'Woke' Scientific American Goes Anti-GMO

Scientific American's descent from respected publication to ideological tabloid is nearly complete. The magazine is now promoting anti-GMO activism under the guise of "social justice."

Last week I highlighted four disturbing trends in science journalism that are destroying the public's trust in mainstream academic and public health institutions. It's time to add a fifth bromide to the list: science publications that prize “social justice” activism over evidence-based analysis.

Scientific American may be the worst offender in this respect, publishing groundless opinion pieces such as “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy” and “Modern Mathematics Confronts its White Patriarchal Past.” Biologist Jerry Coyne and science writer Michael Shermer have taken apart both articles in great detail, but Scientific American hasn't stopped there. The magazine's coverage of crop biotechnology has tragically devolved into social justice foolishness as well.

On December 27th, SciAm published a story so ridiculous it could have been written by a Greenpeace activist: “How Biotech Crops Can Crash—and Still Never Fail.”

The story was a critique of the UN Food Systems Summit, which, the authors complained, “put biotechnology at center stage, although agroecological innovations offer greater promise for sustainability.” The article is little more than a rehash of bad arguments we recently confronted in GMOs a Tool of Colonialism? Debunking a Popular 'Social Justice' Myth. [1] But given SciAm's status in science media and the importance of biotechnology to food production, we need to confront this tomfoolery as often as it appears. SciAm in quotes, followed by my commentary.

At its base, GM crops are rooted in a colonial-capitalist model of agriculture based on theft of Indigenous land and on exploiting farmers’ and food workers’ labor, women’s bodies, Indigenous knowledge and the web of life itself.

There is no such thing as a “colonial-capitalist model of agriculture.” At its root, capitalism is simply people trading goods and services to their mutual benefit. Colonialism, in contrast, “involves the subjugation of one people to another.” These two concepts are mutually exclusive.

Smallholder farmers who eagerly cultivate biotech seeds, often but not always sold by Western companies, are not victims of colonialism—they're customers, and it's they who have the final say about what they grow. The economist Ludwig von Mises explained how this arrangement works many years ago:

In talking about modern captains of industry and leaders of big business, for instance, they call a man a 'chocolate king' or a 'cotton king' or an 'automobile king.' Their use of such terminology implies that they see practically no difference between the modern heads of industry and those feudal kings, dukes or lords of earlier days.

But the difference is in fact very great, for a chocolate king does not rule at all; he serves … This 'king' must stay in the good graces of his subjects, the consumers; he loses his "kingdom" as soon as he is no longer in a position to give his customers better service and provide it at lower cost than others with whom he must compete.

The simple fact of the matter is that farmers want biotech seeds; they will even acquire them illegally in many cases. This leads to an obvious question: why do growers want access to this technology? Because it makes them more productive and helps to lift them out of grinding poverty. We saw the same thing during the Green Revolution, which saved the world $83 trillion primarily by giving farmers access to improved crop varieties. I cannot stress how badly this undermines the "colonial model of agriculture" narrative.

Back to SciAm:

Since 2008 the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, has led Golden Rice’s development with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in partnership with Syngenta (which owns rights to the rice) to address vitamin A deficiency (VAD) among the poor, especially children and pregnant women.

This is false. According to retired Syngenta scientist Adrian Dubock, who ensured that Golden Rice wasn’t obstructed by patent disputes, the licenses ensure that “only publicly-owned rice varieties can be used, and the nutritional trait cannot be ‘stacked’ with any other gmo-trait unless the latter is also under the control of the public sector.” There are no other strings attached to Golden Rice. Shame on Scientific American for perpetuating such a dangerous falsehood.

Over time, it has progressively become harder to conduct and publish research critical of GM crops. In effect, biotechnology has “locked out” other innovations, including agroecology.

It's harder to conduct research critical of GM crops because literally thousands of studies have investigated the impacts of agricultural biotechnology. Whether we're talking about economic benefit, environmental sustainability, or safety, evidence gathered over more than two decades has vindicated GM crops. There's nothing to be “critical” of, in other words.

Absolutely no expert I know opposes agroecology, properly defined as “sustainable farming practices.” But the term has been redefined to describe a political cause that opposes conventional farming, including crop biotechnology and synthetic pesticides. Risk expert Dr. David Zaruk explained the disastrous effects of this movement in a recent piece for the Genetic Literacy Project:

Poverty is perhaps the greatest social injustice and not providing the means for farmers to improve yields, reduce toil and suffering while advancing their lives economically and financially is hardly something to commend.

If you don’t allow farmers to access insecticides or seeds resistant to infestations and disease, you are condemning more women to longer hours bent over in the hot sun breaking off leaves. If you deny basic herbicides to smallholders, the backbreaking job of hand-weeding will pass down to their children (who should be in school).

The fact that Scientific American would amplify a movement with such destructive consequences is inexcusable. A proper understanding of social justice demands that we do whatever we can to help the poorest among us, even if it challenges our ideological commitments. SciAm could do a lot to advance that effort. But the magazine has instead decided to promote technophobic boilerplate that makes the world worse off.


[1] I've covered this topic in earlier stories:

How the Green Revolution Saved the World $83 Trillion

All-Organic Agriculture? Sri Lanka Cripples Farmers and Sparks Food Shortage

Fighting Climate Change is No Excuse to Expand Organic Farming

GMO Prohibition: Many Farmers Want GE Crops So Badly, They'll Grow Them Illegally

GMOs And Colonialism: Billionaires Taking Over The Global Food Supply, Comedian Russell Brand Warns