Really interesting New Yorker article from Michael Specter looking at GMO food via a profile of it’s leading international opponent, Vandana Shiva. It seems that Shiva has gained a huge following by spouting tidbits such as:
Earlier this year, she said, “Farmers are dying because Monsanto is making profits—by owning life that it never created but it pretends to create. That is why we need to reclaim the seed. That is why we need to get rid of the G.M.O.s. That is why we need to stop the patenting of life.”…
Shiva has repeatedly said that the company [Monsanto] should be tried for “ecocide and genocide.”…
In a recent speech, Shiva explained why she rejects studies suggesting that genetically engineered products like Pental’s mustard oil are safe. Monsanto, she said, had simply paid for false stories, and “now they control the entire scientific literature of the world.” Nature, Science, and Scientific American, three widely admired publications, “have just become extensions of their propaganda. There is no independent science left in the world.”
But here’s the real killer. Despite being trained as a scientist, Shiva shows utter disdain for basic concepts such as correlation does not equal causation:
Shiva began a speech to a local food-rights group by revealing alarming new information about the impact of agricultural biotechnology on human health. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that in two years the figure of autism has jumped from one in eighty-eight to one in sixty-eight,” she said, referring to an article in USA Today. “Then they go on to say obviously this is a trend showing that something’s wrong, and that whether something in the environment could be causing the uptick remains the million-dollar question.
“That question’s been answered,” Shiva continued. She mentioned glyphosate, the Monsanto herbicide that is commonly used with modified crops. “If you look at the graph of the growth of G.M.O.s, the growth of application of glyphosate and autism, it’s literally a one-to-one correspondence. And you could make that graph for kidney failure, you could make that graph for diabetes, you could make that graph even for Alzheimer’s.”
Specter brings all-too-easy smackdown:
Shiva had committed a common, but dangerous, fallacy: confusing a correlation with causation. (It turns out, for example, that the growth in sales of organic produce in the past decade matches the rise of autism, almost exactly. For that matter, so does the rise in sales of high-definition televisions, as well as the number of Americans who commute to work every day by bicycle.)
There are genuine issues we should be concerned about with GMO’s, primarily with potential effects on the environment (and conventional crops, too, of course, but there are some unique issues), various unintended consequences, etc. To make sure we take these concerns seriously, though, we need people who have legitimate concerns regarding GMO food, not people who rely on a bunch of pseudo-science, appeals to romanticized views of nature, and out-and-out lies/misinformation about GMO food. Furthermore, it makes it hard to take any GMO opposition seriously when all too much of it comes from people who absolutely reject a scientific viewpoint in their arguments (“playing God” “Monsanto is evil,” etc.).
I found this summary of Specter’s article and a Shiva response in the foodpolitics blog interesting, but off-base:
They raise and debate the same arguments I discussed in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003 and out in a second edition in 2010. As I explain in the book, the gist of the arguments comes from two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:
- The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
- The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.
Specter holds the first position. Shiva and Hirshberg hold the second. Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.
Alas, this is not like some science versus religion debate for the beginnings of life which is simply not reconcilable. The problem is not that we have science-based and societal values in opposition. I support both positions to a degree– that is I think we should legitimately consider the broader social implications. But we should do that while relying on accurate science. The problem is that so many of the societal values based opponents to GMO food are full of knee-jerk anti-science and ignorance. I’m happy to have a wide-ranging debate about GMO’s with persons who accept the basic scientific conclusions. I am definitely not willing to do so with those who willfully ignore (or obfuscate) the science.
[Also, a nice blog post from Specter on the anti-scientific frivolousness of GMO labeling]