The Anti-GMO Movement: PR victory in an ethical wasteland

These organic dry-farmed tomatoes are incredibly delicious. But is genetically engineered food really as evil as they say?

Scotland just banned GMOs. Why?

To protect Scotland’s brand.

No, I’m not joking. Rural Affairs Minister Richard Lochhead said in his announcement of the ban:

“Scotland is known around the world for our beautiful natural environment — and banning growing genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status.”

In a climate of science denial (SEE WHAT I DID?) this is all we need — a government openly acknowledging that it made a decision on a scientific issue purely based on public perception. In the next paragraph he does cite some evidence:

“There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14 billion food and drink sector.”

Yeah, not the kind of evidence I was hoping for.

The public debate around GM crops purports to be a scientific one, but in reality it’s a sophisticated and effective marketing and comms campaign. And that’s all it is. I’m sure activists think they are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. In fact, they are using their privilege to appropriate the suffering of people in the developing world for their own political ends. And in the process, they are obscuring and even exacerbating the real causes of that suffering. Perhaps before they start trying to remove the ethical speck from Monsanto’s eye they might turn their attention to the log in their own.

I can’t decide whether I’m more disgusted by activists gleefully destroying research plantations of Golden Rice — a strain developed to stop children in the developing world from going blind and/or dying, but you know, fuck them — or activists perpetuating misleading myths about the impact of Bt cotton on Indian farmers. But talking about both of them will definitely make me too ragey so I’m just going to pick the latter.

Women drying chillies, Rajasthan

You’ve no doubt heard that Monsanto is absolutely definitely responsible for the suicides of more than 250,000 Indian farmers. Rural suicides in India are a tragic problem. The fact that many Indian farmers use (Monsanto) pesticides to commit suicide also adds a horrifyingly neat closing of the circle to the anti-GMO narrative. The problem is, this neat little narrative device doesn’t tell the real story.

The WHO reported last year that India has the highest rate of suicide in the world (full report). Much attention has been focused on rural suicides thanks to anti-GMO activists. A charitable take on this would be to say that at least global attention is being paid to the issue. But India’s high suicide rate has multiple, complex causes, and rural suicides are actually a pretty small part of the picture. Lack of mental health care. Rapid urbanization. Rigid gender roles. Economic challenges of all kinds, not just those (allegedly) pertaining to particular types of seeds. Even the fact that the readily available suicide methods (such as hanging and pesticides) are more likely to end in death than common methods in other countries (like prescription drug overdose). Suicide in India is not caused by GMO crops. It’s dubious at best that there is a link even between rural suicides in India and GMO crops. For privileged people in the developed world to co-opt this issue for their own political ends is breathtakingly cynical and profoundly unethical.

Ebele Mogo argues in Model View Culture that if privilege in an activist context “is not translating to centering less dominant voices” then it is being misused. The anti-GMO movement is not only failing to amplify the voices of Indian farmers, it is silencing them in favor of its own pseudoscience-based agenda.

But hey, a whole country just banned GMO crops because Marketing. If you believe the ends justify the means and you’re not too fussed about actual science, I suppose congratulations are in order.

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