For decades now, organisations like Greenpeace, GM-Freeze, and Friends of the Earth have done a fantastic job convincing the population that GM-food is harmful to humans. To do this, they have quoted scientific literature that claims GMOs have been shown, among other things, to cause cancer, leukaemia, and stomach inflammation; but is there really any truth to these claims? What do the papers these organisations are promoting really say, and do they have any flaws? Or, in actual fact, are GMOs going to kill us all?
Over the past year, I have been giving a talk to various skeptical and humanist groups across the country trying to answer these questions. To do this, I critiqued several highly referenced anti-GM papers, looking past their veneer of good science and discovering what they really say about GMOs and the organisations who promote them. My talk, essentially, was an amalgamation of my work here online fighting pseudoscience and scaremongering, and was heavily based on the following blog posts…
- Fact Checking the London March Against Monsanto Protesters – Liz O’Neill of GM-Freeze
- Is Glyphosate “Probably Carcinogenic to Humans” ?
- Fact Checking The London March Against Monsanto Protesters – The World Health Organisations U-Turn on Glyphosate
- Bad science in the paper “long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modiﬁed maize”
- Drinking Roundup Herbicide Makes Men Live Longer
- Bad science in the paper ‘Hematotoxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis as Spore-crystal Strains Cry1Aa, Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2Aa in Swiss Albino Mice’
- Bad Science in the Paper ‘a Long-Term Toxicology Study on Pigs Fed a Combined Genetically Modified (GM) Soy and GM Maize Diet’
The talk was not, as I am sure most of you would think, designed to convince people that GMOs are safe. Instead, it was designed to hammer home the fact that the ability to genetically modifying an organism is simply a tool and that every GMO must be evaluated on its merits. The talk itself was split up into four sections, with the first being an introduction to myself, and what exactly is and is not a GMO. The second section was a quick crash course on how to perform an animal study, followed by the third section where I pointed out glaring errors in these highly referenced anti-GMO papers. In the final section, I discussed the dangers of painting each GMO with the same brush and how this can lead to people suffering and even dying.
I made a big deal about how my presentation was only about the anti-GMO literature which I consider to be the cornerstone of the anti-GMO movement, and not about the ethics or economics of GMOs and nor was it going to be about any particular company. I often started my presentation by saying how ridiculous it would sound if someone told you not to go and buy a Nintendo Wii because they disagree with the business practices of Sony (who make the PlayStation), yet how many times do you hear people saying “I’m against GMOs because of Monsanto”.
Overall, my talk received a lukewarm response and was poorly attended compared to my previous lectures on AIDS Denialism. This really took me by surprise, as I presumed a talk focusing around the science of a technology that is so very often deliberately made out to be the boogieman, as well as an in-depth explanation on how some papers quoted by large organisations who oppose GMOs were flat-out fraudulent, would be perfect for skeptics in the pub.
I was also shocked by the number of people in attendance who held dogmatic, almost conspiratorial, views on GMOs, yet still called themselves a skeptic, with no irony. It truly was fascinating seeing the same people who scoff at those who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change shoot me evil looks when I said in my talk that “anyone who tells you that there is something inherently dangerous about the act of genetically modifying an organism either doesn’t know what they are talking about, or are lying to you”.
I was also confronted by a fair number of people who were clearly vehemently opposed to GMOs and were, therefore, quite hostile towards me. One such person approached me as I was having a conversation with a fellow attendee and handed me a page from a newspaper. He then said something along the lines of, “There ARE people who think GMOs are dangerous” before waiting for my response. I quickly read the article, which was nothing more than an opinion piece and had very little to say on the subject before ending with the cliché line which I now almost instinctively roll my eyes at, about how some scientists are worried about the technology. I handed it back to him and said how the views of this one reporter are not the same as those shared by the scientific community, and that it brings nothing new to the table. You could tell by his expression that this old man was obviously taken aback by what I said, and truly thought he had a trump card. He then began to murmur something that I could not quite hear before looking me square in the eyes and saying, “You are spreading propaganda”. He then left before the question and answer section started.
