I have ever opposed genetically modified food – reasons for that can be found here and here (they have evolved a little, but my opposition remained strong). However, recently I had to revise many of my previous arguments. Also I had to realize that many arguments against GM food as used by its adversaries are counterfactual, oversimplifications, misrepresentations of scientific results and the like. Then, I asked myself: you know this pattern, don’t you? At first glance at least, their affinity to climate change denialism is striking.
Indeed, there are groups opposing both – GM foods and anthropogenic climate change. One example familiar to me is the Polish political right (when a relative of mine heard of my sympathy for the Greens, he said: “The only thing we have in common is GMO opposition.”). However, most prominent enemies of genetically modified organisms in agriculture – Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Green parties across the globe – are, at the same time, the most active heralds of the need to tackle human-made climate change. Could this be an inconsequence? To answer this question, we have to analyse both similarities and differences between climate change denialism and GM food opposition.
Let’s start with similarities – they are plentiful. First and foremost, in both cases uncertainty has a key role. As I recently discussed (here), in the area of climate change there are multiple sources of uncertainty that make it impossible to exactly predict the consequences of human interference with the climate system. These are, among others, various feedback mechanisms (albedo changes, releases of methane from permafrost and oceans, influences on biosphere’s capacity to capture CO2 etc.), adaptive capabilities of eco- and human systems and many more. In genetic engineering the uncertainties are, admittedly, much fewer in numbers, though not necessarily in importance. They are mainly concerned, as in the case of climate change, with the limits of human knowledge: can we fully predict consequences of GMO release for ecosystems? Can we fully predict (and test for) adverse effects of the insertion of new genes into plant DNA (e.g., allergens not known previously and not present when the gene is isolated)? In absence of these uncertainties there presumably would hardly be a need for debates. However, there are controversies. And they exhibit further similarities.
The main pattern is the following: while there appears to be a scientific consensus, both in biotechnology and related fields, and in climate science, it is questioned by some groups who claim that a) science is being manipulated by powerful lobbying groups (i.e., the biotech industry and a more dubious mix of leftist pro-taxes and pro-regulation conspiracy aligned with the renewable energies industry) and b) critical scientists are suppressed or ignored by the scientific community (examples are Árpád Pusztai, Gilles-Éric Séralini, Richard Lindzen or Henrik Svensmark). Therefore, most critical are to be found in the blogosphere, not in peer-reviewed journals. With the consequence that most (if not all) parts of the common argumentation is dubious and out of touch with science. Shortly, we are talking about conspiracy theories. They are not fully equivalent (e.g., since in biotech there is indeed a strong, rather one-sided lobby – the biotech industry -, while in the climate change discussion there is an equally strong lobby supporting denialists – the fossil fuel industry), but the similarity is obvious.
In the discussions about climate change and genetically engineered food alike, both sides claim that they want to save the world. Proponents of the respective theory/technology want to save us from disastrous climate change and its full consequences (e.g., droughts), hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Opponents from leftist world government, economic collapse, dangers to human health, biodiversity losses and increasing monopolies in food markets. In other words: the stakes are high.
However, there are at least some differences between these two phenomena. One rather minor difference is the possibility to conduct experiments – other than climate scientists, molecular biologists have this possibility to underscore their claims. The scope for this is limited, since a true test of environmental effects is only possible after release (which in most cases is irreversible). Health effects are similarly difficult to assess comprehensively before release. However, the latter is also the case in pharmacy where controversies are nevertheless much smaller despite the obvious similarity. In climate science experiments are not possible at all, so all we have are models, extrapolations and our fragmented knowledge about physical interactions within the atmosphere. On the other hand, there is a difference between what is/would be tested in experiments: while in climate science it is the magnitude of changes (since their direction is almost certain), in biotechnology it is the safety of the products (i.e., the direction of their impact is unclear).
Another difference is what I would call “the merit of action” and which is important for the adoption of a precautionary approach in both cases, as to deal with uncertainties. Let us assume for the moment that in both cases science is right – there is anthropogenic climate change and GM foods are safe. In the former case, this is the basis for climate policies of various kinds, in an attempt to slow climate change – it is actually happening now. The merit is clear – if we are successful, our civilization as we know it will survive. If not, it is likely not to survive. The difference between these two extreme states is the merit of action on climate change. What about genetic engineering? If GM foods are safe, some of the are improvements in terms of environmental protection as compared with conventional agriculture – due to by trend less chemicals usage (and thus less biodiversity loss and less soil erosion, for instance) -, and also in comparison with organic agriculture in the sense that the latter is less productive and thus requires more land. However, one may argue that organic agriculture’s other merits (almost no use of chemicals, by trend more adaption to surrounding ecosystems etc.) may outweigh land need concerns. Particularly since the problem of the latter may be cured in other ways, e.g. by decreasing food waste, meat consumption and biofuel production (although, of course, these would decrease the need for agricultural land regardless of the particular mode of agriculture). So far first-generation GM food. With regard to the second generation aiming at improving resistance to natural obstacles such as droughts, salt concentration etc. (first traits are currently being admitted, e.g. Golden Rise in parts of South-East Asia), the message is more straightforward – if there were no safety issues, second-generation GM foods are a clear contribution to tackling hunger and malnutrition. Here, the merit is similar to climate policies, though smaller in scale. (I am not going to assess the merit of third-generation GMO because they are far from deployment and involve additional ethical and safety issues.)
At this point I must admit that I am not any longer sure what to think about GM food. I let the final evaluation open. However, it shall be clear from my writing that climate change denialism and GM food opposition are strikingly similar in many ways. This is insofar peculiar that the same environmental groups opposing genetic engineering of food (and animals) at the same time fight climate change denial. How is it possible for them to fight some conspiracy theories while at least tacitly supporting others? Even if there may still be reasons to oppose GMO (as indicated above), many arguments used by environmentalists in their fight against biotechnology seem to be clear hypocrisy and opportunism.