Environmentalism and anti-science, how GMOs prove any ideological extremity leads to anti-science

Today I read about two individuals who decided on political defections over perceived anti-science amongst their former political allies- one due to climate change, the other for anti-GMO. From the right, we have Michael Fumento, who in Salon describes his break with the right, spurred by Heartland’s campaign comparing those who believe in climate change with the Unabomber, as well as a general atmosphere of conspiratorial crankery and incivility. And from the left, we have Stephen Sumpter of Latent Existence leaving the Greens over their support for the misguided anti-scientific campaign of “Take the Flour Back” to destroy a crop of GMO wheat at Rothamsted Research which carries a gene from another plant to make it aphid-resistant. Starting with the anti-GMO extremists (since I’ve been picking on right-wing denialism a lot lately), their movement is pretty classic anti-science and extreme. The Rothamsted Research program has been very forthright and clearly is trying to engage and communicate with the protestors, has released this video trying to engage them in a fruitful debate over their research:

and sent them a public appeal trying to explain their side and asking for dialogue rather than violence. I will quote most of it here.

We have learned that you are planning to attack our research test site on 27th May. Please read the
following in the spirit of openness and dialogue – we know we cannot stop you from taking the action you plan, nor would we wish to see force used against you. Therefore we can only appeal to your consciences, and ask you to reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever.

We appeal to you as environmentalists. We agree that agriculture should seek to work “with nature rather than against it” (to quote from our website), and that motivation underlies our work. We have developed a variety of wheat which does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Instead, we have identified a way of getting the plant to repel aphids, using a natural process that has evolved in mint and many other plants – and simply adding this into the wheat genome to enable it to do the samething.

So our GM wheat could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. Are you really against this? Or are you simply against it because it is “GMO” and you therefore think it is unnatural in some way? Remember – all plants in all types of agriculture are genetically modified to serve humanity’s needs, and the (E)-β-farnesene compound our wheat produces is already found in over 400 species of plant, many of which are consumed as food and drink on a daily basis (including the hops used in beer, to give just one example). To suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality.

You seem to think, even before we have had a chance to test it, that our new wheat variety is bad. How do you know this? Clearly it is not through scientific enquiry, as the tests have not yet been performed. You state on your website: “There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work.” You could be right – but if you destroy our test, you and we will never know. Is that what you want? Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and the usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend. As activists you might prefer never to know whether our new wheat variety would work, but we believe
you are in a minority – in a democratic society most people do value factual knowledge and understand that it is necessary for sensible decision making.

You have described genetically modified crops as “not properly tested”. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained. We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason – what you are planning to do is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain. We remind you that such actions do not have a proud tradition.

Our work is publically funded, we have pledged that our results will not be patented and will not be owned by any private company – if our wheat proves to be beneficial we want it to be available to farmers around the world at minimum cost. If you destroy publicly funded research, you leave us in a situation where only the big corporations can afford the drastic security precautions needed to continue biotechnology research – and you therefore further promote a situation you say you are trying to avoid.

We end with a further concern. You may not know much about Rothamsted. You may not know that our institute is the site of perhaps the longest-running environmental experiment in the world, with plots testing different agricultural methods and their ecological consequences dating all the way back to 1843. Some of these plots are very close to the GM wheat test site, and we are extremely worried that anyone walking onto them would endanger a research programme that has been in operation for almost two centuries.

But we also see our newest tests as part of this unbroken line – research never ends, and technology never can nor should be frozen in time (as implied by the term ‘GM freeze’). Society didn’t stop with the horse-drawn plough because of fears that the tractor was ‘unnatural’. We didn’t refuse to develop better wheat varieties in the past – which keep us well-fed today – simply because they were different from what went before and therefore scary. The wheat that we consume today has had many genetic changes made to it – to make plants produce more grain, resist disease, avoid growing too tall and blow over in the wind, be suitable for different uses like pasta and bread, provide more nutrition and grow at the right time for farming seasons. These agricultural developments make it possible for the
same amount of food to be produced from a smaller area of land, meaning less necessity for farmers to convert wildlands to agriculture, surely we should work together in this?

When you visit us on 27 May we will be available to meet and talk to you. We would welcome the chance to show you our work and explain why we think it could benefit the environment in the future. But we must ask you to respect the need to gather knowledge unimpeded. Please do not come to damage and destroy.

