially – if that farmer is a subsistence farmer in the Third World. I don’t have an aversion to technology, and I don’t have an aversion to applications of science in farming – but I do have a strong aversion to corporate bullying, abuse of the patent system and accumulation of legal and financial power in the hands of a select elite few. As long as the pro-GMO position continues to hitch its wagon to corporate hogs, it’s going to have a tough time convincing me to hop on.


  1. Great post. It always bothers me when scientists defend corporations like Monsanto given how they will often privately complain about how much they hate being lorded over by MBAs and how the corporations force them to sign away the rights to their discoveries in order to obtain employment. Yet, they will defend Monsanto thinking their opponents are always primitivists or followers of Lysenkoism or some other caricature.

  2. Well, to be fair to the scientists, I think they are being intellectually honest about the potential and risks of GM. But one can be fully intellectually honest and still be completely unwise in how one directs that honesty - think about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, for example. Nuclear fission is a very worthy technology, but in the hands of irresponsible and belligerent nation states it spawned death on a mass scale and a decades-long technological nightmare.

    One might even say that this is one reason why we need to temper scientific advance with advances in ethics and a rediscovery of the classical virtues! :P

    - M