I have something to say to the larger skeptics community, but especially to food-world skeptics. In part, I need to issue an apology for my role in shaping a specific movement— the pro-GMO movement— and for the mistakes I made in leading that movement.
But first, how did I end up a vocal writer and activist? It all started in January of 2011, when I was 29 years old. That January, my daughter was born, and holding the crushing weight of that 6 pound, 9 ounce life in my hands triggered a tidal wave of pathological fear— the fear that any new parent experiences but magnified a hundredfold. I would later learn that this was the onset of postpartum OCD (which I recently described in a piece for SELF Magazine). I was constantly terrified, 24 hours a day, of harm coming to my baby.
To dampen the explicit and horrific scene playing out in my mind’s eye of my baby girl dying of SIDS, I would tiptoe to her crib at all hours of the night, when I should have been sleeping, to place my hand on her body and count her breaths, and gaze at the rise and fall of her tiny chest by the light of the moon. I had to count five breaths and if I wasn’t sure that I counted them just right, I took my hand off of her chest, and did it again. And again. Ad nauseam.
To dampen the vivid image of my family dying in a fire, I would tiptoe to the stove at all hours of the night, when I should have been asleep, touching the stove knobs in multiples of five and staring at them to “make sure” the stove was off. When you’re in the grips of OCD, you know that you’re personally responsible for preventing these almost prophetic visions from coming true— even though you know in the rational part of your mind that what you’re doing is ridiculous and not at all rational.
Before I was diagnosed with OCD, in those few crucial first months of motherhood, the information came at me in all directions, the way it comes at all parents. My family, friends, and the internet were all telling me that everything was full of toxins— from the products in my home, to the food in our pantry, to the clothes on my baby’s back.
The parenting fear machine
In retrospect, I see that there were two possible outcomes, at least on a macro level. I could either a) fall headfirst down the path I was starting on, and fall perhaps irrevocably into a rabbit hole of woo. Combine that with OCD, and it could have been bad. But instead, I found the skeptics movement (and I found Zoloft), and it led me to option b.
I clearly remember opening the copy of “The Baby Book” by Dr. Sears, which I’d received as a gift. I couldn’t have known that Dr. William Sears, known as the “father of attachment parenting,” was also a proponent of a lot of unsubstantiated fear based parenting ideas. Now, a disclaimer— I don’t think all tenets of attachment parenting are bad. For example, I think it’s great if you want to breastfeed your baby. I also think it’s great if you want to combo feed or formula feed your baby. I think it’s great if you want to WEAR your baby. But the implied and sometimes explicit message from internet forums associated with attachment parenting and its tenets went something like this: If you don’t exclusively breastfeed your baby for at least 6 months then you are risking damaging her for life. I later found out that wasn’t true. The internet told me that if you let your baby cry for even a few minutes at a time, you risk damaging her psychologically for life. I later found out that this isn’t true. I was told (even before I had my baby) that if you have an epidural to help manage the pain of childbirth, you may end up messing up your breastfeeding relationship with your baby. Also not true, and may I add, really sexist.
The alarming claims seemed endless. And I was tired and terrified. Just thinking about harm coming to my baby could send me into a cycle of knocking on wood, checking and re-checking stove knobs and door locks, and ruminating on every single possible outcome of every choice I made.
I turned to Google and, fortunately, I came across the first skeptics blog I started reading — Dr. Amy Tuteur’s “Skeptical OB.” Soon, I was devouring more and more skeptic content, which I did in my free time for almost three years before I started writing for a then new skeptics blog called Grounded Parents; a sister site to Skepchick. I realized then that I had an opportunity to help other parents feeling overwhelmed by the predatory and harmful parenting misinformation that seems to drive a prevailing parenting culture of chaotic and nebulous fear. We’re told that good parents have to do our own research on practically EVERYTHING when it comes to our kids— a virtual full time job. I wanted to do my part to help make new moms not feel so guilty about the decisions that don’t really matter long term, and empower them to tackle what does matter.
The “GMO” lightning rod
Another long story short, my work found an audience, and then more audiences, and it was clear that I was resonating with people. Nowadays, my writing appears at a number of different blogs and news outlets, where I cover food, health, science, and parenting. I speak to audiences including skeptics and freethinkers groups, industry events, and universities about communication, and why people believe disinformation. But back when I first started blogging in 2013, one of the most fraught issues making waves in the parenting and food world was GMOs, as is evidenced by Google Trends data showing an uptick in searches for “GMO.”
(Disclaimer: I’m not here to discuss the safety or equivalence of genetic engineering as a crop breeding method as compared to other crop breeding methods. I am speaking from the assumption that genetic engineering is as safe as any other breeding method, because the vast body of evidence shows that it is. I’m talking about how the conversation ABOUT GMOs has gone astray, and the larger impact on the skeptics movement. End disclaimer.)
As a new parent, I’d started hearing rumblings about GMOs. GMOs were the weapon that big agri-corporations used to control us and keep us sick. GMOs “may be” responsible for purported rises in rates of autism, cancer, allergies, and more. The story went that GMOs were causing the rate of pesticide use to skyrocket. I learned it was better to stay on the safe side and buy organic, since the USDA organic program didn’t allow organic farmers to grow GMOs.