As scientists we know only too well that we do not have all the answers. That is why we need to conduct experiments. And that is why you in turn must not destroy them.
Yours sincerely
J. A. PICKETT DSc, CBE, FRS (Professor)
Michael Elliott Distinguished Research Fellow and
Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology
Toby Bruce (Scientist specialising in plant-insect interactions, Team Leader)
Gia Aradottir (Insect Biology, Postdoc )
Huw Jones (Wheat Transformation, Coinvestigator)
Lesley Smart (Field Entomology)
Janet Martin (Field Entomology)
Johnathan Napier (Plant Science, Coinvestigator)
John Pickett (Chemical Ecology, Principal Investigator)

The protestors, thinking they’re attacking some Monsanto-like evil corporation, are so consumed with their hatred of GMO that they are spreading misinformation, refusing to allow scientists to even engage in the research into GMO, and rather than engaging the scientists in dialogue are threatening to just destroy their experiment. This is the worst kind of bullying, extremist, anti-science garbage out there. At least the creationists don’t show up in our labs and start spitting in our test tubes. The climate denialists might make a lot of noise but they aren’t threatening to blow up James Hansen’s computer. Finally the “take the flour back” justifications are terrible:

Rothamsted have planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’.

This sentence is so stupid I have trouble understanding how they wrote it for public consumption. A gene can not be “similar to a cow”. This makes no biological sense. We could have a gene that has similar sequence to that of a gene in a cow, but even that shouldn’t necessarily be threatening. After all, if you look at our genes you’d find most of them (80 percent) have significant homology to bos taurus. This claim despite being biologically silly, is refuted by the researchers who insist the gene being studied is (E)-β-farnesene, a protein that is in many plants we already consume, that transfers natural resistance to aphids.

Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports. There is no market for GM wheat anywhere in the world.

This is patently absurd, the absence of a market for a product that has not yet been brought to market is not an argument. Further, the evidence is that GM crops are readily adopted in the United States, and increasingly in China. The loss of millions has more to do with the unjustified panic over GM that has been created by Luddites in Europe, and finally, how is it possible to study the efficacy and safety of this technology if they’re just going to show up and destroy it? It would be better studied and the results will be more openly reported by the publicly funded Rothamsted researchers than if these experiments were done behind some fence in China by Monsanto.

This experiment is tax-payer funded, but Rothamsted hope to sell any patent it generates to an agro-chemical company.

The researchers deny this and have pledged not to patent the product. However, this might ultimately be an error that is ultimately harmful to the researchers’ attempts to distribute the technology. By patenting the product and licensing it, you will have a greater ability to convince an agricultural supplier to invest in, market and distribute the product. If you don’t patent it, and it becomes immediately public, the inability of a corporation to have exclusive use of the patent may discourage them generally from adopting the product. They’re out to make money, it’s true, and the sad thing is, even if you have the best product in the world, if they can just be copied by any competitor the appeal of investing in your product will be zero. It’s sad but true. I think they should patent it, and simply promise that licensing would require ethical provisions for its distribution to impoverished countries.

La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organisation of peasant farmers, believe GM is increasing world hunger. They have called for support resisting GM crops, and the control over agriculture that biotech gives to corporations.

The marketing practices of agri-business like Monsanto are extremely problematic, and it isn’t just peasant farmers in other countries but farmers here in the US that object to being strong-armed by big businesses, and seemingly extorted into using Monsanto seeds over reseeding their own fields. However, this is separate from the argument that GM crops are unsafe or increase world hunger. If anything, the experience of those such as Norman Borlaug and the creation of dwarf wheat varieties should demonstrate that modification of wheat can have a tremendous impact on world hunger. I have no doubt that GM technology might in the future generate similar advances in productivity as traditional methods. It’s also not the point of the research at Rothamsted which is to decrease the need for pesticide use. Yes, Monsanto sucks, what does that have to do with Rothamset? What does world hunger have to do with decreasing pesticide use? These are illogical arguments, that are a combination of appeals to consequence and straw men. Rothamsted is not Monsanto.

‘Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination. It’s for anyone who feels able to publically [sic] help remove this threat and those who want to show their support for them.

Decontamination, what an excellent euphemism for vandalism, destruction of property, and violence. They are going to destroy the research project of publicly-funded plant researchers who are trying to answer questions about safety and efficacy of a product that could decrease pesticide use. They have justified this based on false information, biological ignorance, and a Luddite attitude towards biological technology that if anything will improve the safety of our food supply.

