I have got involved in a Saturday-morning stoush about genetically modified (GM) crops at Professor Quiggin’s blog[1]. For those who don’t know him, John Quiggin is a left-wing economist and blogger who wrote the book Zombie Economics, and I think is generally well-respected for his sensible policy views, though he can be spectacularly wrong. I like to think that John and I share a kind of “scientific” leftism, that is a generally left-wing outlook that is informed by evidence and reason. For example I support the criminalization of heroin use, think that nuclear power has a potential role in mitigating anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and is safer than many believe, and of course I accept the science of AGW. One thing I have noticed about scientific leftists though is that they tend to have a tense relationship with the environmental movement, and especially with the more ratbaggy, dreadlocked and “deep eco” arm of it. This friction is most obvious in the disagreements many scientific leftists have with the environmental movement over GM crops, and I think this friction is both generally misguided and misguided in the specific instance of GM crops. In this post I’m going to explore why I think anti-GM leftists have a valid point based in science, and I’m also going to explore why these scientific leftists are so often uncomfortable with their patchouli-scented fellow travellers.

First though I’d like to review the successes and history of the modern environmental movement, because it seems to me that just going on the balance of probabilities, disagreeing with the environmental movement is a good sign that you are probably wrong. I mean this purely in a probabilistic sense, not in a logical sense (I really shouldn’t have to clarify this, but it is the internet). Let’s look at some of the major successes of the environmental movement:

  • They predicted DDT was very bad, and excessive use of DDT for general crop spraying led to the development of resistance in mosquitos, with sad consequences for malaria-endemic countries until pyrethrims were put into controlled use (and note that modern use of anti-malarial sprays follows exactly the guidelines that should have been followed with DDT)
  • They were right about acid rain
  • They were right about GFCs and the ozone layer
  • They were spectacularly right about AGW
  • The clean air act
  • Meat and cancer
  • Meat and malnutrition in the developing world
  • They predicted the collapse of the Grand Banks cod population and after they lost the battle to preserve the fisheries, the entire community that depended on those fisheries died
  • In Australia the Greens and others predicted the collapse of the old growth woodchip industry due to competition from overseas plantations and tried to develop an industry assistance plan based on plantation forests, but the CFMEU fought it because jobs! and now – surprise! – the big woodchipping companies are going under due to overseas plantation competition

The environmental movement has, of course, been spectacularly wrong about nuclear power. Note also that in some cases – like DDT and AGW – we can now say that the movement was more right than it realized at the time. We now know that the consequences of AGW are going to be way way more serious than originally suggested, and since the advent of the global burden of disease studies we have strong evidence that coal is really really bad for human health – vindicating the intentions of the original clean air act in the USA and various campaigns in other countries. So, just on the balance of probabilities, taking a side against the environmental movement on their big ticket issues is likely to make you wrong more often than right. And of course scientific leftists like John Quiggin will look at all the entries on that list and be firmly in favour of the environmental movement’s position on them – except meat. So why are they so suspicious of the anti-GM movement?  And why do they accuse anti-GM campaigners of being “anti-science” so easily, when the history of the environmental movement is that it has had science on its side?

Before I address that, let’s look at the anti-GM movement. John Quiggin suggests in his post that they are only concerned about human consumption of GM foods, and constructs a classic straw environmentalist with this attack:

It would be more effective and more honest for GM opponents to come out and say “we don’t like the idea of tinkering with DNA. We don’t care what the evidence is, or whether there is any observable difference from ‘natural’ foods, we just don’t want to eat this stuff”.

By doing this he ignores substantive issues that environmental campaigners have raised about the potential threats to the environment from GM crops, and the risk to human health through environmental contamination (rather than simply consumption). He wants us to believe that anti-GM campaigners are scared of eating modified DNA because reasons, and doesn’t want us to think that there might be any other reasons for opposing GM crops. But there are other reasons – much more significant than the food safety reasons – and the environmental movement is clear about these reasons. For example Greenpeace Australia has a long FAQ about GM crops and most of the points are not about food safety. The two other big issues with GM crops – environmental contamination and international food inequality – are very important in that FAQ.

The science connected with environmental contamination is fairly solid and self-evident. For example, Farm Industry News reports on the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the USA, based on a study funded by Monsanto (who make round-up resistant crops), and the clear recommendation of this scientific research is that farmers need to rotate their roundup-resistant crops in order to reduce the development of resistance. The article states that

the rate at which glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading is gaining momentum, increasing 25% in 2011 and 51% in 2012

and pins the blame on overuse of roundup on roundup-resistant crops. This is a classic case of the need for community action: no matter how sensible you might be on your farm, if your neighbours are over-spraying then eventually you will get infected with their roundup-resistant weeds, with serious consequences (some of these weeds can destroy an entire crop). This kind of over-spraying is also going to contaminate river-water (through runoff) and groundwater, and scientists are developing standards for river-water based on the risks to animal and human health. For example, these South African scientists are developing standards for river water based on the harm to river fish; a search of pubmed will reveal studies showing the potential for glyphosate to interfere with human reproduction, which suggests that consumption through contaminated water is a risk to human health. None of this research is anti-science and all of it supports the need to be very careful about the use of these crops.

