The Double Disaster of Anti-GMO Activism
Religion & Liberty Online

The Double Disaster of Anti-GMO Activism

Your writer persistently has defended genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from the community of religious shareholder activists in this space. Among these activists are the religious investors affiliated with Green America, including As You Sow.

Even outside Green America’s orbit, AYS members continue to reject science and the concomitant reduction of world hunger. Just last week, AYS released its 2016 Proxy Preview wherein it boasts:

GMOs: Just two proposals concern themselves with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in 2016, a drop from recent years for an issue that has tended to move in and out of prominence in the shareholder scene. Harrington Investments has filed resolutions at Monsanto on the subject every year since 2011. This year, it earned 5.2 percent on a request for a report about glyphosate, known widely by its brand name Roundup. The resolution came on the heels of recent action labeling it as carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization and the state of California, and asked for an assessment of the company’s response to “public policy developments,” as well as a quantification of “potential material financial risks or operational impacts…in the event that proposed bans and restrictions are enacted.”

Napa, California-based Harrington Investments, Inc., a “socially responsible investment” outfit, trumpeted in a recent press release its coalition to fight the use of gyphosates:

Efforts behind Harrington’s resolution have culminated with a monumental coalition: three generations of women will stand together at the Monsanto Company Annual Meeting of Shareholders this Friday, January 29, 2016. Rachel Parent, teenager and founder of of Canada, Anne Temple, mother and leader of Moms Across America, and Beth Savitt, grandmother and President of the Shaka Movement of Hawaii are uniting to represent their generations of women concerned about the harms of GMOs and pesticides across the globe.

Monumental? One has to wonder where these women get their information, because it’s wrong. Monumentally wrong both scientifically and morally.

Let’s begin with the science, shall we? Science journalist XiaoZhi Lim explains:

Glyphosate is derived from an amino acid, glycine. It acts against plants by suppressing an essential biochemical mechanism commonly found in plants, but not in animals. According to the Extension Toxicology Network, a joint pesticide information project by Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University and University of California at Davis, and funded by US Department of Agriculture, glyphosate is non-volatile, minimizing exposure through inhalation, and undergoes little metabolism in the human body. If accidentally consumed, glyphosate is excreted mostly unchanged in feces and urine, so it doesn’t stay in the body and accumulate.

The EPA [The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has also determined that glyphosate has “minimal” ecological effects. Glyphosate is only slightly toxic to birds and fish, and it binds tightly to the soil, reducing the possibilities of leaching. Microbes in the soil then break glyphosate down so it doesn’t accumulate in the soil. According to plant pathologist Steve Savage, glyphosate has also replaced mechanical tillage to destroy weeds, which is “a substantial positive for the environment because of reduced erosion and retention of soil carbon.” …

Caffeine is over ten times more toxic than glyphosate. Is this cause for concern? Should we stop drinking coffee? No, the main reason being that a typical dosage of caffeine is not high enough to cause toxicity. Let’s look at the numbers. With LD50 of 192 mg/kg, it would take 12192 mg of caffeine to kill an average 140 lb human being. A typical 8 oz cup of coffee only contains 95 mg of caffeine, much lower than the dose required for acute toxicity. The same reasoning applies to glyphosate. Following the same calculations, it would take 12.5 oz of glyphosate to kill an average 140 lb human being. That means drinking about three gallons of Roundup Original.

Ms. Lim continues:

But what about long-term exposures to glyphosate? Given its widespread use, there is a good chance that we are eating some residues in our food. The EPA considered this too by setting maximum safe levels of residues called tolerances. The USDA tests crops each year to make sure that herbicide residues do not exceed tolerance levels. If any crops contain residue amounts higher than tolerance levels, the USDA reports the information to the FDA, who has the regulatory power to recall foods, levy fines and take other actions to prevent the foods from reaching consumers. The EPA also made sure that the tolerances were conservative….

Let’s turn now to the moral issue of GMOs, shall we? Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a piece by Nyasha Mudukuti, titled “We May Starve, but at Least We’ll Be GMO-Free” in which the Zimbabwe biotechnology student and member of the Global Farming Network remarked: “My country’s government would rather see people starve than let them eat genetically modified food.”

That’s the only conclusion to draw from the announcement in February that Zimbabwe will reject any food aid that includes a genetically-modified-organism ingredient—such as grains, corn and other crops made more vigorous or fruitful through GMO breeding. The ban comes just as Zimbabweans are suffering from our worst drought in two decades and up to three million people need emergency relief….

In other words, my country—which can’t feed itself—will refuse what millions around the world eat safely every day in their breakfasts, lunches and dinners as a conventional source of calories. It doesn’t matter whether the aid arrives as food for people or feed for animals. Our customs inspectors will make sure that no food with GMOs reaches a single hungry mouth.

The drought has devastated my family’s farm, which will produce almost no sorghum or corn this year. We’re short on money and the drought has caused prices to soar, even for the simplest goods. In the markets, cabbages the size of tennis balls sell for $1.

People are desperate for work. Last week I watched a man the age of my grandfather carry a hoe from house to house, trying to trade whatever labor he could offer for a meal. He wound up performing backyard chores for a cup of tea.

Ms. Mudukuti continues:

The rejection of GMO food aid is a humanitarian outrage—a man-made disaster built on top of a natural disaster. Yet something even worse lies behind it: a denial of science. GMOs pose no threat to human health, as virtually every scientific and regulatory agency that has studied them knows.

They are also positively good for the environment, allowing farmers to fight soil erosion by planting high-yield crops that need less water, reduce greenhouse gases—and, most important, grow more food on less land.

For too long African countries have looked to Europe for economic and intellectual leadership—and now we’ve accepted Europe’s sweeping opposition to GMOs. The difference is that Europe is a wealthy continent that can afford this ideological luxury. In Africa, we can’t. Grinding poverty is normal here. We need an agricultural sector that keeps up with population growth, rather than one that keeps on falling behind….

There are no easy solutions to a drought, and even crops with GMOs can’t bring us the rain we need. Yet the drought may serve the purpose of highlighting the madness of Africa’s anti-GMO extremism. After all, we need these GMOs in the form of emergency food aid. But we should be able to enjoy them soon as an ordinary part of farming and food production.

Yes, your author recognizes this as a “she said/she said” argument, but he tends to side with those employing sound science bolstered by compassion for people facing the reality of starvation. The Harrington ladies are luxuriating in their ideological certainties, while Lim and Mudukuti emphasize GMO safety and moral necessity in feeding the world.

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.