Delusions of Danger

Why the food movement’s demonization of genetically modified crops isn’t just scientifically baseless—it’s politically stupid.

An activist protests a request by US biotech giant Monsanto against Germany's decision to ban a type of genetically modified maize, MON 810, manufactured by the company.
An activist in Braunschweig, Germany protests a request by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto against Germany’s decision to ban a type of genetically modified maize, MON 810, manufactured by the company

Photograph by Nigel Treblin/AFP/Getty Images.

In the course of every social movement, there is a tipping point when its political influence becomes undeniable. For the civil rights movement, it was the Civil Rights Act of 1964; for the environmental movement, it was the first Earth Day in 1970; for the contemporary women’s movement, it was Roe v. Wade in 1973.   

Michael Pollan is hoping that the food movement’s history-making moment will come tomorrow. Up to now, the food movement has been a broad, loosely knit coalition of foodies, environmentalists, and health advocates without a clear identity or much political clout. As Pollan wrote in 2010, the grassroots movement is united “by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.” But tomorrow, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot measure which would require labeling on most grocery store items containing genetically modified ingredients. If the measure passes (and withstands legal challenge), many think it will result in a de facto national label.

Pollan and other pundits are framing California’s vote as a big test for foodies. In an essay for the New York Times Magazine’s recent food issue, Pollan wrote that Proposition 37’s outcome will show “whether or not there is a ‘food movement’ in America worthy of the name—that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system.” Other influential voices, such as New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, share this view. He recently wrote that Proposition 37 represented “the most important popular vote on food policy this decade.” Environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club also endorse the labeling measure; the National Resources Defense Council’s staff blog asserts, “California’s vote on Prop 37 will send a message to the FDA: Can we trust our food system?”

Unfortunately, the real message environmentalists and foodies are sending by coalescing in support of Proposition 37 is a dangerous one—and not one that will help the food movement in the long run. That’s because Proposition 37 is predicated on junk science and blind, simplistic mistrust of multinational corporations. If the food movement continues down this road, it will soon be as politically irrelevant as the once-promising environmental movement is now.

The pro-labeling camp wants people to believe that eating “frankenfood” is dangerous to their health. This is simply false. Years of rigorous studies of GM foods have not demonstrated any harmful effects associated with consuming GM crops.  Yet misinformation about genetic engineering is so rife in the media that the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently issued a two-page statement to clarify the safety issue: Claims that GM foods are dangerous have not “stood up to scientific scrutiny,” the organization said. Those familiar with the science know that eating genetically modified food is safer than taking a shower.

The food movement’s more mainstream commentators, like Bittman and Pollan, walk a fine line on this dimension of the debate. They are careful to keep their distance from the food movement’s paranoid wing, but they also leave open the question of whether GM foods are safe. Pollan has said that “it’s perfectly rational to avoid genetically modified food.” This is a disingenuous position, akin to not ruling out the possibility that childhood vaccines may cause autism.

Rather than engage with the science, Bittman and Pollan prefer to focus on the environmental downsides associated with genetically modified crops and the ruthless hand of agricultural behemoths like Monsanto.

Separating out Monsanto’s actual misdeeds from cartoonish exaggerations of the company is no easy feat. As a 2008 Vanity Fair investigation revealed, the corporation has used intimidation and heavy-handed legal tactics against some farmers. But critics tend to exaggerate Monsanto’s transgressions: Consider their fondness for describing the company as “evil.”  Monsanto is to conspiracy-minded liberals what the U.N. is to black helicopter-fearing conservatives.  

Now, I am no cheerleader for Monsanto. I am also no fan of monocultures, pesticides, or any of the other unsavory aspects of industrial farming. I support urban farmer’s markets and I buy mostly organic produce, milk, and meats. I recycle and celebrate Earth Day with my kids.

But I do all this with my eyes open to the world that we live in. And that is a world of 7-billion people that cannot feed itself with only locally grown grains and vegetables. It’s a world where conventional, industrialized agriculture takes up less land and produces more food than organic farming. As Jay Rayner, the Guardian’s food writer says, it’s time we recognized “that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.”

Managing our global food supply in a sustainable, efficient manner necessarily involves allowing for both organic and conventional agriculture. But a simplistic, down-with-industrial-farming chant rings loudly throughout the food movement. Sure, there are legitimate grievances about the corporate conduct of multinational food and agricultural companies. But since when is that unique to big business of any nature? For example, there are compelling social justice issues related to the making of cell phones and sneakers, but I don’t see people demonizing Apple’s or Nike’s technological innovations.

So why is Big Ag different from Big Smartphone or Big Sneaker?  And why has concern over how the world’s food is grown become so strongly identified with concern over genetically modified crops?

The answer to both has to do with the legacy of environmentalism. The green movement’s worldview today is the same as it was in 1970: Nature is sacred, big business is the enemy, technology is dangerous, the world is on the verge of eco-collapse. The ecologist Barry Commoner, who recently died at the age of 95, was perhaps the most influential apostle for this mindset. He argued in the early 1970s that the “circle of life,” in which “nature knows best,” had been broken by a technology-based society that had put the planet on the brink of ecological suicide. This outdated, unhelpful perspective reverberates in many offshoots of the environmentalism of 40 years ago, not just the food movement. For example, today’s environmentalists (and their enablers in the media) have a tendency to exaggerate the dangers from chemicals in household products. A similar dynamic has played out for years in campaigns against nuclear power and more recently, hydraulic fracking. At the root of these hyperactive fears is a deep distrust of industry.

Two British academics asserted just last week that challenging “corporate powers” is central to the noble green cause. And to environmentalists and food activists, Monsanto represents everything that is objectionable about corporatized, industrial agriculture. As Pollan put it in his New York Times Magazine piece, “The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food.”

Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for. Pollan thinks that Proposition 37 is “something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.” But capitalizing on irrational fear isn’t a good long-term political strategy. People eventually tune out or start to question your credibility, which is what has happened to the environmental movement. Decades of catastrophic predictions about legitimate ecological threats has cost environmentalists much of the political capital they accrued in the 1960s and ’70s and lost them the support of one-time enthusiasts. George Monbiot, one of the U.K.’s most prominent environmental writers, recently concluded that “the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.”

Like Monbiot with nuclear power, some foodies have cottoned onto the exaggerations of anti-GMO activists.* Let’s hope others wake up to the cynical tactics of Proposition 37’s champions before they squander the food movement’s political potential.

Clarification, Nov. 6, 2012: This article failed to make it clear that George Monbiot’s criticism of the environmental movement was based on the movement’s anti-nuclear campaigning, not anti-GMO campaigning. (Return to the updated sentence.)