One tenet of the anti-GMO, selectively anti-corporate crowd is that evil, powerful groups are controlling the world’s food supply. I’m generally not much on conspiratorial thinking, but this time, the accusation is correct.
But it comes with a substantial caveat. That’s because those making the accusation and those committing the act are the same. For it is anti-GMO activists that are corruptly manipulating the food marketplace. It is not being done, as they claim, by food technology companies through patents and seed ownership. Rather, anti-GMO activists manage to artificially constrain GMOs through a three-pronged approach of regulatory control, making threats to corporations, and exerting pressure on food importers.
The result is that only 10 crops have ever been approved for genetic modification even though the technique can reduce the chance of a crop being afflicted by drought, disease, or pests. Anti-GMO victories have included preventing the distribution of Vitamin A-rich golden rice to Third World countries, which would prevent some instances of childhood blindness.
When anti-GMO forces have failed and farmers have been given the chance to grow biotech crops, they embrace them. Genetic modification allows for the development of traits that provide economic benefit, make for sturdier corps, and carry less risk. But only a small percentage of the world’s fruit, vegetable, and grain producers enjoy this biotechnology option.
One of the more prominent successes of anti-GMO forces was the politically-driven decision by several European nations to disallow biotech crops to be cultivated in all or parts of their countries. A related win was the required labeling of genetically-modified foods. Most companies avoided such products since the labels are accompanied by harassment from activists.
These activists frequently employ the ad populum fallacy and consider the number of countries that have banned the cultivation of genetically-modified foods to be evidence of their nefarious nature. But nearly 2,000 studies attest to GMO safety, meaning the restrictions are based on fear and threats, not science and reason. Just how much of a problem this can be was highlighted in a 2014 Guardian article. From the story:
“More than 20 of the most eminent botanists and ecologists in the world warn that it is time to put fears of genetic modification aside and begin widespread field trials. They call for a ‘fundamental revision of GM regulation’ which, they claim, is based not on science, but on politics. Professor Jonathan Jones says British scientists are creating world-changing crops, but they are being blocked by Europe. Jones has developed a blight resistant potato which would avoid the need for farmers to spray crops 15 times a year. Blight is the number one threat to the six million tons of potatoes produced in Britain each year and was responsible for the Irish Famine of the 1840s. But European approval is needed for commercial cultivation and so far the Council of Ministers has vetoed every application.”
This entrenched opposition has extended to other continents. African farmers are denied access to genetically engineered seeds that would improve resistance to insects and drought, and which would make the food they produce hardier, brighter, better tasting, and less susceptible to failure.
Beyond legislation, a second strategy is to threaten corporations with demonization. An insect-resistant potato was developed in 1996 and agricultural scientist Steve Savage reported that he “interviewed many potato growers in the first few years the trait was available and they were extremely happy to have a solution to their most damaging insect pest.”
But after anti-GMO activists threatened McDonald’s and Frito-Lay with boycotts, protests, and ad campaigns if they used this scientific advancement in their products, the companies caved and announced they would not be buying the crop. No small potatoes indeed, as with the two biggest potential customers backing out, the idea fizzled.
This tactic has hobbled other crop developments as well. Savage wrote, “I am aware of projects that have been started or were planned for bananas, coffee, grapes, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and apples,” but these were also torpedoed by activists who relied on threats, not data.
The final strategy is to threaten importers from countries which mandate GMO labeling. Savage explains how this derailed a herbicide-resistant wheat strain. “Once again, I had the opportunity to interview many wheat growers to assess their interest in these options,” he wrote. “Most already had positive experiences growing biotech soy, corn or Canola, and they were keen to try the new wheat options. They never got that chance. Major wheat importers from Europe threatened to boycott all North American wheat if any commercial biotech varieties were planted in the US or Canada.”
European bread and pasta producers shied away from having to label their food because they knew this would subject them to activist pressure, so they declined to let the wheat in. The decision was based not on safety or supply and demand, but on the activists’ ability to create marketing issues for food companies that import.
The activists have yet to get mandatory labeling in the United States. The pro-GMO camp continues to fight this, in part because “If they’re safe, why not label them?” will become, “If they are safe, why are they labeled?”