Well, as I learned, GMOs — or at least what people perceive GMOs to be— were being unfairly demonized. And I learned that there are companies, individuals, organizations, and industries with financial and/or ideological motivations to systematically mislead the public and demonize GMOs. And the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, and that’s exactly what I did. I wrote blog post and article after article on how GMOs aren’t the cause of the myriad problems attributed to them. I tweeted about it regularly. I explained in every single way possible that if you’re against genetic engineering as the culprit of the aforementioned ills, then you have been systematically misinformed by those with a vested interest in doing so. Among the many verifiable facts that my allies and I often shared:
- All crops, including those sold as organic and non-GMO, have had their genomes manipulated by humans using methods ranging from traditional cross breeding to exposure to mutagenic chemicals and radiation. So, in essence, even stuff labeled non-GMO has been genetically altered past recognition from its indigenous ancestor.
- GMOs aren’t the only patented crops. Practically every commercialized grain, fruit, vegetable, and type of livestock has a patent on it, including items that can be grown and sold as organic and non-GMO.
- So-called sustainable farming practices are not exclusive to organic farms.
- The revenue of Whole Foods, even before it was acquired by Amazon, and at the time a leading corporate opponent of genetic engineering, rivaled Monsanto’s revenue.
- That genetic engineering saved the Hawaiian papaya and is resurrecting the American chestnut tree from the brink of Extinction.
- That genetic engineering can help save the diseased crops of subsistence farmers in the developing world, like the starchy banana, known as Matooke in Uganda, being wiped out by banana wilt.
- That GMOs haven’t caused one illness ever.
“2, 4, 6, 8, biotech is really great!”
I even co-founded a science activist organization — shoutout to March Against Myths and my co-founders David Sutherland and Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel — to counter what we call “pseudoscience injustice.” Our first campaign, which lasted 3 years, was called March Against Myths About Modification. You may have seen us in action if you happened to watch the Food Evolution documentary. The first ongoing March Against Myths campaign grew out of the impetus to put an end to the pseudoscience injustice perpetrated by one specific and wide-reaching organization — March Against Monsanto (MAM). And boy is March Against Monsanto not actually a march against the agrichemical corporation Monsanto (which is now Bayer). It turns out that MAM is not only anti-Monsanto, but anti-vaccine, and anti-agricultural genetic engineering. MAM regularly promotes all manner of harmful drivel including cancer conspiracy theories, ableist conspiracy theories about autism, the notion that mental illness can simply be meditated away or treated naturally, and a lot more egregious falsehoods.
In May 2015, the first year of our counter protest, our allies around the country and the world literally marched against the March against Monsanto. We yelled chants like “2 4 6 8, biotech is really great,” and “what do we want? Safe technology. When do we want it? We already have it!”
By the third year of our counter protest, there were barely any March against Monsanto folks to counter-protest. We had confirmed reports from multiple locations that nobody showed up to march where their ranks were strong just a handful of years ago. I don’t want to make causation out of correlation, but we do take some hard earned credit for MAM’s dwindling numbers in the streets. The pro-GMO allies who came out year after year to counter-protest, and day after day to correct anti-GMO myths on Facebook, Twitter, and comments sections— they were and are fighting a good fight, and I salute them.
Armed with facts against non-GMO nonsense
Like I said, I also wrote and still write lots of blogs and articles about GMOs. I wrote about how the Non-GMO Project is ruining my shopping experience. I wrote about how the anti-GMO movement has a social justice problem. I wrote about how the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are inextricably linked and cause preventable suffering. And soon, I began covering the growing pro-GMO pushback. When Triscuit adopted the non-GMO project label, people objected, and loudly declared that they would no longer buy their favorite woven wheat crackers. I covered the backlash when Hunt’s tomato began using “no GMOs” in its marketing claims. People were showing up on social media to lambast Hunts for misleading consumers because a) there are no GMO tomatoes on the market anyway and b) non-GMO claims help perpetuate anti-GMO sentiment, which fuels policy that can keep beneficial GE traits from reaching the farmers and people who need them. I gave presentations on “GMO” and how it intersects with parenting, food, health, social justice and more from Florida to the UK and lots of places in between. I joined with other #Moms4GMOs to call on celebrity moms to judge GMO food with facts instead of misinformation.
As you might have gathered, I took, and still take, a lot of issue with Non-GMO Project and non-GMO labels. I specifically took issue with the companies with non-GMO labels on their products, and their demonstrably systematic false advertising suggesting that non-GMO means everything from better treatment for farm workers to better for the environment and for health, because none of those claims are true. A non GMO label doesn’t tell you anything about the conditions of farm or factory workers that made the product, or the pesticides used, environmental impact, which corporations were involved along the supply chain, whether there are patents on the crop involved, healthfulness, or anything else. All it tells you is that the whole food or the ingredients in a product were not derived from crops created with modern molecular genetic engineering. So this vast misdirection about what GMO means and doesn’t mean is egregious, especially coming from organizations like the Non-GMO Project, whose labels appear on tens of billions of dollars worth of products a year.