People have bizarre ideas about genetic modification, that somehow, transferring a gene from one species will then confer the properties of that entire species to the plant (hence the senseless cow comparison above). This is absurd. The arguments against resistant organisms don’t make a lot of sense to me either, because the alternative – pesticides – share the same flaw – at the same time represent a health threat to humans as well. The idea of transferring a gene that makes a protein that we already eat in other plants hardly seems like it should even raise an eyebrow to me. I don’t get the paranoia from the environmentalists on this issue. The need to feed ourselves and wrest resources from the pests and bacteria that we compete with on this planet is not static. It is constantly changing and our strength is our ability to use technology and science to our benefit. We don’t refuse to research antibiotics because one day bacteria might become resistant. We develop new antibiotics.

This demonstrates though that any ideology is susceptible to anti-science when it becomes extreme and that includes environmentalism. Based on shoddy understanding of biology, paranoia about Monsanto, and misinformation about publicly-funded researchers, these morons are about to go out and destroy a scientific project. If there were a better description of a modern Luddite I haven’t heard one.

Anyway. Onto Michael Fumento’s article in Salon. Fumento is irritated with the right because he sees them as exhibiting the one characteristic that he has never been able to stand in anyone – hysteria.

Gosh! When did I end up in bed with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber? Could it be because I did specialize in blowing things up while serving my country for four years as an airborne combat engineer? I also watched human beings blown up. I had friends and Navy SEALs I was in battle with blown up. My own intestines exploded on the first of my four combat embeds, three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Took seven operations to fix the plumbing. I later suffered other permanent injuries.

Yet now I find myself linked not only with the Unabomber, but also Charles Manson and Fidel Castro. Or so says the Chicago-based think tank the Heartland Institute, for which I’ve done work. Heartland erected billboards depicting the above three declaring: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” Climate scientists now, evidently, share something in common with dictators and mass murderers. Reportedly bin Laden was scheduled to make such an appearance, too.

The HI and and Morano have been shrieking about how environmentalists are worse and that this was unfair targeting of what the enviros do all the time, but no, not really. Usually when they find some example of an environmentalist calling for consequences for global warming denialism it’s quoted out of context, and even if it does happen, despite being a tu quoque this was a pretty extreme campaign. Extreme enough to even turn Fumento against them. No small feat.

Now a brief interlude for Fumento to stroke his vast ego (just read his blog tagline):

This is nuts! Literally. As in “mass hysteria.” That’s a phenomenon I wrote about for a quarter-century, from the heterosexual AIDS “epidemic” to the swine flu “pandemic” that killed vastly fewer people than seasonal flu, to “runaway Toyotas.” Mass hysteria is when a large segment of society loses touch with reality, or goes bonkers, if you will, on a given issue – like believing that an incredibly mild strain of flu could kill eight times as many Americans as normal seasonal flu. (It killed about a third as many.)

I was always way ahead of the curve. And my exposés primarily appeared in right-wing publications. Back when they were interested in serious research. I also founded a conservative college newspaper, held positions in the Reagan administration and at several conservative think tanks, and published five books that conservatives applauded. I’ve written for umpteen major conservative publications – National Review, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, among them.

Fumento is a weird guy. He really doesn’t like it when people tell him he should be worried about something. To the point that he’ll deny things like that heterosexuals are at risk of spreading HIV, or at least diminish the heterosexual spread of the disease. This is despite the fact HIV is predominantly a heterosexual disease outside of the US. Similarly with other epidemic concerns, scientists make a big deal out of them, he usually says, “it’s no big deal”, and then by virtue of prevention programs, luck, or maybe even overestimation of the pathogenicity of the bug in question, he seems to come out on top. I don’t think it’s a good way to view the world, because when he’s wrong, he’s going to be really wrong. I tend towards to more cautious side of the spectrum based on historical events like the flu pandemic of 1918. We know it can happen, we should treat emerging diseases and severe flu strains seriously.

So now that he perceives the right is the hysterical bunch, screaming conspiracies about Obama ruining the entire capitalist western world, true to form he rejects the hysteria:

Nothing the new right does is evidently outrageous enough to receive more than a peep of indignation from the new right. Heartland pulled its billboards because of funder withdrawals, not because any conservatives spoke up and said it had crossed a line.

Last month U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican recently considered by some as vice-president material, insisted that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party, again with little condemnation from the new right.

Mitt Romney took a question at a town hall meeting this month from a woman who insisted President Obama be “tried for treason,” without challenging, demurring from or even commenting on her assertion.

And then there’s the late Andrew Breitbart (assassinated on the orders of Obama, natch). A video from February shows him shrieking at peaceful protesters: “You’re freaks and animals! Stop raping people! Stop raping people! You freaks! You filthy freaks! You filthy, filthy, filthy raping, murdering freaks!” He went on for a minute-and-a-half like that. Speak not ill of the dead? Sen. Ted Kennedy’s body was barely cold when Breitbart labeled him “a big ass motherf@#$er,” a “duplicitous bastard” a “prick” and “a special pile of human excrement.”

