More Anti-GMO Emotionalism. Only this time, from a Court.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
A recent decision regarding genetically modified food by an appeals court in the Phillipines was a dramatic victory for the emotional appeals of environmentalists, and an ominous defeat for science and reason and the open-minded search for solutions to humanity’s biggest problems. The decision also directly threatens the health of tens of millions of people around the world.
The court ordered a halt to field trials of eggplant bioengineered to include a gene from a common soil bacterium (Baccillus thuringiensis or Bt) that produces a naturally occurring pesticide. Bt crops let farmers use less industrial pesticide, and save money, which makes the farmers more productive and food more available and affordable. Such crops have been grown for more than a decade, (a quarter of the corn and half the cotton grown worldwide is Bt. ) and the consensus among experts that they pose no threat to human health is about as broad and robust as the scientific consensus about climate change. Research also indicates that GM hybrids are no more of a threat to the environment than plants with new traits created by any method of hybridization (including the modern technique of exposing seeds to mutagenic radiation), something humans have been doing since the dawn of agriculture. (For more details on other types of industrial hybridization and the common foods those techniques have put on our plates, see Atomic Gardening – the Ultimate Frankenfoods.)
The court heard about the safety of bioengineered crops. But it also heard from opponents of this modern form of hybridization who, short on factual evidence of any danger from GM foods, relied more on emotional arguments to make their case. Uncertainty makes anything scarier, and they noted that the safety of GM food can not be 100% guaranteed. And they made the appealing moral case for protecting nature, arguing that the Bt eggplant field trials threatened Filipino’s constitutional rights to ‘a balanced and healthy ecology’. Not only did the court buy the whole emotional approach, but their ruling used logic and language that if applied consistently across all risk management issues could bring modern society to a screeching halt.
The court said GM foods are “…an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology.” Well, yeah, but that’s a ludicrous standard for banning things, given that the human species interacts with and alters the ‘otherwise natural state’ of our environment with most of what we do. Imagine what society would have to forego if this standard was consistently applied across all of what modern human life involves. Electricity production, motorized transportation, and modern agriculture all alter an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology.
The court also ruled against the field tests because they “could not be declared…safe to human health and to our ecology with full scientific certainty (my emphasis).” Again, imagine what that appealing but ludicrous standard for acceptable risk – 100% scientific proof of safety – would do to most of how we live our modern lives.
The court also based its decision on another preposterously expansive standard. They banned the field trials in part because they ‘”involve the willful and deliberate alteration (my emphasis) of the genetic traits of a living element of the ecosystem...” In other words, these hybrids are human-made, not natural. This common component of risk perception - human-made risks scare us more than natural ones - lies at the heart of environmentalists’ emotional rejection of not only genetically modified organisms but many modern technologies. But what does the fact that this form of hybridization is human-made and not natural have to do with whether GM food is safe?
Beyond the danger that the Filipino ruling might serve as precedent in GM cases elsewhere, the threat exists that the judiciary in the Phillipines might apply these standards to ‘Golden Rice’, a species modified to include beta carotene, or vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) kills 1–2 million people a year and causes 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness. The International Rice Research Institute, based in the Phillipines, has been conducting field trials of Golden Rice, in part to make sure its safe. By enshrining in law the anti-GM arguments of environmentalists about Bt eggplant, and rejecting not only science but basic common sense in the process, the Phillipine Court of Appeals has jeopardized one of the greatest potential advances in agriculture and human health since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
It is one thing for you and I to want to protect nature from the too-often dramatically real harms of modern technology, and to rage at the greedy corporations (Monsanto et.al.) that profit by these harms. It is quite another for policy makers to be so taken by similar passions that they ignore a mountain of factual evidence and adopt an emotional approach to risk management that is more idealistic than realistic, more naïve than achievable, and to enshrine in law a Deep Ecology back-to-nature utopianism that denies society the progress and benefits that science and modern technology have to offer. As appealing as such an approach may feel, it carries profound risks for us all.
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