Hypocrite environmentalists?

Reason magazine wants to know why believers in the science of global warming won't accept that genetically modified crops are safe. Easy: Follow the money.

Published April 10, 2007 5:28PM (EDT)

Ronald Bailey, the libertarian science writer for Reason magazine, is flogging a new book: "Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution." And he's doing it in the same tried and true way he always has: by attacking environmentalists.

The titles of two of his previous books give you a hint to his modus operandi. There's 1993's "ECOSCAM: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse," and 2002's "Global Warming and Other Eco Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death."

We should note: Bailey's changed his mind on global warming. He's given in to the "scientific consensus." Good for him, and good for some of the kind fellows on the environmental side of the culture wars who want to take him at his word and give him props for allowing himself to be convinced by the evidence.

But that doesn't mean Bailey's abandoning his favorite whipping boy. His current column in Reason, "A Tale of Two Scientific Consensuses," wonders why environmentalists, who are so quick to cite the scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by humans, refuse to accept a similar consensus declaring that genetically modified crops are safe.

Whatever the current consensus of any scientific issue is can change in the light of new research. Nevertheless, environmentalist ideologues accuse those who question the climate change consensus of bad faith and worse. But aren't they exhibiting a similar bad faith when they reject the broad scientific consensus on genetically modified crops?

Bailey is not completely off-base. Environmentalists are not perfect, and some are as accomplished at spinning the facts in support of their own ideology as any Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute pundit-for-hire. It is also undoubtedly true that for some environmentalists, global warming is an attractive political issue because it offers a compelling narrative for attacking free-market capitalism. Likewise, for some environmentalists, inserting genes from one species of plant or animal into another has a spiritually distasteful aspect that will lead them to seize upon any available club to pound away against the deployment of radical new genetic technologies.

But Bailey's overall thesis has some holes you could drive a container ship full of Toyota Priuses through. For example, almost all of the declarations of safety he cites include the same qualifier: the word "current." As in "Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat."

Fine. Some will disagree, but I'm happy to accept that consensus. But relying on that qualifier is really just a convenient means of skirting the real issue. The war over genetic modification is, first and foremost, a war about the future, not the present. Humanity is only now just dipping its pinkie toes in the sea of possibilities about to be unleashed by biotechnological research. In the 21st century scientists will master the basic building blocks of life. We will be able to design and remake organisms in any way we choose.

The all-important question is who controls that process? Who owns the intellectual property? Who influences the legislative policy? How rigorous is the government oversight? A strain of corn modified to kill corn borers and rootworm is small peanuts compared to what is coming down the pike, and it is absolutely critical that the corporations that stand to capitalize on the introduction of radically new products are under constant scrutiny and regulation.

This is where the false parallel of Bailey's two scientific consensuses falls apart, and where a much more legitimate common ground can be found. Which is: follow the money!

For decades, it has been abundantly clear that much of the noise coming from global warming skeptics was funded by corporations that had a material interest in preventing government action that might negatively impact their profits. Bailey was himself a journalism fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which sucked the Exxon teat like few other think tanks.

So who's got the biggest material stake in declaring that GM crops are safe, and in ensuring that government regulation of new biotech products is as limp-wristed as possible? Monsanto, Syngenta, Novartis -- huge multinational biotech firms with immense political influence all over the globe. You don't have to be an environmentalist to be skeptical of their pronouncements, or worried about their ability to warp the political process in their favor -- or to desire that decisions about the mind-boggling biotechnological advances that will occur in the 21st century are made as carefully and prudently as possible.

In his accusations of bad faith, what Bailey is really saying is that the foes of genetic modification -- whether they be organic farmers worried about crop contamination, Gaia-worshippers who feel that transgenic entities are unnatural, environmentalists wary about the ecological impact of new organisms, or critics of proprietary corporate control of the intellectual property embedded in living things -- are to be equated with those who took money from oil companies and declared that there was nothing to worry about with regard to pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Seems a bit sketchy to me.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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