Civility and respect for order – nay, demand for order – have always been tenets of conservatism. The most prominent work of history’s most prominent conservative, Edmund Burke, was a reaction to the anger and hatred that swept France during the revolution. It would eventually rip the country apart and plunge all of Europe into decades of war. Such is the rotted fruit of mass-produced hate and rage. Burke, not incidentally, was a true Tea Party supporter, risking everything as a member of Parliament to support the rebellion in the United States.

All of today’s right-wing darlings got there by mastering what Burke feared most: screaming “J’accuse! J’accuse!” Turning people against each other. Taking seeds of fear, anger and hatred and planting them to grow a new crop.

President Obama is regularly referred to as a Marxist/Socialist, Nazi, tyrant, Muslim terrorist supporter and – let me look this up, but I’ll bet probably the antichrist, too. Yup, there it is! Over 5 million Google references. There should be a contest to see if there’s anything for which Obama hasn’t been accused. Athlete’s foot? The “killer bees”? Maybe. In any case, the very people who coined and promoted such terms as “Bush Derangement Syndrome, Cheney Derangement Syndrome and Palin Derangement Syndrome” have been promoting hysterical attitudes toward Obama since before he was even sworn in.

Well at least he’s consistent. Although he once did send me an email comparing me to Hitler. I wish I’d kept it, it was pretty funny. I tend to agree with the characterization of this as hysteria, although to be fair I think Obama is getting it worse than Bush did. After all, the accusations against Bush were often true, including the worst one. His administration did deceive us into a war in Iraq. The weapons were not there, the intelligence was inflated, and either through incompetence or irrationality we ended up in a Middle-Eastern hellhole for 10 years. The evidence against Obama, who in reality is a rather milquetoast pragmatist, being Stalin/Hitler/Marx/The Antichrist is a bit weaker.

His call is for civility, which for some reason that eludes me, is often anathema to bloggers. Civility in some sense of the word is patriarchal oppression, or censorship, or something. I don’t know about that, but my general rule is I write like my mother is reading this (and she might be), so it’s best not to be an outrageous turd to other people.

No, I’m not cherry-picking. When I say “regularly referred to,” interpret literally. Polls show that about half of voting Republican buy into the birther nonsense (one of the more prominent hysterias within the hysteria). Only about a fourth seem truly sure that Obama was actually born here. In her nationally syndicated column Michelle Malkin wrote regarding Limbaugh’s slut remarks, that “I’m sorry the civility police now have an opening to demonize the entire right based on one radio comment.” In a stroke she’s expressed her disdain for civility and declared the new right’s sins can be dispatched as an itsy-bitsy little single faux pas, “one radio comment.”

No, Michelle, incivility – nay, outright meanness and puerility – rears its ugly head daily on your blog, which as I write this on May 23 has one item referring in the headline to “Pig Maher’s boy [Bill Maher]” and another to “Jaczko the Jerk,” [former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko]. She calls Limbaugh target Sandra Fluke a “femme-agogue” and her supporters “[George] Soros monkeys.” Pigs? Monkeys? Moonbats? It’s literal dehumanization.

And now I’m in the bizarre position of actually agreeing with Fumento. Never thought I’d say that. Somehow his protective “never panic” mantra has been protective against the panicky insanity over the Obama presidency coming from the left, and allowed him to hold onto some core of humanity. Maybe it’s an adaptive feature after all?

The new right cannot advance a conservative agenda precisely because, other than a few small holdouts like the American Conservative magazine or that battleship that refuses to become a museum, George Will, it is not itself conservative. Pod people are running the show. It has no such capability; no such desire. I find that disturbing for obvious reasons. But, based on my own conversations with liberals, I think – nay, I know – that if more of these allegedly godless, treasonous people understood real conservatism a lot would embrace many conservative positions.

And this is true. I have voted for Republicans in the past (Connie Morella was the first congresswoman I ever voted for when I was 18), and would like to be able to in the future. But I agree with Fumento (my fingers just went numb again), until they accept empiricism again, and stop pitting their ideology against science there is no way I would ever vote for one. It’s unfortunate, because in the old school/Rockefeller Republican/revenue generation isn’t anathema days they occasionally had good ideas to contribute, and a ideological view that was balanced by a tradition of civility and responsibility towards the country.