Filtering Fact from Fiction: A Humanist Response to GMOs

Last week, despite protests from anti-GMO groups, the European Parliament rejected a measure that would allow individual countries to ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs) including certain crops and animal feed. But the issue is hardly closed, as officials in the European Union must now pursue talks with the leaders in the individual countries, some of which want to introduce national bans. Whatever decision the EU reaches about GMOs will likely have some effect on ongoing debates in the US over GMOs, because anti-GMO groups here often point to Europe’s hesitancy surrounding GMOs as an example for the US to follow.

The European Commission’s website reflects the attitude of many scientists and activists, and also that of many humanists, who want to promote the use of GMOs. It notes that people have been selectively breeding plants for thousands of years in order to create healthier, hardier crops, and genetically modifying plant DNA for more desirable characteristics is just a faster, more technologically savvy way to do what we’ve done before.  However, opponents of GMOs say that they have not been thoroughly tested to ensure that they are safe for human consumption. They also raise concerns about the potentially harmful effects of creating plants that are resistant to bacteria, fungi, and weeds, and they worry that we could inadvertently create “super pests” that would evolve to take over not only GMO crops but also be impervious to pesticides. However, many people argue that our ability to use GMOs to create crops that can weather droughts and other unfavorable conditions, and the implications that may have for alleviating world hunger, are worth the risks. They also point out that by creating crops with their own ability to fight off pests, we would be using fewer chemical pesticides, thus doing less damage to the environment.

While it might be easy to dismiss some anti-GMO claims as grounded in fearmongering instead of fact, the root of that fear may be very real. Their specific claims about GMOs may not hold up to scrutiny—for instance, the website GMO Awareness conflates correlation and causation when it strongly suggests that an increasing rise in food allergies is caused by the use of GMO crops—but some of their trepidation may be rooted in concerns about unethical practices of the agricultural industry, which is cause for concern. William Saletan’s in-depth article on Slate about GMOs debunks many of the anti-science claims against using genetically modified crops, but he concedes that there are some valid concerns about the patenting of GMOs. An article in Quartz explains how the company Monsanto is attempting to monopolize the global agricultural industry by patenting seeds, which could not only increase its already considerable political and economic power but also limit genetic diversity in its plants. Increasing media attention has also been paid to the plight of agricultural workers, both in the US and in Mexico, who are often forced to labor for grueling hours in slave-like conditions. While many humanists, who are passionate about scientific literacy and technological advancements, might advocate for GMOs on the grounds of their benefits, they must also grapple with the unethical practices of Monsanto and other large corporations in the agricultural industry.

Many similar campaigns that spread misleading and anti-science messages may also take such a strong hold in the public’s mind because they tap into real fears about large companies that value profits over people. The anti-vaccination movement’s claims that vaccines cause autism and other diseases have been debunked with numerous, reliable studies, yet many parents are still hesitant to vaccinate their children. CNN reports that as many as 33 percent of Americans use alternative medicine (though many do so in tandem with conventional medicine), and 5 percent of Americans use alternative medicine only. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that in 2012, five million adults and one million children used homeopathic remedies. Some humanists frequently criticize anti-vaxxers and users of alternative medicine and homeopathy as anti-science, and their critiques may be justified. But with pharmaceutical companies arbitrarily raising prices on drugs and the US healthcare system’s goal of increasing profits not saving lives, some people’s hesitancy to trust the medical industry may be understandable.

If humanists want to successfully advocate for science and sound policies based on science, we’re going to need more than just facts to convince the majority of the public to come around to our way of thinking. We’re also going to have to understand the emotional reasons that compel many people to oppose GMOs, vaccinations, and conventional medicine. Eschewing these things in and of themselves may be irrational, but the general distrust of agro-business or Big Pharma is based on real concerns. Humanists should continue to promote scientific fact and rationality while acknowledging the unethical actions of businesses that prioritize profit over human wellbeing.