Paternalism at its worst

Greenpeace has a campaign to convince Nestlé to ban genetically modified crops from their products in India. They have an auto-letter set up that has been sent 25,808 times (as of 2:40pm Central time). That includes my letter which I sent through their site urging Nestlé to stand up against fearmongering.
I’ve since sent a second letter thanking them for being strong through the Nestlé India contact form. I’m guessing that Greenpeace opted to create their own letter instead of using the standard form so that they could interject their own statements – but I’ve always found this method of “letter writing” rather disingenuous. If a person feels so strongly about an issue that they would send a letter, shouldn’t they be able to come up with their own reasons and actually write the letter?
Greenpeace also has a poll on their site asking you to choose “NO, I don’t want genetically modified food.” or “YES, I would like to eat genetically modified food if it becomes available.” I don’t think this is a very good question – there need to be more information, such as “NO, I don’t want genetically modified food even if it reduces the amount of pesticides used.” or “YES, I would eat genetically modified food if was engineered for higher nutritional content.” All biotech traits are not the same! Of course, that would require an understanding of biotechnology that is a bit too nuanced for Greenpeace. As of 2pm Central, the vote is 909 votes NO and 10 votes YES.
I have no problem with people exercising their rights as consumers to contact companies. They are welcome to encourage companies to change their policies. Obviously, I’m a pretty big fan of letter writing, considering I just wrote a post about it.
The problem I have with Greenpeace’s actions here is that Americans and Europeans are attempting to dictate what Indians should and should not eat. Don’t believe me? They convienently have this map on their website showing exactly where people who visited the letter campaign pages are located. There are some in India, to be sure, but is it significantly more than those in other places?
Who is Greenpeace to tell people how they should think? I respect their free speech, and I respect viewpoints that differ from mine, but when people twist science in order to scare people, I simply have to react. Greenpeace India lists all of the same old stories – can’t they find anything more recent? At least they haven’t started using the infamous Austrian study yet. They conclude their FAQs with “You cannot become a lab rat for these experiments in food!” Which, ironically, is correct. There have been enough studies on each trait on actual lab rats to ensure safety (as well as studies on cows, chickens, and zebra fish, just to name a few*).
Sigh. As I’ve said many times before, there are certain risks to consider before a particular biotech trait should be deregualated. Why do these groups feel the need to lie to embellish the risks? Do they feel that the actual risks are not compelling enough? Do they fear that people might actually see some benefits of biotech if given all of the evidence? Do they fear that people might realize that risk benefit analysis makes far more sense than straight precautionary principle?
Nestlé India, impressively, has so far stood up against the letter campaign. They’ve responded to Greenpece:

Thanks for your letter dated 15th September, 2009 addressed to Mr. Waszyk with a copy to me, referring to your telephonic conversation with him.

At the outset, would like to mention that Mr. Waszyk has confirmed that he has not spoken to you. There seems to be some confusion.

Our response to the queries raised by you is as under.

The safety of our products and the integrity of the ingredients from which they are manufactured are paramount to Nestlé. All raw materials used by Nestlé comply with strict regulatory and safety evaluations.

Our products sold in India are non-Genetically Modified (GM. The Indian authorities do not authorize the commercial cultivation of crops used for food which are GM. The local supplies used by Nestlé are from conventional crops and it imports only raw materials which are non-GM. This is duly supported by supplier’s declarations. We follow an internal monitoring procedure for verification.

As a global food manufacturer Nestlé takes into consideration local needs, cultural differences and consumer preferences as well as attitudes concerning the use of ingredients derived from genetically modified crops. Nestlé Group recognizes the potential that gene technology has in the long term to improve the quality, availability, sustainability, and nutritional value of the food. In particular, gene technology has the potential to meet the wold population’s growing demand for food.

We expect that you would, as a responsible organization, communicate this to your team as also publish our position on your website so that the correct picture is known to interested people.

* These are the just the most recent relevant studies found on PubMed for the search terms “transgenic feeding study animal” where animal is replaced with rat, cow, chicken, and fish.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

6 comments

  1. So if I have this right, Nestle-India already doesn’t use GM food in their products because India hasn’t approved them yet (although bt cotton is a big hit), but Greenpeace is going after them to promise never to use genetically engineered food, because the Indian government may approve it at a later date?

    There are people going hungry around the world and THIS is what Greenpeace wants to focus on?

