Acton Institute Powerblog

Anti-GMO Activists: ‘Heartless, Callous and Cruel’

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Former Indiana Governor and current Purdue University President Mitch Daniels
Former Indiana Governor and current Purdue University President Mitch Daniels
If it seems your writer is obsessing over genetically modified organisms in this space, it’s only because the progressive side of the equation won’t let it go. Team Anti-GMO includes the radicalized religious shareholder activists of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and As You Sow. Whether it’s misrepresenting the science or ignoring it completely, these groups celebrate every GMO labeling initiative and perform handstands every time a corporation commits to producing organic products.

Even more distressing than cherry-picking science to support incorrect conclusions is Team Anti-GMO’s failure to address the morality of their campaigns against disease-, pesticide- and drought-resistant foods. In fact, it’s amazingly distressing that nuns, priests, clergy and other religious affiliated with ICCR and AYS would circle their wagons around an initiative so deleterious to efforts to alleviate world hunger.

So imagine the delight conjured by the Feb. 25 remarks made by Purdue University President Mitch Daniels at the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va. The former Indiana governor succinctly makes the case for GMOs, which was excerpted last weekend in The Wall Street Journal:

[Y]ou should all remember that two or three decades ago we were all told that we would have starved by now. That the world was going to run out of food, there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.
Everyone in this room knows that instead, the intervening decades have seen the greatest upward surge for the good of humanity in the history of the planet Earth. That the combination of greater freedom in important countries and technology has brought down the number of undernourished—our undernourished brothers and sisters—by hundreds of millions, even as population grew by billions….

What is troubling me, and I hope troubles you, is that there is a shockingly broad, and so far shockingly successful, movement that threatens this important ascent of humankind out of the condition that has plagued us since we first walked upright: of having enough food to meet the most basic, the most elementary need of any living species. That threatens our ascent by choking off the very technologies that could make that next great triumph possible.

Gov. Daniels doesn’t name names, but the guilty abound in the crusade against GMOs. In fact the network of Team Anti-GMO winds its way through the progressive universe. For example, AYS is a member of Green America, an outspoken opponent of GMOs.

While eschewing finger-pointing at specific targets, Daniels does offer several recommendations for counteracting Team Anti-GMO’s efforts:

I suggest to you that you have a positive duty to do things that probably do not come naturally, to contest and refute junk science and false claims against the technologies that offer so much promise to the world. And not solely on the polite objective grounds that come most naturally to folks in the pursuits represented here, to people who work in the regulation of agriculture and its products, to those who study academically these subjects and work on the new technologies and the policies around them, or to the businesses that produce these products as the technologies become available.

We are used to and only comfortable with polite and civil dialogue: PowerPoints, facts, data at meetings where people have agreed, at least tacitly, to follow the facts where they lead. That is not this argument. We are dealing here, yes, with the most blatant anti-science of the age. But it is worse than that. It is inhumane and it must be countered on that basis. Those who would deny with zero scientific validity the fruits of modern agricultural research to starving or undernourished people—or those who will be, absent great progress—need to be addressed for what they are, which is callous, which is heartless, which is cruel.

Gov. Daniels then delivers the coup de grace:

Marie Antoinette may have at least had the excuse of naïveté and ignorance. That excuse cannot be made for the people who are attacking GMOs and other technologies like that today. You know, when starvation was imposed knowingly, in cases and instances we can all think of from the past, we knew what to call it. And I can’t for the life of me see a moral distinction between those instances and these.

No, folks who have taken that point of view have got to be called to account. How can you say to the hungry of this earth—how can you say to those who don’t enjoy the luxury that we all do and that the developed world in general does, how can you tell those folks, ‘Sorry about your luck.’ You know this is an indulgence of the rich and it is not just scientifically indefensible, it is morally indefensible. And as much as we would like not to have to engage in arguments like that, somebody better.

Just so. Gov. Daniels’ call to action couldn’t be more timely – or spot-on.

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.


  • Anna

    except the world already produces enough crop to feed the entire population of the world twice over (World Bank Institute), and wastes about a third of food produced (UN); it would be better to address the real problems resulting in food insecurity.

    • BruceEdwardWalker

      Your off-topic factoids are devoid of context. Let’s return to the UN figure you posted, shall we? Other key facts from the UN FAO stat you quoted include these:

      1. Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900
      kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in
      the poorest regions.

      2. In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.

      Understood from this context, it’s evident much needs to be done in transporting to market and storing food in developing countries, and furthermore much needs be done to ensure healthy crops. Then there’s these stats from the UN:

      1. The food currently lost or wasted in Latin America could feed 300 million people.

      2. The food currently wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people.

      3. The food currently lost in Africa could feed 300 million people

      Note the first two are considered “lost” or “wasted” while the African # is merely classified as “lost.” Additionally, how would you propose transporting and preserving “wasted” food from First World countries to Third World countries w/o cheap and inefficient fuels to transport and power refrigeration units? Isn’t the mantra of the organic crowd to think and grow locally?

