A field trip inside Green anti-GMO campaigning

A few months ago, I went to a conference that was part of a 3-day event called European Ideas Lab, organized in Brussels by the Greens/EFA, the green party in the European parliament.

What motivated me to go there was to see first-hand what I knew would be anti-GMO rhetoric, to maybe try to counter misinformation when I spotted it, but, most importantly, to try to establish a dialogue. My expression of open-mindedness, however, was not well-received by the group, but I found others in the group who also felt similarly and spoke up. Despite the negativity and the usual arguments that keep coming up, it was an illuminating experience that might point a way forward from this ideological quagmire. I believe there is common ground to be found with environmentalists about modern plant breeding. I believe it’s not only possible, it’s obvious.

Common values

As a Belgian citizen, I have traditionally always voted Ecolo, the local green party. I was even a Greenpeace donor for a while (I stopped because of their stance on Golden Rice). I share values with these people: I want human activities to have the least ecological impact possible, to curb climate change, to preserve and/or restore natural environments and to protect the species that inhabit them. I want agriculture to be sustainable, but efficient enough to ensure food security for everyone, now and in the future.

That said, I have come to understand that genetic engineering is simply a tool, and like all tools it can – it must – be used responsibly. This is where environmentalists can have a say. But they have to be open-minded about it. A blanket rejection of a set of tools arbitrarily lumped up under a vague three-letter acronym makes them reject all applications, including those that can benefit the environment, which in the end proves counterproductive. It blinds environmentalists to positive outcomes that deserve their full attention. For example, the halo effect that make Bt crops reduce pest pressure in entire regions, to the benefit of neighboring non-GM and even organic growers.

Hitting a brick wall

Maybe this workshop was not the best place for debating, but which is? In the Green political agenda, the premise that GMOs are to be opposed no matter what is written in stone, and the event was about how to effectively push for that idea, rather than discuss it. Because, I would soon see, there is no discussing it.

The presenter was from the British NGO Beyond GM. She introduced the audience to the various actions by the organization and their joint work with other anti-GMO groups. All those efforts and resources are devoted to a single message: ‘No to GMOs!’ That is their whole raison d’être. And their definition of what counts as ‘GMO’ is quite wide. Did you know, we were told, that the industry is trying to have ‘new GMOs’ (the presenter said this means mutation breeding, which is actually far from new; actually, she referred to gene editing) not considered GMOs under European law? This, I suppose, was intended to get the troops riled up.

A network devoted to blocking food innovation. Credit: Inti Orozco Editor’s note: The “Letter from America” was also coordinated to coincide with the Factor GMO announcement. Go here for an update on that story.

We did a round of presentations among the audience. There were members of the Greens/EFA and activists from different groups, including one from the Faucheurs volontaires, the French eco-warriors who destroy test fields at night – he got a suspended sentence, by the way. (Side note: since their systematic vandalism, relative impunity, and public sympathy have helped end research in genetically engineered plants in France, the Faucheurs volontaires now attack any tests of hybrid and mutant breeds, which they call ‘hidden GMOs’. This has driven the seed coop Limagrain to move out of the country. Most astonishingly, the Faucheurs, despite engaging in criminal activity, are financially backed by the organic industry leader Biocoop, which sells a Faucheurs volontaires brand of beer and potato chips).

I presented myself as having been anti-GMO by default, from ignorance, before educating myself about the science, learning about the overwhelming consensus on the safety of genetically engineered crops, discovering many applications of the technology that make farming more sustainable and help with food security; in short, realizing I had been wrong the whole time. Surprisingly, I was not alone. At least one other person shared this stance.

Reaching out

The workshop didn’t go as planned. It rested on the assumption that everyone was on the same page, but I wasn’t there to come up with ways to convey a message that I feel is fundamentally wrong, so I and the other person expressed our disagreement, and the whole thing turned into a debate. Because of this, we were accused of hijacking the event and shouted at by the audience. We were told that rejecting GMOs is ‘in the DNA’ of the Green party, so why were we even there in the first place. I objected that this was dogmatic. Such a violent reaction, while not surprising, was nonetheless unsettling.

I tried to argue that beneficial applications exist and deserve serious consideration – drought tolerant maize, cassava resistant to brown streak virus, crops fortified with vitamin A and iron, etc. They are in many cases created in developing countries for their own farmers, but European opposition influences their lawmakers and hinders solutions that are direly needed by the most vulnerable populations. This fell on deaf ears and was countered with the popular, though inaccurate, trope about multinational corporations controlling science and enslaving farmers.

But if they’re against big corporations, I asked, then why don’t the Greens support public research? “We do!”, they replied. But this is not true. The unanimous stance of green parties across Europe is one of outright rejection of any research in crop genetic engineering, and they make it quite clear in their communication that their end goal is “a GMO-free Europe”. This, of course, is not unique to the Greens; it reflects popular opinion. But the result is that public (and even private) research in genetic engineering is virtually dead in Europe, with scientists abandoning the field altogether. While saddening, this is understandable: why devote years of your life and millions in taxpayer funds only to see it uprooted overnight by activists, or sometimes even by your own government, while the taxpayer applauds them and reviles you? But the consequence is that we are deprived of the precious research that environmentalists say is so lacking for GMOs.

Whack-a-mole

No matter what I said, it was deflected by bringing up yet another argument. Sometimes political or ideological: “If we concede on GMOs, what next? Nuclear power?” One person started citing Moms Across America and Séralini’s rat study to me, but the organizer suggested not to go down that route. Maybe she was aware that it’s terrible science? We may never know; one of the propositions of the workshop was to avoid confusing the public with science. I objected that it’s a pity not to educate the public, because there is genuine interest for science communication, as attested by the countless science-themed outlets in social media. Ignorance, on the other hand, only fuels fear. And fear, it turns out, is a main driver of anti-GMO sentiment.

This is reflected in the popular opinions collected by the NGO. Credit: Inti Orozco

As the workshop clearly didn’t go where it was meant to, the organizer grew desperate. “While we argue among ourselves here, Monsanto becomes more efficient in its campaigning”, she said, in a Council of Elrond-esque way. I felt bad for her. I didn’t mean to ruin the workshop. I was even willing to play along, but my message, as an informed citizen, would have been one of open-mindedness; of educating oneself and others; to use technology responsibly and sustainably, and not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

After the workshop ended, I was caught in a lengthy and frustrating discussion with a young member of the German Green party. Although the exchange went nowhere, he did show me a video. Interestingly, I considered it was an argument for crop biotech in the developing world, but from his perspective, it was one against. He considered the economic rights of the people were threatened by GMOs, while to me, for the reasons I mentioned before, the rights of the people include that of using biotechnology for their own benefit and empowerment. Who are we to deny it to them?

Time for introspection

What I took from this experience is that while environmentalists have legitimate reasons to be suspicious of industry and its applications of technology, this has gone far beyond sound skepticism and sunk into full-blown fanaticism that sacrifices science and technology on the altar of ideology. Maybe we should take the time to step back and meditate on this, and consider listening to environmentalists with differing views such as Mark Lynas, instead of dismissing them as yet more industry shills. This will not mean the death of the Green political movement. Simply that it’s capable of evolving without betraying its core values.

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Artist and science enthusiast, regularly geeking out on space, agriculture and biotechnology.