  2. That’s it, James. Greenpeace highlighted "As a global food manufacturer Nestlé takes into consideration local needs, cultural differences and consumer preferences as well as attitudes concerning the use of ingredients derived from genetically modified crops." As if simply contemplating the value of GM crops was enough to warrant a boycott.

    I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, but part of me wonders if they are trying to drive up the price of food by causing panics in places like Africa and India.

  3. Who is Greenpeace to tell people how they should think?

    Who are you to tell people how they should think? Who am I to tell people how they should think? Who is ANYONE to tell people how they should think? Let’s just all shut up, why don’t we? Who needs an exchange of ideas, right?

    I respect their free speech, and I respect viewpoints that differ from mine…

    Yes, let’s respect each other’s right to free speech, but only as long as nobody actually excercises that right!

    … but when people twist science in order to scare people, I simply have to react.

    Yes, because twisting science is teh bad!!11!1 Uncle Nestlé would NEVER do such a thing, he knows what’s best for everyone. Greenpeace, in contrast, is clearly only after one thing: profit.

  4. Yes, Syd. Twisting science is bad, no matter how lofty the cause.

    "Uncle Nestle" hasn’t said much of anything, except that they are taking the time to evaluate potential of biotech crops in their products. There is a lot of research funded by the Indian government in biotechnology, so it makes sense for Nestle to wait to see what will happen. "Auntie Greenpeace" has really blown this out of proportion. Instead of calling for boycotts and scaring consumers, they could have simply made an advocate available to Nestle to ensure that Nestle heard their viewpoints when it came time to considering whether or not to include biotech ingredients in their products.

    There is a big difference between providing information and providing disinformation. Unfortunately, in a lot of subjects, Greenpeace has moved away from simply being an advocate for the environment to something else. And, yes, it is about money, they use fear tactics to get people to donate.

    It’s not just Greenpeace, though. Consider the health care debate going on in the United States. There are a lot of valid viewpoints on if and how health care reform should be done. Everyone is welcome to share their viewpoints and contribute to the debate. However, problems arise when people start twisting facts in an attempt to sway people to their side. Sadly, there’s many more examples.

    Bottom line: Trying to scare people by lying is not acceptable, no matter what you are advocating.

  5. It doesn’t surprise me that Greenpeace would solicit letters from people around the world to compell Nestle not to use GE ingredients in a single country, India. They’re fighting for a cause – it may not be to allow people to make decisions for themselves in other countries – it is a cause that paints any advancement of a genetically engineered crop as a failure as far as they are concerned. The black-and-white terms they paint things in leads them to the conclusion that anything they can do to stop it must be done. Even lying.
    On their FAQ page they set the bar very high:
    "Greenpeace believes that GM food cannot be introduced until every stringent scientific test has established that they are 100% safe."
    Are Kiwi fruits 100% safe? Peanuts? Corn? No food is 100% safe, so this is a dishonest and inconsistent criterion.
    I’m rather interested to find out if various anti-GE organizations and individuals will put what evidence will change their minds. In creation-evolution anti-science debates, creationists are very fond of changing what criteria will disprove their ideas every time more detailed scientific evidence comes out. A prime example of this is Michael Behe, who even contradicted what he said while sworn in in court, in order to maintain his belief that he was not disproven.
    It’s not like I buy stuff from Nestle often, but I sent them a letter of support. Written myself! (So difficult, I know!)
    Re: Syd:
    "Yes, because twisting science is teh bad!!"
    Yes, it is teh bad. You seem to think that it’s all ok as long as everyone does it… but wait, you didn’t show how Nestle twists the science on this issue, so you are left with agreeing that Greenpeace is in the wrong?

  6. Hi,
    Actually that’s funny because on the french greenpeace web site they try also to "blackmail" Nestlé but they talk about China.

    I like the "scary" title: "Nestlé feeds chinese babies with gmo"… and they add in the post that it was proven in mice that gmo create allergic reactions. Of course it has never been demonstrated but they always need to lie a bit to make their news more tragic and scare people (using babies is even more efficient).

    The technics they use remind me a bit the old mafia which go to the shops or industries and ask them to pay to be protected: "you pay and you will live in peace". That exactly the same with greenpeace. If you put gmo in the food we will campain against you.
    The WWF did similar things with the labelling of wood but in that case the industries really have to pay the WWF to get the label, otherwise thay is a big campaign.

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