      • AfricanGIrl

        The UN has never worked in Africa’s Favour. I live in Africa and I will tell you the problem. It is not against GMOs but against the US. First, we do not need GMOs now. We have abundance of food. We need to mobilize food production on a large scale.
        Secondly, America, the UN, the UNDP, have never really favour African nations in anyway. So most Africans do not trust the west. There is a debate in the Youth Communities of Africa of how to end exploitation in Africa. We decided to define our own problems and not let people from the UN or The US who have most likely never been to the ghettos of Africa decide what our problems are.
        Essentially, most people are not comfortable with the idea of opening our boarders to genetically modified edible things produced by america. We do not have the capacity to properly scrutinized these things for ourselves and we do not trust the US.
        Lastly, most African nations have vast lands that over 6million farmers work on. We are not ready to put approximately 40% of every African population out of work for western biochemicals. We are more interested in giving these people what they need to do their jobs properly and effectively.

  • Never Ending Food

    I’ve increasingly seen this argument that if you are in favor of sustainable, organic, diversified, and agroecological approaches to food production, while being opposed to the use of GMOs then you are somehow ‘heartless, callous, and cruel’ and everybody in Africa is going to be subject to continued famine and malnutrition. I can say with 100% confidence that this is a maliciously fraudulent claim intended to create guilt and self-doubt in those who are removed from the African situation as well as from agriculture. Our family has been farming in Malawi, Africa for the past 19 years and here’s what we’ve found: The only impediment to Africa’s agriculture is this incessant and shortsighted promotion of chemical-based monocropping of a handful of introduced foods such as maize and soy. Despite much of Africa having tropical climates, which allow for the year-round seasonal production of hundreds of annual and perennial crops, many countries have now moved towards a one-time annual harvest of a high-carbohydrate low-nutrient food–such as maize–in one month at the end of a rainy season. Here in Malawi, despite over-producing maize for 8 consecutive growing seasons (2005-20013), we continue to see 47% of the nation’s children nutritionally ‘stunted’. As monocropping has disrupted the ecological balances, we now see genetic engineering being used to adapt our plants to unhealthy systems of agriculture. Instead of using natural Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, we see genetic engineering being used to make our foods inherently toxic. Instead of recognizing that many of what agriculture now labels as ‘weeds’ are actually highly nutritious vegetables (i.e. amaranth, blackjack, jute, quickweed, crotalaria, etc), we see genetic engineering being used to make crops resistant to the free-for-all spraying of herbicides. Instead of acknowledging that good nutrition comes from the production and utilization of diverse foods, we see genetic engineering being used to put nutrients where they don’t belong (i.e. Golden Rice, gm bananas, etc). So far, almost every example of genetic engineering in the field of agriculture has been in response to problems that have been created and exacerbated by humans—not nature. Africa has not even come close to tapping into its potential for food production, but we are quickly approaching the limits of the current industrialized, corporate-controlled, environmentally-destructive approach. The suffix ‘-cide’ (as in pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc) comes from the Latin ‘-cida’ which means ‘death’ or ‘killer’. Instead of fostering systems of life, agriculture has chosen to tread a path of death and destruction.

    • BruceEdwardWalker

      This is what stood out for me from your post: “inherently toxic.” Inherently? Toxic? Really? “Unhealthy systems of agriculture.” Sorry, the burden of proof for that assertion is on you. “Genetic engineering being used to put nutrients where they don’t belong.” Who says they don’t belong? You? Does this include introducing crops not indigenous to the African continent such as cassava because it could be argued using your logic that cassava doesn’t belong outside of South America, right? Your last three sentences sum it up — if it’s corporate it’s ipso facto bad even if it’s capable of feeding millions more because…you don’t like corporations, industry and whatnot. That’s prejudice rather than rational argumentation. In closing, let’s suss out your first sentence: Frankly, it’s a straw man. No one, esp. me, suggested all-in for either Team GMO or Team Organic. It’s a false dichotomy. You want to continue exploring non-GMO options, that’s fine by me. But that’s not good enough, is it, when you actively advocate against anything you deem corporate. “Death and destruction” indeed.

