Karl Haro von Mogel of Biofortified.org, leader in Green Gene Movement
Editorial note: This article does not necessary represent the views of Works In Progress or of its members. It is presented to WIP readers as a differing perspective in hopes of encouraging discussion/debate on this important topic.
Very few public apologies ever reach the level of historical significance, and even fewer are done with the intention of redirecting an entire social movement. However, that was exactly what Mark Lynas was hoping for. In January of this past year, Lynas was a guest speaker at the Oxford Farming Conference. The choice of Lynas for the conference was unique. Lynas is an environmentalist; he has campaigned in England on a variety of environmental issues for two decades, and is known as one of the country’s best educators on climate change. He came to the Oxford Farming Conference to talk about genetically modified crops.
As Lynas explains in his speech, fifteen years ago he worked hard to ban GMOs from Europe. He formed alliances with notable organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. In the struggle against genetically modified crops, Lynas was on the frontlines: pulling crops out of the ground, warning people of the dangers of biotechnology, connecting the issues to multinational corporations. It was—in Lynas’ own words—”the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.” There was a problem. It was also the most misguided.
“I want to start with some apologies.” Lynas began his speech. “For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”
Lynas’ speech had been a longtime coming. When GMOs were first introduced to public twenty years ago, they were nearly universally condemned by environmentalists. The problem is that this universal condemnation has drifted farther and farther away from the scientific consensus on GMO crops. For scientists there is no debate. The GM crops currently available to the public pose no health risks, have benefited the environment, and have bestowed real benefits onto farmers. In this way, environmentalists—so united with scientists on climate change—have seen themselves part ways with science.
The Green Gene movement
There is a faction within the environmental movement that is trying to buck this trend. The fundamental reconsidering of GMOs among environmentalist has resulted in the emergence of a “green gene” movement—a conglomerate of scientists, farmers, and activists who believe that the power of biotechnology can be used to make food more nutritious, aid in ending world hunger, and make agriculture more sustainable. The humanitarian goals of the green gene movement are primary, but underlining these concerns is a broader cultural shift within the environmental movement. Environmentalists have tended to view science and technology with suspicion, seeing it as responsible for creating our industrial society and therefore at the source of our environmental ills. The green gene movement is working to flip this idea on its head. Science and technology are seen as essential tools for solving some of the ecological threats facing the earth, and biotechnology can be means to move us towards a more sustainable future.
At the vanguard of this movement is the blog Biofortified.org. Started on Halloween of 2008, Biofortified.org pooled together the work of various scientists who were frustrated by the environmental movement’s entire approach to GMOs. Since that time, the blog has blossomed into its own non-profit—Biology Fortified, Inc.—and now includes a plethora of writers, including pieces from law students, environmental activists, and even an organic farmer.
In many ways Karl Haro von Mogel—one of the blogs co-founders and editors—was the perfect person to start Biofortied.org. Haro von Mogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison. While at UC Davis Haro von Mogel was a student of acclaimed plant geneticists Dr. Pamela Ronald. If the green gene movement has a founding text it is Ronald’s book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. Ronald wrote Tomorrow’s Table with her husband—an organic farmer who once served as president for the California Certified Organic Farmers—and for many environmentalists its thesis is controversial: genetic engineering and organic agriculture practices can work side-by-side. In fact, they must if we are ever to have a sustainable agriculture system.
For many in the environmental movement that idea is heresy. For the green gene movement it’s a foundational concept. While most people treat genetic engineering and organic agriculture as worlds apart, the green gene movement is trying to think beyond the polarization. According to Haro von Mogel, the gulf between them constructs a false dichotomy. “I find the whole debate between organic and genetic engineering to be artificial and contrived. Because organic is about the way you grow crops… Genetic engineering is about getting a trait into a crop that you didn’t have before. It actually doesn’t make sense to me that you couldn’t have a genetically engineered crop grow on an organic farm.”
Are organic farms actually better for the environment?
Part of the reason that the green gene movement is so concerned with the merging of these two worlds is that organic agriculture—though having some clear ecological benefits—also has some sever problems. Organic farms use fewer pesticides, but they also use more farmland and labor. This is acceptable to organic farmers because they can recuperate their losses in the market. Organic food cost more, and this higher cost is the result of additional labor and smaller yields. For niche markets in the developed world the effect of organic agriculture is benign. But, if organic agriculture were to become a global food system, then it would require a massive transformation of ecosystems into usable farmland, and a huge migration of populations back to rural areas. Not only is this transformation unrealistic, but if it were to occur it would have serious consequences for the environment.
