To say that genetically modified (GM) foods are controversial is an understatement. There is an entire movement that has labeled GM foods “frankenfoods” and is working hard to lobby governments to ban them and to scare consumers from eating them (and farmers from producing and retailers from selling them). Consider the case of AquaBounty Technologies that has developed a genetically improved farm salmon. By adding a gene from another fish, this salmon will reach maturity half as fast as non-GM salmon while retaining the same taste, texture, and nutritional qualities. Fox News recently reported that the FDA is about to approve this genetically modified fish, but the anti-GM food activists are busy scaring consumers and retailers about it. And they are succeeding: thousands of grocers are refusing to carry it.
The anti-GM food activists are not opposing just genetically modified salmon. They operate globally, trying to curtail human well-being and progress by attacking GM crops such as Bt cotton in India. In a recent National Post column, Bjørn Lomborg reports activists fabricating claims that the introduction of Bt cotton led to a surge of farmer suicides in India, allegedly because of the higher cost and poor crop yields of GM seeds. Research later revealed that there was no evidence to support the anti-GM food activists’ claims. The introduction of new banking practices that led to financial difficulties and social problems were shown to be a much more significant contributor to farmers’ suicides—which were not any more prevalent than suicides in other sectors in India. Moreover, studies show that the Bt cotton farmers’ crop yields increased by 25% and profits by 50%. Besides Bt cotton, the activists also oppose other GM crops, such as Golden Rice, which has the potential to offer better nutrition to millions of people in the developing world.
There is little question that the motives of the anti-GM food activists are anti-human. They do not want us to “tamper” with Nature, evading the fact that we survive and thrive by adjusting Nature to ourselves by producing the material values we need: agricultural crops, fossil fuels, housing, means of transportation, medicine, etc. The activists’ goal is a pristine environment—regardless of the negative consequences for humans (hunger, malnutrition, disease, and loss of life). The really interesting question is: why are so many people persuaded by the activists’ anti-science arguments, despite their negative implications to human well-being? I argue that the answer lies in two common flaws in people’s thinking: abandoning reason and second-handedness.
Bjørn Lomborg observed that “too often, we let emotion crowd out facts in a news story.” We read claims that eating GM foods cause cancer and other horrible diseases and have an emotional reaction: fear—and ignore the fact that not a shred of evidence is provided to support such claims. We get scared—and fail to check who is making the unsubstantiated claims (most likely an NGO with an anti-human, anti-material values agenda) or to seek scientific information from legitimate sources, such as independent research institutes and peer reviewed scientific journals. (Some people abandon reason by demanding omniscience: we should reject GM foods because our knowledge about them is not perfect. By that logic, we must reject the scientific method of experimentation—the only method open to fallible beings to acquire new knowledge). The antidote to abandoning reason is to remind ourselves, in Ayn Rand’s words: “reason is one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.”
Abandoning reason goes hand-in-hand with second-handedness: the primary orientation to other people as opposed to reality. A second-hander follows the majority opinion without thinking for himself. This is the easy way: a second-hander follows the crowd without bothering to use reason, out of intellectual laziness or out of a desire to “belong” to a group, at the cost of giving up independent thinking—on which his survival and success otherwise depends. The antidote to second-handedness is to remind ourselves that we need knowledge to achieve our goals—and that we can only deal with our own knowledge, knowledge that we grasp first-hand, thinking for ourselves.
Once we embrace reason (and science), focus on facts, and think for ourselves, we will discover that genetically modified foods are a tremendous human achievement and value. GM foods are not scary—but the willingness of so many people to be persuaded by emotional arguments and to succumb to second-handedness is. Fortunately, we can choose: reason and independent thinking over emotionalism and unthinking following of others.