Science

Why I Stopped Defending GMOs

The scientific evidence is important, but there’s more to consider.

Pro-GMO signs are seen in a trash can.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by photka/iStock/Getty Images Plus and WesAbrams/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

After my first child was born, I was terrified that something bad would happen to her. I compulsively checked my stove, the locks, and my baby’s breathing in futile attempts to assuage my overwhelming fears. The parenting books, the internet forums, Dr. Oz, and the news outlets I turned to suggested that every choice could make or break my kid’s well-being. They told me that harmful chemicals lurked around every corner—in infant formula, household products, and the foods she would soon eat.

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I decided to fight my fears with evidence. Over the next two years, I taught myself to read peer-reviewed scientific literature. Going straight to the primary source behind the stories, and the worries, was a desperate attempt at self-preservation. It worked to some extent. Knowledge and meds brought me out of the worst of the terror that had started with my first child in 2011 in time for the birth of my second in 2013. Eventually, I found a good behavioral therapist to help with the rest.

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But I was left resentful of all of the unscientific fearmongering. I channeled the resentment into blogging, intending to arm worried parents with tools to navigate all of the scary information. Among those who exploited parents’ natural fears, the anti-GMO movement was a big one: GMOs kept popping up as the purported culprit for a gamut of problems, from obesity to infertility to the commodification of life forms in the world our children are set to inherit.

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I looked at claim after claim that GMOs were harmful and found them riddled with misinformation. I learned about the financial, political, and ideological motives behind a slew of prominent players who systematically mischaracterize genetic engineering. I found, as William Saletan did in an investigation for Slate in 2015, that the case against GMOs is full of fraud and lies.

I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Not only were GMOs safe, they were wonderful: To me, the precise transfer of genes to confer desired traits seemed downright elegant. Papaya with an added gene is now practically vaccinated against a virus that nearly wiped it out? Potatoes and apples—like the ones I learned about on an all-expenses-paid trip to Arctic Apples orchards—that don’t brown? Well, slap an “I ♥ GMO” T-shirt on me and hand me a megaphone, I thought. That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t just wear the shirt—I became a leader in the pro-GMO movement.

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My enthusiasm didn’t just come from my personal relief. It also felt morally correct. Among the biggest darlings of genetic modification is golden rice, engineered to be rich with beta carotene—the precursor to vitamin A—which gives the grain a yellow hue. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children globally and increases susceptibility to infectious disease. Proponents argue that this staple food—this “gift” to the developing world— could save the lives and health of millions of poor children whose diets consisted mainly of rice. As a parent who had worried so much about her own children, it felt natural to worry about other children too—children whom the GMO movement could help if only the anti-science crowd, the crowd who’d fallen for all that fearmongering, would back down. “Like most kindhearted and empathetic people, my heart breaks for those less fortunate,” I wrote in a 2014 blog post, titled “Good, Kindhearted Parents are Pro-GMO,” which used the global potential of golden rice as a case study.

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I refuted piles of misinformation on GMOs in my writing (including in Slate). Some of my colleagues and I launched the #Moms4GMOs campaign, which soon led to Science Moms, a crowdfunded 2017 film about vaccines, alternative medicine, and food. In 2015, I co-founded the pro-GMO March Against Myths (MAMyths) to “take science to the streets” and counterprotest the annual March Against Monsanto, which promotes the spectrum of misinformation about not only GMOs but vaccines, Bill Gates, autism, and more. We carried signs with slogans like “Biotech for the People,” and “GMO Saved the Hawaiian Papaya.” We chanted: “What do we want? Safe technology! When do we want it? We already have it!”

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Soon, MAMyths chapters were active across the U.S. and around the world. My co-founders and I were featured in Food Evolution, a “pro-science” documentary that shed light on the truth about GMOs and was narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom the New York Times billed as “the most credible public scientist on the planet” in its review.

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I held contempt for GMO opponents who, as I put it in a piece for Forbes, “would rather throw tantrums” than accept the safety and potential benefits of biotechnology. We were on two clear, separate sides, each with our signs, and our chants, and our polarized views. Specifically, the other side opposed solutions to the suffering and death of millions. In the summer of 2016, when none of the countries that golden rice was made to help had taken it up, more than 100 Nobel laureates published an open letter accusing Greenpeace and other activists of “crimes against humanity” for their opposition to golden rice and other humanitarian GMOs, and urging them to stop “for the sake of the developing world.” Richard Roberts, who spearheaded the letter, told me for a Forbes story that parenthood had shaped his worldview too: “Being a father makes one truly cognizant of the value of human life.”