Instead of having debates on what type of agriculture—Haro von Mogel argues—it is better to focus on the goals and use whatever means available to reach them. The ideal farming situation is one that produces high crop yields, with limited inputs, and negligible effects on the environment. The overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that appropriate using biotechnology moves us in the direction.
One of the most prominent genetically modified crops is insect resistant corn and cotton. All plants develop their own self-defense mechanisms—including their own naturally occurring pesticides. Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a bacterium pesticide commonly used in organic agriculture that is harmless to humans—but deadly to caterpillars, moths, and butterflies. Geneticists have managed to create corn and cotton variety that produces Bacillus thuringiensis as one of the crop’s natural defense mechanisms. The result has been a dramatic decrease in pesticide use to the benefit of both farmers and the environment. According to a 2002 article published in the journal Science, the introduction of Bt cotton in China led to the elimination of 150 million pounds of pesticides in a single year. And, because farmers were able to maintain high yields with fewer inputs, this reduction in pesticides eventually translates into a higher income. This has been especially the true for poor farmers in India.
Contrary to the claims of GMO opponents like Vandana Shiva, the introduction of Bt cotton did not led to a mass suicide of Indian farmers. A 2009 report from the International Food Policy Research Institute confirmed that while the tragedy of farmer suicide dates back to the mid-1990s, genetically modified cotton was not planted in India until 2002; unless Bt cotton also contains modified time-travel genes, the claim that it is responsible for the epidemic of farmer suicides is just plain wrong. Also, farmer suicides did not rise after it became widely used. If anything, the use of Bt cotton has helped Indian farmers. A 2012 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that Bt cotton caused on average a fifty percent gains in profit among small farmers in India.
Health Effects of GMOs
Of course most people who chose to avoid GMOs do so not because of the possible environmental consequences. The problem is no serious scientific evidence has ever shown the dangers of genetically modified produce. According to Haro von Mogel, the science around this view is quite solid.
When asked about the health risks of genetically modified crops Haro von Mogel talks about the GENERA project. GENERA—which stands for GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas—is a database on the Biofortified blog that allows the public easy access to the scientific literature on genetic engineering. When the database was created Biofortified.org had 350 independent peer-reviewed articles analyzing the safety of genetically engineered crops. Now, they have over 600.
The broad scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified crops flies in the face of the rhetoric of many of its opponents. For example, Jeffrey Smith—founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology—has reached a somewhat celebrity status in the food movement for warning people of the dangers GMOs. Smith has not only authored two books and has appeared as an expert on GMOs for the Dr. Oz Show, The Huffington Post, and even DemocracyNow! When Haro von Mogel was asked about Jeffrey Smith’s work, he reads a list from Smith’s website on the various diseases that Smith claims are caused by GMOs: “allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, autism, asthma, cancer, smaller testicles, liver disease, smaller size and obesity, autoimmune disease, pancreatic disorders, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, kidney disease, infertility and increased twin births,” Haro von Mogel’s pauses of a moment, then adds “and he recently added that eating genetically engineered crops could make you more susceptible to AIDS.” Haro von Mogel’s point is clear. Smith will associate GMOs to any all diseases regardless of the scientific evidence or even logical consistency.
Smith’s frequency to associate any and all diseases with GMOs is not his only mishap. According to Haro von Mogel—who has spoken with Smith directly on how he represents the science of GMO—Smith often coaches people in using a “feed not lead” strategy. Meaning, Smith describes an animal or person consuming a GMO crop, then describes a horrible incident happening soon after, and then leaves it ambiguous to the audience if consuming the GMO crop actually caused the horrible incident. The strategy scares up concern around GMOs while leaving the presenter off the hook for actually having to justify the science behind the connection. “It’s a rhetorical strategy that he engages in” Haro von Mogel explains, “to try to get people worried about genetically modified crops that doesn’t fit with what we understand about the science.”
Labeling GMOs: Informative or Misleading?
The broad scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs does put the current efforts to label them in another light. “I not against labeling genetically engineered crops per se,” Haro von Mogel explains. “For me it is all about what are the pros and cons of a particular labeling scheme.” For him, both proposition 37 in California and the more recent initiative 522 in Washington have been more “con” than “pro.” The reason is that these the labeling schemes appear to be more aimed at misleading consumers on GMOs than informing. For example, Washington’s initiative 522 would require that genetically modified foods are labeled on the front of the product—suggesting that the fact that the product was created through genetic engineering is more important than the federally mandated nutrition information. According to Haro von Mogel “If there is going to be a labeling scheme the goal should be to inform people about the characteristics of what they are eating, but not in a way that is designed to alert you like something is supposedly wrong.”