      • Never Ending Food

        Bruce, when a plant is genetically engineered to contain a pesticide, that plant becomes ‘inherently toxic’ to the ecosystem in which it grows. Currently in Malawi, when the government promotes ‘diversity’ it generally refers to maize, sweet potatoes, and cassava; all three are ‘introduced’ crops from the same ‘staple’ food group. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of additional crops that are either indigenous to the region or which have become naturalized over numerous centuries of adapting to Africa’s growing conditions. Many of these crops are open-pollinated, the seeds can be saved and replanted for free, and which represent all of Malawi’s 6 nutritional food groups. When agriculture systems are designed to match people’s diverse nutritional needs, there is no need to spend millions on fortification, supplementation, or the genetic engineering of nutrition to make up for deficiencies. There is still room for economic opportunities as long as they are in line with earth care, people care, and fair share…the three main tenets of ethical and sustainable production systems. Agroecological systems, which are diversified, perennial, seasonal, and organic have enormous potential to bring an end to problems we see here in Malawi, such as ‘hungry seasons’, malnutrition, and economic dependency on agricultural ‘inputs’. At least that’s been our experience here at Never Ending Food, based upon nearly two decades of empirical evidence gathered from hands-on implementation of these methods.

        • BruceEdwardWalker

          Sorry, you fail to convince. It’s terrific you’re all-in on your strategy, but that doesn’t automatically dismiss others — esp. when it comes to feeding the world’s population. I imagine when you talk about the wonderfulness of ecosystems, you’re also celebrating mosquitoes, mold and crop diseases — as well as drought, all of which have been part of the ecosystems in which they occur for millennia. Furthermore, what works for you in Malawi doesn’t necessarily carry to other countries on the African continent. Again, I’m happy you’ve found your life’s mission, but don’t let pride in your presumed successes blind you to the needs outside your immediate vicinity. Best of luck to you.

          • Never Ending Food

            When ecosystems are in balance, many of the problems that you speak of are often eradicated or kept in check. In terms of mosquitoes (primarily malaria-causing mosquitoes here in Malawi), a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene showed that the risk of being bitten by the primary malaria-carrying mosquito is nearly 300 times higher in cleared areas than in those that are largely undisturbed.

            In terms of mold and crop diseases, Malawi is currently facing problems with ‘bunchy top’ within monocropped and unhealthy groves of bananas; farmers who have diversified banana production with multiple cultivars intercropped within agroecological systems are not finding the same problems. Another major problem for Malawi is aflatoxins and cancer-causing mold that thrives in moisture-rich environments. Much of Malawi’s monocropped maize is hybridized seed, which often contains a higher moisture content than naturalized varieties. These crops are often harvested prematurely (not allowed to dry thoroughly in the fields) due to the chronic ‘hungry season’ and the resulting increase in theft of crops at the end of the growing season. Then, the maize harvests, which used to be stored in breathable hand-woven silos, are now very often shelled and put into polyethylene maize bags. All of these higher-moisture content practices have led to an increase in the growth of aflatoxins that has put Malawi on the map for having the world’s highest rate of esophageal cancer.

            In terms of floods and drought here in Malawi, these are both problems which have been greatly exacerbated by poor land management practices. Malawi uses a ridging system in which the soil of the pathways between ridges is compacted during the growing season, and then the following season the soil of the ridge is turned over to the pathway and farmers walk where the ridge used to be. Since the onset of the post WWII ‘green revolution’ farmers in Malawi have been encouraged to turn the same tired and depleted soil back and forth, while compacting the entire field underfoot. This has led to extreme ‘hard-pan’ conditions in which heavy rainfall quickly runs off causing flooding, and then, because the water was not absorbed in the soil, within a few days of no rainfall we quickly move into drought-like conditions. Many of the nation’s boreholes and wells now also run dry during the non-rain season due to a failure in replenishing the underground water tables.

            Here at Never Ending Food, we teach a permanent one-meter bed system which eliminates the need for ridging, puts approximately 20% more land under cultivation, and quickly decompacts the soil, allowing for rainwater filtration and absorption. We also encourage the use of cover-crops and mulching which helps to hold soil moisture for longer periods of time thereby mitigating the effects of drought. Because we have set up systems of healthy soil and water management, every drop of water that falls on our land is quickly absorbed by the soil, which means no standing water in which mosquitoes can breed. At the end of the rainy season (this time of year) when mosquito populations are often at their highest, we have an emergence of Silver Marsh spiders their webs throughout our diversified food production systems and further reduce the mosquito populations (along with other potential crop-damaging pests). We also don’t encourage farmers to try to harvest all of their food in one month of the year and then try to store it for the remaining 11 months, leading to post-harvest losses sometimes in excess of 30% and the risk of aflatoxin growth. Instead, we teach farmers to take advantage of Malawi’s tropical 12-month growing season to stagger seasonal and perennial food crops throughout the year. Just taking the staple food group for an example, farmers can harvest maize in April-May, then millets and sorghum in June-July, then sweet potatoes in Aug-Sept., then cassava in Oct-Nov., then local yams in Dec-Jan., then the water-loving species throughout the rainy season (i.e green bananas, coco yams (taro), rice, etc.). This staggering of foods can be done with every food group (fruits, vegetables, fats, legumes, animals, and staples).