Without question, a lot of my work on this issue made quite an impact. I had clearly emerged as a leader in this seemingly cohesive pro-GMO movement. Soon, as I started shouting from the rooftops about how I was avoiding any products with non-GMO labels, more and more self-described “skeptics” and “rationalists” started following suit.
Nowadays, I often see people on the internet denouncing companies for adopting the non-GMO label, and that’s a good thing because industry shouldn’t cave to obvious and harmful misinformation. After years of pushing for it, it’s almost surreal for my colleagues and I to see so many people speaking out about why genetic engineering is one important tool in the toolbox of agricultural techniques that together, aim to feed the world’s growing population while preserving our planet.
Genetic engineering is safe and beneficial, but…
…Something feels wrong about this stronger than ever Pro GMO opposition to anti-gmo, and this is where my apology comes in. As much as I stand behind the factual accuracy of everything that I have written and said about genetic engineering, I need to apologize for the role that I played in turning the pro-GMO movement into what it is today, which is stronger than ever but has overstepped its bounds.
Don’t get me wrong. I still firmly believe that genetic engineering is a crucial tool to help nourish our growing population in a sustainable way. But here’s what’s so interesting about GMO; what gives GMO so much power: ‘GMO’ represents a lot more than just genetic engineering. It’s a social construct. Like any social construct, what “GMO” means to people can vary from person to person. And it’s precisely for this reason that the polarization around GMO has done us no favors. Seriously, if you want to see all of the nuance and critical thinking get sucked out of a room, just say GMO. Nuance gone. On all sides. GMO is positioned, both by design and happenstance, as a spoke around which conversations about the food system spins. And because food is one of the foundations of life itself, it is powerful.
GMO raises a vast array of justified socio-economic anxieties — including very real anxieties about our environment and the future of our planet, workers rights, disease rates, corporate control of the food and political systems, and the systemic inequality propping up our society, from systemic racism, sexism, and the yet unhealed gaping wounds of the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction around the world.
Because GMO represents so much more than just genetic engineering, and because it can represent so much to different people, the polarization of arguing “against” GMOs and arguing “for” GMOs is really, on several levels, a conversation about any and all of those things.
In the last few years, much of the polarization around GMO has centered around labeling— and now it’s law — the USDA has mandated that all genetically engineered foods or ingredients must be labeled by the end of this year, but what that label will look like still isn’t settled. Currently, the proposed icons feature the letters “B-E” which stands for “bioengineered,” some with a curved line below the letters resembling a smiley face. This mandatory labeling decision has driven the pro-GMO camp into a frenzy. They say that these labels stigmatize a useful agricultural technique that can help farmers and people all over the world. The mandatory labeling decision has also driven the anti-GMO camp into a similar frenzy. They argue that labels should explicitly carry the term “GMO” or GE, and should not at all evoke happy or positive connotations. So now we’ve come to the culmination of a battle of sort. But what have we solved? Think about it— what are we solving with this fight? Nothing. Because all of the socio-economic issues that GMO raises are systemic, and labels are, by their nature, superficial.
We skeptics and science enthusiasts pride ourselves on knowing how to separate truth from fiction and to read and understand a scientific paper. I encourage you to let go of that urge for a moment. Yes, it is important as consumers to be educated about food labels and their consequences. But while this battle has raged, with ranks on both sides, we’ve forgotten that different values drove us.
Cracks in a movement reveal where our values diverge
And now, post Trump era, those diverging values have manifested in a divide in the “pro-GMO” movement that previously seemed like a united front. Some have condemned and denigrated this divide as “infighting.” But it’s not infighting. There never were pro-GMO and anti-GMO sides. There were just people. People with values. And the woman who marched in my ranks against March Against Monsanto 3 years ago— at that time, our shared values, in that case, the need to follow science when it comes to food policy, were strong enough to unite us. But this is the same woman (a Trump voter by the way) who now fiercely rejects the notion that acknowledging racism, and sexism, and other structural inequality should drive the way we talk about and shape our food system. To her and others like her, the unity of the pro-GMO movement is more important, aligns more with her values, than people like me “breaking the pro-GMO ranks” to have conversations with so-called anti-GMO enemies on how to achieve the shared goal of justice in the food system based in the shared value of equity and justice for all. Now that our values are becoming more and more apparent in the current political climate, the calls for unity in the pro-GMO movement are counterproductive and detrimental. There will not be unity, nay there SHOULD NOT be unity.
So what does this mean, for Freethought Day and its theme— “discover reason”? As skeptics, as freethinkers, as people who value what we call “reason,” I urge you to remember that no issue that we’re passionate about, be it GMOs, vaccines, or atheism, should require us to walk in lockstep, especially around issues of scientific significance. Remember that, while the scientific method may be the way we interact with the world, the scientific method is wielded by people, what drives those people are values, and that the people with the power to wield science on a broad scale control that conversation.
Note: This post is adapted from a talk I gave in front of the capitol building in Sacramento at California Freethought Day 2018. Video of the speech is available here.