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The 2016 general election is what began to make me question belonging to the pro-GMO community, which counts everyone from farmers to environmentalists to science fans among its ranks. We had never really talked about politics, so it had been easy to assume that I’d been holding a picket sign next to people who’d oppose the presidential candidate refusing to make basic statements about believing in science and supporting social justice. Those, after all, were my reasons for being so enthusiastic about GMOs to start with. But after the election it was clear from social media that some not only supported Trump—a blatantly racist, misogynistic candidate who flouts facts—but also taunted those of us who were upset about the victory in posts on social media. It was gut-wrenching. As I stepped back from the movement a bit, I began to see its tactics as domineering, more eager to outargue the other side than have a dialogue that weighs all of the facts. In August of 2017, one of Monsanto’s communications directors suggested that high-yield GMO corn is a technology that only “fearmongers” oppose. But it’s not anti-science to question the sheer quantity of genetically modified corn grown in the U.S., I thought. Little by little, I and others, including my MAMyths co-founders, began to question being “pro-GMO.”

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The last straw for me (for many of us) came in January of 2018 when Monsanto invited alt-right hero (at the time, anyway) Jordan Peterson to speak at the annual American Farm Bureau Federation conference about farming and about “allowing ideologies to grow unopposed.” I wrote a story for Slate questioning the decision to invite Peterson, noting that the “ideologies” that he opposes are what I’d consider basic levels of respect for people who are not white men—that is, people like me. Soon after the Slate story went live, GMO advocates, including farmers and scientists—the very people I’d been siding with in the GMO movement—rushed to Monsanto’s defense. I detailed the fallout in a piece for Undark. I explained that, in my view, Monsanto’s objective seemed to be to equate an opposition to GMOs with a belief in Bigfoot, something to be debunked perhaps with the tone of an exasperated parent, not engaged with in good faith. I had a new perspective: Maybe the rustling in the trees wasn’t sasquatch, but it was worth investigating.

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As the pro-GMO movement broke ranks, I started paying close attention to the calls to decolonize science and decenter the views and legacies of white, European men. Writing in the Conversation in April 2018, Rohan Deb Roy, a lecturer in South Asian history, explained that “for imperialists and their modern apologists, science and medicine were among the gracious gifts from the European empires to the colonial world.” The legacy of colonialism in science is still alive and well, he explains: “When an economically weaker part of the world collaborates almost exclusively with very strong scientific partners, it can take the form of dependence, if not subordination.” I realized that this sounded a lot like the model of “gifting” GMOs. My own grandparents lived under British colonial rule in India. It was unnerving for me to realize that proponents of golden rice—including, at one point, me—suppose that less developed countries simply need a little technological help from a society that knows more than they do. It’s, well, paternalistic.

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I still craved more evidence, but this time not about the biology of GMOs. I wanted to understand the social science of the people and economies they are purportedly designed for. In the case of golden rice and other humanitarian GMOs, that evidence is pretty clear that GMO technology has not helped and has led to some objectionable consequences. “If history is any indicator, genetically-modified (GM) crops may actually render African farmers and scientists more, not less, reliant on global actors and markets,” Joeva Rock, an anthropologist at UC–Berkeley, and Rachel Schurman, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, write of their research into the social impact of GMOs spread by Western countries. Suggesting that golden rice is a “gift,” ostensibly because it would be given free of charge to the poorest farmers, seems benevolent. But no one is putting out a pile of GMO seeds free for the taking and then just leaving the content alone. Farmers get the rice under a humanitarian license, which means there are strings attached. As Rock and Schurman explain in their latest study, Western entities that distribute GMOs abroad, like the Gates Foundation–funded African Agricultural Technology Foundation, have become embedded within governmental agencies throughout the continent. That gives these groups outsize influence in public policy. The crop isn’t truly free—it comes in exchange for reliance on and control by Western entities.

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Rather than pushing GMOs like golden rice, anyone who is honestly concerned about malnutrition “would start by looking into what tools [already seem] to be effective,” Glenn Davis Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University in St. Louis, told me in an email. There have been improvements in nutrition that have nothing to do with golden rice, he explained, referring to studies showing that the prevalence of VAD has dropped from 39 percent to 29 percent globally between 1991 and 2013, and from 40 percent to 15 percent between 2003 and 2008 in the Philippines. “GM crops played no role in this,” he said. Studies suggest that these gains were achieved with vitamin supplementation, fortification of foods, nutritional education, and increasing the diversity of diets—and increasing access to those could help even more people. Too many proponents invested in GMOs like golden rice, either monetarily or emotionally, are “using the world’s poorest sickest little kids to sell it,” he says. “Talk about crimes against humanity.”

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Personally, I still love a good GMO—particularly Impossible burgers, made with yeast engineered to produce a protein that mimics blood—and so do many of my justice-driven allies. But we’ve learned the hard way that people fighting for a common cause don’t always share their values. We still care about food and farming, but our focus has shifted to social and environmental justice in the food system, rather than advocating for particular technologies.

When it comes to the bigger picture, I prefer to take a more nuanced view of food systems, power dynamics, and legacies of colonialism, and look beyond the outlandish parts of opposition to science and technology to the evidence-based concerns. Sometimes solutions might involve genetic engineering, sometimes not. When it comes to golden rice, questioning its impact and the motives behind it is not “anti-science,” and it’s not up to GMO proponents to decide what’s best.

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