Acton Institute Powerblog

Religious Activists Lose Another Battle Against GMOs

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As You Sow (AYS), a shareholder activist group, was rebuffed last month in a move to curtail the use of Abbott Laboratories’ genetically modified organisms in its Similac Soy Isomil infant formulas. The defeat of the resolution marks the third year Abbott shareholders voted down an AYS effort to limit and/or label GMO ingredients by significant margins. This year’s resolution reportedly garnered only 3 percent of the shareholder vote.

Such nuisance resolutions fly in the face of the facts: GMOs have been found to be completely safe and, further, benefit the environment by increasing crop yields, thereby reducing the land area required for farming, as well as significantly reducing the need for pesticides. Try telling that to the AYS activists, whose 2015 Abbott resolution states:

 Shareholders request the Board of Directors publish within six months, at reasonable cost and excluding proprietary information, a report on genetically engineered ingredients contained in nutritional products sold by Abbott. This report should list Abbott product categories that contain GMOs and estimated portion of products in each category that contain GMOs, and discuss any actions management is taking to reduce or eliminate GMOs from its products, until and unless long-term studies show that the genetically engineered crops and associated farming practices are not harmful to the environment, the agriculture industry, or human or animal health.

“The full story is that GMOs are having a significant environmental impact and no agency is monitoring for health effects,” fretted Margaret Weber, corporate responsibility director at the Congregation of St. Basil of Toronto, an AYS member, one year ago. “In fact, monitoring for health impacts is nearly impossible because in the US, where the vast majority of GMOs are grown and consumed, there is no labeling.”

In an April 24 New York Times op-ed, however, environmentalist Mark Lynas – once no stranger to eco-terrorist acts against fields of GMO crops by his own admission – declares GMOs extremely beneficial. According to a recap of Lynas’ essay by the American Council on Science and Health, a New York City-based research organization:

 Mark Lynas has had a long history of anti-GMO activism, sometimes in affiliation with well-known anti-science NGOs like Greenpeace. He admitted, in the op-ed, that he had participated in the vandalism inherent in tearing up experimental plantings of GMO crops — a practice for which he now apologizes and condemns. His particular expertise over the past decade has been in advocating for measures to rein in climate change, or “man-made global warming,” as it’s also known.

Once he undertook a self-education mission to get evidence-based information about GMOs, he basically did an about face, and now has become a forceful advocate for increased use of this technology to help feed the malnourished and impoverished in the third world. That is the focus of his op-ed, How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food. He wrote the article while attending a biotechnology conference in Nairobi, Kenya (more on that later), but the focus of his piece is on a farmer in Bangladesh, one of only 108 farmers (in a country of about 150 million people) allowed to plant and harvest Bt brinjal (eggplant). This GMO crop has miraculously enhanced his and his family’s living conditions, while reducing standard pesticide inputs. On the other hand, neighboring India effectively banned the crop via “moratorium,” thanks to activist pressure, in 2010.

Lynas begins:

Mohammed Rahman doesn’t know it yet, but his small farm in central Bangladesh is globally significant. Mr. Rahman, a smallholder farmer in Krishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, grows eggplant on his meager acre of waterlogged land.

As we squatted in the muddy field, examining the lush green foliage and shiny purple fruits, he explained how, for the first time this season, he had been able to stop using pesticides. This was thanks to a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.

Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind, and the new crop flourished. Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant’s name in the region) labeled “insecticide free” at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.

In a rational world, Mr. Rahman would be receiving support from all sides. He is improving the environment and tackling poverty. Yet the visit was rushed, and my escorts from the research institute were nervous about permitting me to speak with him at all.

So far, so very, very good – despite the perceived efforts to cover-up the GMO successes divulged in the last paragraph. Lynas continues:

Why was there such controversy? Because Mr. Rahman’s pest-resistant eggplant was produced using genetic modification. A gene transferred from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (more commonly known by the abbreviation “Bt”), produces a protein that kills the Fruit and Shoot Borer, a species of moth whose larvae feed on the eggplant, without the need for pesticide sprays. (The protein is entirely nontoxic to other insects and indeed humans.)

Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.

The stakes are especially high because Mr. Rahman is one of only 108 farmers in Bangladesh currently permitted to try out the new variety. Moreover, this is among the first genetically modified food crops to be grown by farmers anywhere in the developing world. Virtually every crop, in every other country, has so far been blocked.

In neighboring India, green campaigners managed to secure a nationwide moratorium against the genetically modified eggplant in 2010. In the Philippines, a Greenpeace-led coalition has tied up the variety in litigation for two years. Greenpeace activists took the precaution of wrecking field trials first, by pulling up the plants.

Pulling up plants in the developing world hardly seems beneficial to the billion or so of the world’s population attempting to rise out of poverty and, like, you know, eat healthily. But, apparently, Greenpeace and AYS – all scientific experts they – know what’s best for the planet and its inhabitants. True, AYS isn’t to the best of our knowledge pulling up plants, but they’re working to place GMO crops on indefinite hiatus.

Lynas relates the breadth of the left’s misinformation campaign against GMOs, which he relates has wreaked untold harm on Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and Nairobi:

[C]ountries have fallen like dominoes to anti-G.M. campaigns. I am writing this at a biotechnology conference in Nairobi, where the government slapped a G.M.O. import ban in 2012 after activists brandished pictures of rats with tumors and claimed that G.M. foods caused cancer.

The origin of the scare was a French scientific paper that was later retracted by the journal in which it was originally published because of numerous flaws in methodology. Yet Kenya’s [GMO] ban remains, creating a food-trade bottleneck that will raise prices, worsening malnutrition and increasing poverty for millions.

I couldn’t have written it more passionately myself. Welcome to the war, Mr. Lynas. Let’s feed the world and promote environmental stewardship against the GMO onslaught of Greenpeace and AYS.

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. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 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 three 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 Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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