It’s not as if we don’t have a precedent for this either. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, leading to a movement to ban widespread spraying with DDT. She identified the risk of DDT-resistance, and despite widespread opposition by industry to her findings that is exactly what happened. Why people like John Quiggin think it is anti-science to see the same risk in roundup resistant crops is a mystery to me – I don’t think he can be ignorant of the history of DDT or the toxic debate that has surrounded this chemical in the last 10 years. So why repeat these errors and object to a similar approach to GM crops? And instead of lambasting the anti-GM movement for criminal vandalism and anti-science ideology, why not engage with it to try and produce a constructive, scientific-based approach to the regulation and management of GM crops? I doubt, for example, that John is particularly supportive of overturning the generally-agreed upon ban on geo-engineering. But we could probably develop some kind of horrible plankton or algae that would eat CO2 and stabilize it – surely it’s not anti-science to try? Yet the scientific consensus is that this could be very very dangerous, and no one supports such an effort. What’s the difference?

I think the difference is the activists connected with the movement, and a kind of innate discomfort that a lot of scientific leftists have with their more radical allies who actually do the dirty work on the ground. The anti-GM movement’s foot-soldiers are drawn from the same ranks of dreadlocked hippies as the radical animal rights movement and the anti-forestry movement, and I think scientific leftists – being primarily academics or middle-class professionals – are inherently uncomfortable with the behavior of these scary-looking weirdos. But the reality is that those ratbag activists have achieved a great deal for the environmental movement, which won a great many of its victories through criminal behavior and property damage. This is nowhere more true than in the animal rights movement, which though much-maligned by mainstream leftists has been the most successful international political movement since feminism and has achieved almost all of its gains from a starting point of criminal property damage and theft. In the 1980s animal liberation front (ALF) invasions of vivisection labs produced shocking examples of cruelty that led to the complete revision of ethical guidelines towards animal experiments. Their continued actions against vivisection labs in the 1980s and 1990s forced the practice of animal experimentation into the public mind, and radically changed the way it was done. Similar achievements were gained in slaughterhouses, the live animal trade, factory farming, the fur industry, the pet industry, and especially the cosmetics industry. Laws were rewritten, food production practices changed, and attitudes towards animals revolutionized. Every single one of these campaigns started from direct action and vandalism, often perpetrated by dreadlocked society drop-outs. Many of them involved campaigns against academics – something that obviously won’t appeal to scientific leftists like John Quiggin who are firmly within the establishment academy. But let’s not make any bones about this: those academics needed to be challenged, and this was not happening within the law. The video Hidden Crimes, released in 1986, contains extensive footage of the kind of cowboy behavior and blatant cruelty of these early vivisectionists, and it certainly does not make for pleasant viewing. The great achievement of the animal rights movement has been to force these cruelties into the open, and to completely reshape the institutional landscape within which these crimes are committed. The same is true of the campaign against whaling: while reasonable people talk pointlessly in meetings of the IWC, the sea shepherds are preventing the Japanese from actually catching actual whales. In his biography, Paul Watson makes clear that this action is conducted precisely because no one is willing to act, and before Japan he targeted the USSR and US allies in south America. The whaling issue would be completely under the radar if it weren’t for the behavior of people like Paul Watson, and it is as a direct result of the public pressure arising from Watson’s behavior that Australia raised the whaling issue in the international criminal court.

Of course, this fringe-dwelling hippy radical movement has its fair share of anti-vaccinationists, fluoride conspiracy theorists and new world order nutcases. The anti-vivisection movement was soon hijacked by Hans Ruesch and his anti-medicine cohorts, just as the Union of Concerned Scientists is heavily influenced by anti-nuclear doctors. Every movement that runs up against powerful institutions attracts these people (and I would suggest the anti-AGW movement has been most vulnerable to these types of people – witness Monckton the birther and Agenda21 conspiracist as one of their central figures). But these people acting as the uncontrolled foot-soldiers of a social movement doesn’t make the ideas behind the movement itself wrong, and it’s dangerous to throw out the lessons of the broader movement just because you don’t like the look and feel of a few of its members. Had this approach been taken by Peter Singer towards animal rights, for example, he would have been essentially arguing that any amount of cruelty is legitimate in the pursuit of science. Instead he wrote Animal Liberation and developed a theory of ethics that is easy to apply, practical and enormously influential inside and outside the academy. Peter Singer chose to engage with the movement that his ideas describe, and indeed now many of the ideas the ALF espouse that were once considered extreme and dangerous are now well within the mainstream – as are many of the ideas espoused by earlier generations of environmental activists about hunting and food production. But always these groups are lampooned as anti-science extremists when they first get involved in an issue.

I guess moderate rightist academics do the same thing in respect of their fringe-dwelling nazis and street thugs, though I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the cultural sphere where centrist approaches to immigration theory are developed – I get the impression that moderate right-wing academia is strongly opposed to the views of its street-level thugs on immigration, but I don’t really know much about it. I don’t know if the same situation applies there. But in debates about science and the management of scientific processes, I think it’s far far better for scientific leftists to engage with and try to understand the environmental movement than just to reject it out of hand as anti-science, as John Quiggin does in this case. The Peter Singer model of offering academic structure and guidance to the theoretical background of a movement is, in my opinion, far better than what John Quiggin and many other scientific leftists do with GM crops, which is to construct an anti-science straw movement and then knock it down. This isn’t going to move debate forward and it certainly isn’t going to stop the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

fn1: My last comment appears to have gone into moderation and disappeared.