For many in favor of mandatory GMO labeling this argument seems counterintuitive. How could more information lead to less educated consumers? The reason is that labeling schemes don’t exist in a vacuum. Any food labeling scheme must reasonably interact with other labeling schemes (i.e. GMO vs. organic), and be designed in such a way that it informs consumers rather than advertise to them. The mandatory labeling schemes favored by the various “right to know” movements just don’t do that. They are written in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for grocers to carry products with GMOs. In this way, they function more as a soft ban than an actual means for educating the public.
Corporations, GMOs, and Organic Food
Issues of the environment and public health have tended to dominate the debate on GMOs, but most opposed to biotechnology will freely admit that is not their primary concerns. For many people, biotechnology is associated with the power that large corporations has over the global food supply. This association has become so intense that opposition to biotechnology has nearly become part and parcel with opposition to multinational corporations. Many agree with the green energy gurus Amory and Hunter Lovins that “Genetically engineered crops were created not because they’re productive but because they’re patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.”
Amory and Hunter Lovins may be widely recognized as important figures in the renewable energy movement, but they are extremely ignorant of US patent laws. The fact of the matter is that plant patents have existed since 1930 when Congress passed the Plant Patent Act as part of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Since then hybrid seeds—commonly used in organic agriculture—have been sold to farmers with many of the same restrictions and penalties that seeds developed through genetic engineering were to have decades later. Nearly the entire seed market for organic produce is dominated by large corporations and their seed varieties—like GMOs—are protected by patents. One of the largest organic seed companies in the world is Seeds of Change. Seeds of Change is own by Mars Inc., the same company made famous by selling candy bars. In a great twist of irony, which speaks to the power of modern marketing, millions of people buy organic produce made from seeds sold by Seeds of Change under the belief that they are supporting healthy eating habits and small businesses, only to have their dollars trickle back to a large multinational corporation which made its fortune by selling people junk food. Unfortunately, in the logic of voting with your dollars big businesses always win.
The only genuine ways to prevent large corporations from monopolizing the food supply is to encourage greater competition in food market, and a greater portion of the agriculture economy under public control. Unfortunately, the actions of the anti-GMO movement have worked against—not towards—these goals. The fear around GMO crops has inspired an extremely burdensome regulatory system around them. Far from being opposed to these regulations, the largest biotechnology companies actively support them. The reason is because the regulations for GMO crops are so expensive that only the largest corporations can afford to manage them. In another twist of irony, many of the regulations opponents of biotechnology have clamored for in order to keep major corporations in check have been used by the same corporations in order to prevent competition in the marketplace. It is an obvious danger that the green gene movement is aware of. “If we set things up so that only the big companies and China can afford to put genetically engineer crops through the regulations,” Haro von Mogel warns “then they are the ones who are going to own it.”
A Diplomat for Science:
In the complex politics of biotechnology it is difficult to know what will be the green gene movement’s next move. It walks a fine line. It tries to be independent; critical of large corporations, and elements within the environmental movement; it claims logical and science is the best way to understand the natural world, while at the same time attempting to awaken our emotions to the nature world. Fundamentally, it encourages a break from a naturalistic ecology which sees environmentalisms as maintaining the planet as a pristine reserve untouched by humans, and offers a more humanistic or social ecology that envisions on intertwining of the natural world with modern technologies. Mostly though, it is a movement about dialogue. Haro von Mogel’s sees his main missions as being a diplomat for science that gets opposing sides to talk to each other. When asked what he thinks people can do to change the polarized debates on GMOs, he makes a plea for understanding. “Don’t assume the other person is uncaring. I hear a lot from someone who is pro-biotech say something about someone who is anti-biotech that they just want the third world to starve. And others will say the anti-biotech with the pro-biotech you just want to rule the third world like a totalitarian regime. Neither of which is true, both probably want the best for people in this world. They just disagree with the exact path of getting there.”
Is Haro von Mogel’s hope for a mutually respectful and educated discussion on GMOs possible? It’s hard to say. Another intense debate on the merits of labeling GMOs is underway in Washington State. Listening to the public comments on I-522 before the legislatures it becomes clear that the two camps are still worlds apart. The likelihood that an appreciation for truth and science will bring them together seems slim. The Olympia Food Co-op, a grocery cooperative in Washington’s capital, dedicated its most recent newsletter to the issue of GMOs. The newsletter contained many false, and sometimes outrageous, claims on biotechnology. Very few of the claims were sourced, and those that were traced back to the Institute for Responsible Technology; the organization founded by Jeffery Smith—the guy who believes eating GMOs will make you more susceptible to AIDS. Nevertheless, the green gene movement provides an important and underappreciated perspective on biotechnology and environment. It’s a perspective that anyone who is concerned with the fate of the earth would be wise to consider.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is a graduate of the University for Peace in Costa Rica and a resident of Olympia.