Tiki the Eco-Pengiun vs. Genetic Engineering

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Editor's note: Tiki the Eco-Penguin's website has been updated since Andrew Apel wrote this article criticizing him for ACSH two years ago, but Tiki, alas, is still online and Apel's criticisms are still insightful.

Strategies for a successful scare-mongering campaign require a calculated mixture of lucid prose, deft evasion, and sometimes the occasional lie, while preying upon natural human fears. Given the experience of modern history, it should be no surprise that adults are easily taken in by misinformation campaigns that capitalize on concerns for their children.

The Alar apple scandal is a textbook example of how such a campaign works. With the help of Fenton Communications, the Natural Resources Defense Council terrified parents across America in 1989 by claiming that Alar-treated apples would give their children cancer. CBS, a U.S. television syndicate, called Alar "the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today." It was a lie that cost apple growers about $250 million, apple-product manufacturers about $125 million, and U.S. taxpayers (via the U.S. Department of Agriculture) $15 million, while generating $700,000 in net revenues for those who foisted the falsehood on protective parents.

Such success continues to attract imitators. The anti-biotechnology campaign has prospered, paralyzing governments and stifling international grain markets, while swelling the coffers of activist groups. In the United States, the first two victims of the campaign were the baby foods offered by Heinz and Gerber.

But why should scaremongers stop there?

If adults can be scared about the food their children eat, why not scare the children themselves? As picky eaters, children are the ideal targets for a food-scare campaign. Anyone who thinks that is too cynical to contemplate should think again. It's being done, and it's even worse than that: The message designed to make children fear their food comes charged with eco-reactionary propaganda.

At a website specifically targeted at children, a loquacious penguin sporting a shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Tiki the Eco-Penguin" tells kids of the dangers of using biotechnology in crop and food production. The penguin also slyly insinuates suspicions about science, authority, government, corporations, and the profit motive the very themes which have motivated youth in recent destructive marches on Seattle, Boston, Washington, London, Geneva and Windsor. The marches typically feature an attack on a McDonald's restaurant.

The penguin claims to have no sponsors, but the bird's website refers children to "useful organizations which you can join or find out stuff from," a rogue's gallery of misinformation, anarchism, and paranoia sources, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology, Rural Advancement Foundation International, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Bry Lynas, OneWorld Online's Guides coordinator, is the author of this site, and claims a doctorate in earth sciences from the University of Cambridge. In the guise of a penguin, he seeks to strike fear of food into the hearts of children, while insinuating the notions that motivate the howling ranks of anarchy.

"If you eat 'genetic' food," the penguin warned, "you become part of an experiment in which you are being used as a guinea pig. And one of the main reasons for doing this is for some people to make lots of money."

The penguin with a Ph.D. is apparently unaware of the fact that genetically modified crops have passed numerous tests normally reserved for pharmaceuticals and chemical pesticides. He tells kids that the crops "have simply not been tested properly." Furthermore, the fowl is "frightened about g.e. [genetic engineering] in the hands of the companies that do it" and tells children that some uncertain portion of what they are told about biotechnology "won't be true or honest because some of it will be made by the companies themselves."

The feathered simpleton suggests that giving money to the poor in developing nations could be the way to feed them, distorts and dismisses the Food and Drug Administration's doctrine of substantial equivalence, says farmers are "making the landscape into a desert for other life" with biotechnology, and offers a strident challenge: "Don't leave it to the 'experts'!"

By encouraging children to engage in "food anarchy," the penguin has established a new low in the crazed downward spiral of anti-biotech activism, which has until now relied on exploiting gullible adults.

Is it time for parents to be concerned about their children? Yes, it is. Beware the penguin.

Andrew Apel is the editor of AgBiotech Reporter.

See http://www.bioreporter.com. The article above originally appeared as "Beware the Penguin" in June 2000.