            We currently produce over 200 different foods on our farm throughout the year, in completely organic and agroecological systems, with the use of locally-available open-pollinated seeds. This is a system that is gaining in popularity and we are now seeing an increased interest from the nation’s governmental programs, agricultural colleges, NGOs and local farmers. Malawi has also established the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology which has become the primary training center for these agroecological approaches. Solutions exist!

          • morphd

            NEF, much of what you describe has little or nothing to do with GMO food. Theft, mold from storage of grain in non-ventilated plastic bags, soil compaction and water management etc. are unrelated.
            While herbicide tolerant crops may make less sense in a society having abundant, inexpensive labor for weed removal, I don’t understand the general blanket opposition to GM technology. Virus resistant cassava for example, where GM technology could enable re-use of older, desirable varieties that have succumbed to viral disease, seems like it holds potential benefit

            Many of the key enabling patents on GM technology have expired or will expire relatively soon, so the technology should become increasingly accessible to smaller organizations offering direct help to small farmers as opposed to the large corporations. As a biologist who understands the technology (and it’s safety), it’s difficult for me to fathom why activists seem to be so intent on destroying it.

          • Never Ending Food

            Morphd, I was responding to the author’s questions about mold, mosquitoes, diseases and other problems that have been greatly exacerbated through the use of monocropped agricultural systems; the very same problems that genetic engineering is being used to ‘fix’. Adapting our plants and animals to unhealthy systems of agriculture doesn’t ‘fix’ the problem, it is the equivalent to covering up the problem with a band-aid. Except that it’s a multi-million dollar patented band-aid which is paid for by those who are told its the only band-aid in the world, while the diversified, sustainable, and readily-available ‘cure’ remains ignored.

          • morphd

            People have to do a cost:benefit analysis. American and other farmers are business people and use biotech seed because they see increased yield and reduction in pesticides (really) more than offset the premium they pay for the technology.
            For small-scale, near subsistence agriculture, the ratio may work out differently. I don’t get the sense GMO crops made for small African farmers are the same revenue generating ‘blockbusters’ that are made for US, Latin America and other markets – but I don’t have details.
            There’s no reason at least some GM crops can’t work into sustainable systems. Buying some inputs isn’t a sin if there’s a good return.
            People need to look at GM crops rationally, not like religious fanatics thinking they’re seeing Satan.

    • Tom Brennan

      I don’t agree with your opposition to the GMO crops in themselves, but I think your argument against monoculture practices is powerful and correct by itself, regardless of the nature of the seeds used for monoculture. Keep pushing that point.

      In fact, thinking about this some more: if you just change the words, you’ve made a case against monoculture almost exactly analagous to the Acton case against “Poverty, Inc” – the big business of “helping” poor people, regardless of how that actually works out. And the Acton “Poverty Cure’ is quite a bit like your description of the virtues of diverse agricultural practices, meeting people where they really live and building on what they already have going for them.

      • Never Ending Food

        Diversity very often holds the key to many problems, whether they be agricultural, social, or economic. In terms of GMOs, the predominance of genetically engineered crops now grown are ‘Roundup ready’ meaning that they can withstand the direct application of Roundup herbicide. This herbicide not only kills the weeds that grows in the fields, but any other vegetative matter that is not ‘Roundup ready’. For this reason, a vast majority of GMO crops are not suitable for for diversified cropping systems, nor are they promoted as such.

  • BruceEdwardWalker

    And once again you change the subject when the facts presented are inconvenient to your narrative. You addressed nothing in my response to your initial comment, Anna, but only veered into another topic.

  • BruceEdwardWalker

    Ahhh…the convenient tobacco canard used to shut down robust conversation. Nice try, but … no cigar.

  • AfricanGirl

    I have two questions: 1) Who says there is no food in Africa? 2) When did American industrialists suddenly decide that African people are important. [That is a new development].

    Firstly, There is food, abundance of it in Africa. Africa’s problem is that the Agricultural sector is not industrialized so the distribution of food on a large scale is difficult and therefore people cannot afford food in places that are not agricultural states. My African village alone can produce all the food needed in West Africa for 50 years is properly industrialized.

    Secondly, most Africans are very uncomfortable with the idea of Americans giving us genetically modified food. These are people who have never cared for African race, only seeks to exploit us by any means necessary and now you ask African Nations to fling their Borders open to uncontrolled, unlabelled biochemicals genetically targrted weapons [God knows what is in them] in the disguise of food. No Thanks.

    Finally we do not want to put our farmers out of business and we trust them. We do not trust America. If America is pushing for it this hard then it is probably a bad thing.
    We do not want it. Do not force it down our throats.