The Sciences

The Key Difference Between Two Growing Protest Movements

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 3, 2013 10:37 PM

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When protests against the Keystone XL pipeline were heating up several years ago, some highly respected environmentally-friendly commentators scoffed (ever so politely). Opposition to the pipeline was "shortsighted" and counterproductive, Michael Levi wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. The singular focus on Keystone was misplaced, Jon Foley has argued. Climate change-concerned greens disagree. "Keystone is an organizing opportunity; chance to build movement," Grist's Chip Giller tweeted earlier this year. When Foley countered that the pipeline was mostly a symbol, Giller shot back:

Symbols matter. We need our Montgomery Bus. You are understating the importance of such things.

I wouldn't go so far as to compare Keystone opposition to the Civil Rights movement, but I have said that "the galvanizing symbolism of the pipeline cannot be easily dismissed." As I wrote in this post:

Keystone may not be the best front for the larger battle over how to decarbonize our energy economy, but it is a potent proxy that is now mobilizing people to join that larger battle.

And that is a worthy battle, I believe. Reasonable people can disagree on how to fight it, but reducing the world's dependence on fossil fuels seems a no-brainer to me. If my two boys (ages 6 & 8) were in high school or college and wanted to join hands with Keystone protesters, I would not be displeased. I'd talk to them about the complexity of the climate challenge, but I would not try to minimize or downplay their concerns about climate change, because there is a well established body of science that legitimizes those concerns. In contrast, I have a much different perspective on the growing opposition to genetically modified foods in the United States. Unlike the climate movement, which springs from a scientifically-based concern, the anti-GMO movement is propelled by pseudoscience and outright fear-mongering. Its proxy battle is the GMO labeling cause. Anti-GMO campaigners in favor of labeling may say it's all about transparency (the "right to know"), but the underlying basis is also transparent, as I wrote in Slate last year:

The pro-labeling camp wants people to believe that eating “frankenfood” is dangerous to their health. This is simply false. Years of rigorous studies of GM foods have not demonstrated any harmful effects associated with consuming GM crops.

So if my kids had wanted to join the march against Monsanto last month, I would have been displeased, because that protest sprang from fear of a technology that that has no scientific basis. As my Discover blogging colleague Christy Wilcox recently wrote:

The simple fact is our fear of GM technology is based entirely on emotion. There is no science to support it. When it comes to GMOs, the anti crowd are not ‘raising concerns’—they’re denying scientific consensus.

This is the essential fact to keep in mind with people agitating against GMOs. Why do they really want to label genetically modified foods? Well, think about the labels prominently emblazoned across some foods and drinks. For example, Paul Newman's lemonade shouts out "All Natural" and "No High Fructose Corn syrup" for a reason. The little gourmet grocery in my neighborhood has a new sign outside its store that reads, "We Are Now GMO-Free!" Why do you suppose that is? I know that the store owner doesn't believe there is any health risk associated with food products containing GMOs. But his customers do, so he has to cater to those fears. On July 4, the GMO panic will manifest itself under a phony guise--Moms & Apple pie:

The citizen action group “Moms Across America” are galvanizing people to an unprecedented effort to raise public awareness of the need to label GM food. They are calling it "Patriotism on a Plate" and are seeking to make this Independence Day “a true celebration of TRUTH in labelling, JUSTICE for future generations and LIBERTY for ALL to know what is in their food.”

What Moms Across America should do is liberate themselves from a fear that is not scientifically supported.

[Image/Label it Yourself campaign]

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