This would not be the last accusation of spreading propaganda, as a few months later the same thing happened again. This time, a man approached me literally seconds after my talk had ended and, before I had a chance to finish the first sip of my drink, asked (in an irate tone) why I had neglected to mention the fact that Monsanto were paying me to give these talks. Before I had the chance to answer him, he suggested that I should put a disclaimer on my website letting people know who I work for. When I was eventually able to get a word in edgeways, I told him that I didn’t get paid to give these talks and I don’t, nor have I ever, worked for Monsanto. You would think that would make him pause for thought, but he was still pushing for me to essentially publish my curriculum vitae on the front cover of my website, as if my employers have anything to do with my out of work activities. For the record, my employer is aware of my online activity and they have told me (not that they had to) that in no circumstances am I allowed to link my work online to them. Next, the man (who was showing no signs of becoming less irate) began to repetitively tell me that my presentation was biased and, you guessed it, that I was spreading propaganda.
One thing that I noticed happened repeatedly in the Q&A sessions was that I was asked many questions that had nothing to do with GMOs. Looking back, I think this really speaks volumes about the lack of basic knowledge on the subject, but at the time I found myself irritated by people who were unable to separate the technology from a specific company or from industrial farming in general. This made for some really boring Q&A sessions because there are only so many ways you can say “that is not a specific GMO problem”. One particular Q&A session was excruciating when, for about fifteen minutes, I gave the same guy the same response, followed by a brief explanation as to how his concern with GMOs are not really about GMOs. It got so bad towards the end that the compere actually jumped in and tried his hardest to explain, before abruptly calling the Q&A to an end.
Overall the Q&A sessions were a little hit and miss with some like the one above being painfully boring, whereas others where thoroughly enjoyable. People were asking me thought provoking questions that encouraged debate among everyone in the room; however, there were two separate instances where I came face to face with the kind of crazy you only see in the YouTube comments section. The first was by a woman who interrupted me whilst I was answering her question on the safety of GM-crops on the market with “all the scientists are bought”. I froze for a few seconds, not knowing how to react to something so absurdly stupid. I told her that what she has said was ridiculous and moved on to the next question, as I felt replying to such a moronic statement would be a waste of my time and everyone else’s in that room.
The second time I came face to face with crazy was at the end of my final talk down in Winchester. Although we did have a few technical difficulties, I believed it was well received. However, I could not help noticing a small group of women at the front of the auditorium who were constantly writing things down and giving me disapproving looks during my talk. I thought nothing of it at the time, but at the Q&A session, you could tell that they thought of me as the antichrist who wanted nothing more than to release a dangerous monster into the wild. Most of their questions were classic “gotchas” and statements easy to dismiss, but right at the end, one of them decided to throw in her two cents and explain her reason for being against GMOs. She said that genetically modifying something and “forcing it” (her words, not mine) to take in foreign DNA is rape! She kept repeating herself, saying that this is nothing more than rape because the plant does not have a choice in the procedure. This monologue she delivered must have lasted for 5 minutes – the whole time she repeatedly accused scientists of raping nature. As she was doing this, the disapproving murmurs from the rest of the audience were getting gradually louder. When she finally finished her tirade and looked at me for a response, I calmly said, “I think you are wrong” which got an applause from the audience!
Looking back, I don’t think I was quite prepared to meet the raw vitriol that some people have towards GMOs, and I was genuinely shocked at how prevalent it was within the skeptical community. Now, I know it sounds as if I am being overly critical of the people who attended my talk, and perhaps I am. The truth is that the people who I believe hold outdated anti-science views on GMOs were in the minority, as the majority of the people I met seemed to be open to the possibilities that GMOs have to offer, and were fascinated to find out just how low the bar had been set for organisations pushing the narrative that GMOs are dangerous.
Overall, it was an enjoyable experience, but I did finish thinking that a fear and distrust of GMOs is so ingrained into our society that it’s going to be a long time before we look back and think “what the hell were we playing at” and use this technology to its full potential.