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GMO reckoning: What to make of a longtime advocate going against the grain

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I’ve always been a fan of the superhero genre, especially since the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a cultural phenomenon (and have been reeling from withdrawal ever since 2019’s Endgame).

In the world of comics, you can be a straight-up hero or villain, or plan a total turnabout and switch “alignments.” Save a hapless hostage or opportunistically rob a bank. So unbecoming, whatever your former sympathies were!

The continuum is fluid, to say the least. There’s even shades of grey in-between, like rogues (villains with a hint of a conscience) and vigilantes (aka “anti-heroes” who delight in meting out their brand of unsanctioned justice).

In the realm of science communication, things aren’t altogether that different — especially with hot button issues like biotechnology (aka GMOs). In true comic book fashion, there have been some very noteworthy realignments; these have overwhelmingly trended from villain to hero. Unlike the fluidity of the comic books, there didn’t appear to be any post-realignment buyer’s remorse. This had long solidly been a one-way street.

Most notably, Bill Nye the Science Guy, after years of expressing doubts about the ecological aftereffects of biotech crops, pulled a 180 after visiting and speaking with the lab coat stiffs he had famously railed against for years. Of course, for this act of conviction, he was soundly criticized for “going to the dark side” by his former ideological associates.

Only in the bizarro, politically supercharged world of GMOs can the dark side be synonymous with holding an informed and deeply scientific view — a determination not based on existing biases (which science scoffs at) but “on an overwhelming preponderance of evidence” side.

Mark Lynas is another noteworthy defector. As a member of a radical environmentalist cell, he not only spent years denouncing the supposed transgressions of GMOs — but acted on them, gleefully tearing up experimental fields as an act of eco and corporate defiance. He was the poster child of the movement. But after evaluating the literature that he had historically so flippantly dismissed — he had a reckoning. He couldn’t in good conscience continue this baseless anti-GMO crusade. His conversion was detailed in an apologetic speech to a stunned crowd at a farmer’s conference (not to mention in a detailed book titled Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMOs. To his compatriots, what he had done was an unforgiveable sin against the sacrament of eco-idolatry.

But does the ideological current ever flow in reverse?

Apparently it can. Noted Forbes and Slate contributor, blogger, and speaker Kavin Senapathy recently went against the grain, railing against Golden Rice and its purported ties to corporatism in an essay called Why I Stopped Defending GMOs.

Yet historically, she’s been branded a “shill” for her tireless support of GMOs. Heck, she was even a co-founder of March Against Myths (About Modification) — an informed counterpoint to March Against Monsanto (aka Monsatan). I’ve followed Senapathy religiously for years on various outlets. In fact, I’ve seen her as kindred spirit on the science communication front.

First generation American, self-styled everymom, feminist, and science communicator-turned-GMO-conspiracy-theorist?

science-moms
Kavin Senapathy is the panelist on the right. (Image courtesy of Karl Withakay, via Wikipedia Commons)

Is this transgression of truth a treachery of the highest order? One worthy of excommunication from scientific circles? First, science doesn’t work that way. It’s not a body of believers, but a community of impartial evaluators; ones that assess the available facts from their respective disciplinary lenses to reach consensus. And secondly, Senapathy doesn’t even try to refute the science.

The science is totally sound. The bombshell reveal appears to focus on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic factors.

A quick review:

  • Extrinsic includes the standard (and baseless) arguments that GMOs induce human allergies, are otherwise toxic, or would irrevocably harm the environment. In other words, a sciency, quantitative risk assessment. We want hard numbers.
  • Intrinsic focuses more introspectively, especially on social issues like societal/moral acceptance (are GMOs “playing God,” do they violate cultural norms, etc.) or are there troubling social and economic entanglements associated with GMOs? A much harder to quantify, qualitative risk assessment. Think more a sociologists playground. Can’t necessarily be reduced into hard numbers.

Most activists adopt a composite of both intrinsic and extrinsic arguments to artfully generate as much outrage as possible. This isn’t the case with Senapathy’s contentions.

She states that science isn’t the only barometer we should be using to evaluate GMOs. That’s a tenable position.

Unfortunately, beyond that grounding, her ideological “coming out” reads more like a manifesto. It devolves into a rambling repudiation of the exploitative dominance of Eurocentric (male) science. All of these arguments are pegged to Golden Rice (GR), a first/second-gen GMO “neutraceutical” fortified with vitamin A.

Stuck in regulatory purgatory for years, the idea was to fortify a nutritional staple with a nutrient normally deficient in diets. Why? To aid in staving off juvenile blindness in the developing world.

In Senapathy’s view, GR is the modern day version of neo-colonialism, a patronizing “gift” that uses blind kids as GMO PR pawns. These are paternalistic first-worlders who force-feed a product down the throats of unsuspecting countries — those ill-equipped to fully evaluate the effects. Even if it’s “free” under a humanitarian license, there are strings attached, and corporations have sinister motives (a stealth indentured servitude?)! She also contends that it’s unnecessary, as great strides have been made to diversify diets and promote other interventions in the absence of GR.

Well, of course significant progress has been made in intervening years! It’s not like parallel cogs stop turning waiting for GR to play catch-up. It’s a shame that GR has unrealized promises that never came to fruition. That’s squarely the handiwork of obstructionists who stifled its regulatory advancement at every turn. If they were to concede that this was a scientifically and socially sound application of technology, that’d open the floodgates for approval of more insidious GMOs (and no hysteria for more donor bucks)!

Golden Rice Project
Image courtesy of The Golden Rice Project

Turns out, farmers in the developing world vote with the unprecedented dollars they’ve made the decision to grow GMO crops (witness cotton and eggplant). And where government bureaucracy fails them, farmers are willing to break the law to acquire (read: illegally import) them. Zero strong-arming going on.

Now that GR is available in a handful of countries, why be so dismissive? Why not leverage multiple approaches to combat vitamin A deficiency?

Additionally, a humanitarian license is no strings attached. Interestingly, the developers of GR initially violated dozens of patents to bring this to “market” in the public domain. The patent holders happily ceded their IP rights. How’s that for rampant corporatism and profiteering?

Moreover, why not (gasp!) reduce crippling regulatory burdens so countries can be empowered to pursue and tailor their own biotech research programs? Otherwise, who can afford the ridiculous approval processes in place? Corporations housed in the developing world, cementing their market dominance. What better way to remedy disproportionate power balances between countries? Is it any wonder why there’s been little to no development of public domain crops (but plenty of for-profit crops, perpetuating the industrial Monsanto stereotype)?

The foundations of Senapathy’s arguments seem to be associative in nature. She falls prey to one of her most frequently cited logical traps: the Argumentum ad Monsantum. Oh you like GMOs? [therefore] You must like Monsanto! [who has ulterior motives and a dubious history, therefore] GMOs are evil! Just replace Monsanto with generic agribusiness X. Doesn’t matter if the seeds are “open-source,” humanitarian in nature, and patently (pun intended) unrelated to Monsanto — the rep lingers.

There’s also a dissociative angle. Apparently, she also resents the fact that individuals she doesn’t politically align with generally hold pro-GMO views. Time for an ideological reboot, solely out of spite!

By seeding doubt from a first-world soapbox, she’s ironically doing a disservice — and modeling many of the overbearing scenarios of privilege she outlines — to the same at-risk populations she professes to cherish. Kavin Senapathy, hero gone rogue? It appears so. I hope there’s room for redemption.

 

Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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