When former UK environment minister Owen Paterson addressed the climate skeptic Global Warming Policy Foundation last night, his diatribe on global warming and demands to ditch emissions targets were based on far-fetched arguments. Greenpeace would undoubtedly call this “data manipulation”. But the environmental group has a problem. In employing similar tactics in its campaign against genetically modified crops, it has undermined its own scientific credibility and its ability to shoot down Paterson.
The group’s virulent opposition to GM crops, which it claims are a “threat to human and environmental health”, are no more grounded in scientific consensus than Paterson’s assertions on climate change.
Climate sceptics are undoubtedly dodgy data dealers. They argue, for instance, that the world has cooled since 1998. They don’t point out that 1998 was an exceptionally hot El Niño year, nor do they admit the extent of atmospheric warming in the 1990s and earlier. They deny that the temperature trend remains upwards. And they ignore continued warming in the oceans.
But Greenpeace cherry-picks data in just the same way in its campaign against GM. One of the most alarming claims comes from Indian activist and Greenpeace advisor Vandana Shiva. According to Shiva, 284,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995, and that most did so in despair as a result of the debts incurred from buying genetically modified Bt cotton seeds. Shiva accuses Monsanto, the company selling the seeds, of “GM genocide”.
Prince Charles, who counts Shiva as one of his advisers, called the alleged death toll “appalling and tragic“. Greenpeace’s Indian agriculture campaignerRajesh Krishnan agrees: “To say farmer suicides have not been aggravated by GM crops would be like shutting your eyes from light.”
Well, no. The evidence suggests this is not the case at all. Ian Plewis, a social statistician at the University of Manchester, analysed Indian suicide data. In astudy earlier this year he reported that the suicide rate of Indian farmers was no higher than that of non-farmers. In fact, suicides have been in decline since 2005. That includes in Maharashtra, which Shiva has dubbed the “suicide state”. If anything, says Plewis, the evidence points to a “beneficial effect of Bt cotton” on suicide rates.
This is not rocket science. It is the kind of careful analysis that Greenpeace rightly throws back at climate sceptics who claim the world has stopped warming. But on GM, it seems, Greenpeace prefers fear and smear to science.
The group has, for example, also fought a long and highly successful globalcampaign to prevent governments adopting “golden rice”, a genetically modified variety developed in the 1990s by a non-profit body based in the Philippines. Golden rice is enriched with vitamin A, in response to dietary deficiency that blinds up to half a million children a year and kills many others.
Why oppose it? According to a Greenpeace report in 2013, “golden rice could – if widely introduced – exacerbate malnutrition and ultimately undermine food security”. How? Apart from unspecified “risks to health”, its only explanation is that the crop would “encourage” a rice diet at the expense of vitamin-rich vegetables.
Strange then that Greenpeace’s desire to encourage vegetable eating has not stopped it from spending millions of dollars in India and the Philippinesopposing locally developed genetically modified aubergines that would increase yields and cut pesticide spraying.
Would Greenpeace let climate sceptics get away with such obfuscation? No. It would be pointing to the death toll and accusing opponents of murder.
It is possible that GM crops might, under some circumstances, damage the environment by passing on rogue genes to wild relatives – although the evidence from thousands of years of conventional crop breeding suggests that it is not likely. But instead of taking a scientific approach to establishing whether such a risk exists, Greenpeace uses the uncertainty as a weapon. Why else destroy GM field trials of wheat in Australia, Bt brinjal in the Philippines and maize in Britain?
Even climate change deniers don’t go round smashing up thermometers.
Greenpeace justifies its opposition to GM by claiming it is simply upholding the “precautionary principle”. However, it does not explain why precautions against the unsubstantiated and unlikely risks posed by “Frankenfoods” should take precedence over precautions against escalating global hunger by developing GM foods.
The truth is that science is rarely the real issue in these debates. What most vocal climate sceptics actually object to is the intervention of governments and the UN in the activities of industry and consumers. In the same way, what GM sceptics really object to is the dominance of agribusiness over the global food system.
The issues need to be properly debated. But without the scaremongering and the smearing of scientists. Without these distractions, there would be space to argue, for example, that publicly funded and freely distributed GM seeds ought to be treated differently from the latest Monsanto hybrid, for instance.
But while science remains an ideological football, and advocates hide their real motives, such debates are made less likely. Meanwhile, sceptics such as Paterson will continue to exploit the mixed messages to cast yet more doubt on climate science.
-Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist