Inconvenient Environmentalists

by | May 28, 2012

The issue of genetically modified food crops has resurfaced. This issue has a long history, and my last attempt to compile an account of it was back in May 2009, here.

One of the things I’ve written a bit about is the differences between two parts of the environmental movement. On the one hand there are what appears to be a bunch of ‘street-level’ activists, who are involved nonetheless in large organisations like FoE and Greenpeace. And on the other are more respectable ‘establishment’ environmentalists — especially those within the government. Back in 2009, Lord May of Oxford (him again) was growing weary of street-level environmentalism, as was reported in the Guardian:

“Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May, who is a former government chief scientific adviser and president of the Royal Society. He singled out Greenpeace as an environmental campaign group that had “transmogrified” into one with primarily an anti-globalisation stance.

The same tension between scruffy and smart greens is playing out once more in the debate about GM. A new green protest group, called ‘Take the Flour Back‘ has threatened to destroy crops. This has upset many of their smarter comrades in the green movement. ‘Don’t vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry’, implored the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers.

This is one of those agonised posts. I actually like the Green Party. My dad used to be, and may still be, a member. They’re well-meaning and many of them share my taste for unkempt beards. I think I put Jenny Jones as my first choice in the London mayoral elections.

But the trouble is that they’re scientifically illiterate and have what seems to be a fear of technological process. The one big thing they’ve got right, that anthropogenic climate change is a threat to human wellbeing, they seem to have got right by accident.

Today they’ve reached a possible new low. That self-same Jenny Jones, recipient of the Chivers vote, is to appear at the “Take the Flour Back” protest at Rothamstead Research, which is intending to “decontaminate” – which is to say vandalise – an ongoing experiment into genetically modified wheat. (Thanks to Mark Lynas for the heads-up.)

Mark Lynas, of course, famously and loudly renounced his anti-GM past. It ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing’, he said. ‘It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’. But things are never as they seem. Although Lynas’s views on GM and his new-found advocacy (with Monbiot) of nuclear power, seem like progress, he hasn’t been able to meaningfully reflect on what drove his anti-GM and anti-nuclear self. As I point out here, Lynas seems to believe that he can account for his ex-views as simple scientific ignorance. But is that really all there is to the chasm between greens?

Similarly, soft-green journalist, Keith Kloor nearly asked an interesting question: ‘Is Environmentalism Anti-Science?’

Oddly enough, just like people who dismiss climate change as some sort of global scam by scientists, many anti-GMO greens have constructed a universe that suits their worldview. Many climate skeptics, for example, believe that the threat of global warming is cooked up by a UN-led cabal of scientists, whose real agenda is to impose one world fascistic or socialist government. A similar feverish perspective is held by many GMO opponents, who believe that genetic engineering is being shoved down the world’s throat by a few big corporate agricultural companies (Monsanto being the number one bogeyman). Greenpeace is especially active in developing countries, such as India and China, setting itself up as the defender of small farmers and declaring that there “is enough scientific evidence now to show that GM crops are a risk to human health.”

This is by now, a recurring theme of the climate debate: those who disagree with us have some sort of agenda or ideology which precludes their view of the science. It’s the ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you’ view of politics, which presumes that anyone with a perspective is hopelessly unable to engage with the debate. But most notably, it presupposes the sheer innocence of those wielding the argument, as though their own perspectives weren’t coloured by ‘ideology’. As Kloor unwittingly demonstrates:

You might be surprised to learn that some esteemed figures in the environmentalist pantheon–not just groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth–embrace this criteria for GMOs. Consider, for example, the highly respected David Suzuki, who, according to one survey, is the most trusted man in Canada. He has said:

Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is not harmful.

We also aren’t 100 percent certain when global warming is going to arrive with a vengeance, much less do we know the particulars of numerous climate impacts. Should we wait for 100 percent certainty before proceeding with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases? Somehow, I’m guessing Suzuki would say no. As would many other scientists.

But when it comes to GMOs, there’s an impossible-to-meet standard. Why?

I’ve been particularly interested in this question lately. In doing some catch-up reading, I came across a fascinating roundtable of views in a 2009 Seed magazine article, set up by this introduction:

Most Europeans don’t consider themselves to be anti-science or particularly technophobic. In fact, Europe’s full embrace of the scientific consensus on another environmental issue, global warming, has enabled the continent to take the clear lead on climate change, with the most ambitious emissions targets, the first carbon trading market, and the greenest urban infrastructure plans on the planet.

Europe’s scientific disconnect is more broadly true of eco-minded citizens worldwide: They laud the likes of James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri but shrink in horror at the scientist who offers up a Bt corn plant (even though numerous studies indicate that Bt crops—by dramatically curbing pesticide use—conserve biodiversity on farms and reduce chemical-related sickness among farmers).

So why the disconnect? Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering?

Kloor forgets that the precautionary principle is a tenet of environmentalism and of global environmental politics. For instance, Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Furthermore, this principle is woven into the substance of European politics, as is explained by a communication from the Comission:

The precautionary principle enables rapid response in the face of a possible danger to human, animal or plant health, or to protect the environment. In particular, where scientific data do not permit a complete evaluation of the risk, recourse to this principle may, for example, be used to stop distribution or order withdrawal from the market of products likely to be hazardous.


The precautionary principle is detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU). It aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. However, in practice, the scope of this principle is far wider and also covers consumer policy, European legislation concerning food and human, animal and plant health.

And article 191 of the Treaty explains:

Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.

Kloor should not be surprised then, that the precautionary principle is applied by Europe in the case of GM foods. The precautionary principle — not scientific consensus — in fact informs its policies on GM and on the climate issue. Kloor, in trying to identify opponents of GM with opponents of climate change policies, imagines that the scientific consensus has driven climate policy.

The fact that the Precautionary Principle informs international policy making is forgotten in many analyses. This error is owed, I believe to the fact that the consensus on climate change is a ‘consensus without an object’; the consensus allows anyone to say anything in its name, just so long as it supports a policy intended to stop it. The claim that ‘climate change is happening’ — i.e. the consensus position — is itself empty. Conversely, nobody really claims that ‘climate change is not happening’ — the position attributed to ‘climate sceptics’. It turns out, furthermore, that it’s quite hard to identify any meaningful consensus which is useful to policy-making. Sure climate change is happening, but to what degree, and what effects? When you ask the policymakers, invariably, they will mutter on about meters of sea level by the end of the century, melting glaciers, and hundreds of thousands of deaths a year, each of which is not just contestable, but entirely wrong, and not supported by the consensus. But let’s not be too hard on the politicians on this point; even Lord May gets it wrong.

Kloor, Lynas and Chivers want to eat their GM climate cake and sustain it. And they are not alone. In the Guardian, editor of the Liberal Conspiracy blog, Sunny Hundal attempts to defend the green movements’ anti-scientific view of GM by claiming that, ‘Though Greens sometimes get their science wrong, they’re better than most‘:

In this case I’ll agree with the scientists that many of the assertions made about the GM trial are false. The Greens should accept that, even if they remain opposed to GM foods more broadly.

But some of the criticism is unfair.First, the Conservatives and Ukip are far more scientifically illiterate than the Greens. They are actively trying to sabotage the debate on how to deal with climate change, and most deny it is even taking place.

Given that scientists are utterly failing to engage or lead the debate on climate change – why not spend more time dealing with that bigger problem than attacking Greens over small things? Our planet is dying thanks to global warming and some scientists think this GM outrage should be a top priority? Really?

Nobody who imagines that the scientific consensus is that ‘our planet is dying’ is in a position to criticise anyone for ‘scientific illiteracy’. Here’s another lovely prognostication from a Guardian journalist about biotech from a decade ago:

This is why biotechnology – whose promoters claim that it will feed the world – has been deployed to produce not food but feed: it allows farmers to switch from grains which keep people alive to the production of more lucrative crops for livestock. Within as little as 10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming either continues to feed the world’s animals or it continues to feed the world’s people. It cannot do both.

(H/T: James H).

Shrill cries about dying planets have been the currency of people marching with the scientific consensus on climate, and against it on GM. Whingeing about ‘scientific illiteracy’ is no good, when for decades, climate change alarmism has gone unchallenged. A ‘scientific consensus’ is not a licence to speculate wildly about the possible impacts of climate change. Yet that must be the implication of so many of the complaints about the anti-GM environmentalists from environmental commentators. They ought to be able to identify a deeper problem with environmentalism, such as with the precautionary principle, which is reproduced in international agreements and treaties. This incoherence is not owed to scientific illiteracy. It’s owed to political illiteracy.

Kloor has a post on his own blog, which begins with the words of Tim Minchin:

It goes like this: 1. You fear something. 2. You find a hypothesis to justify your fear. 3. You block stuff that doesn’t support your case.

This, says Kloor, ‘describes the process that leads anti-GMO opponents and apparently many greens to support destruction of an agricultural experiment’. He then considers the contradiction created by climate researcher, Steve Easterbrook’s stances on climate and GM. Kloor is right to explore the inconsistent arguments, but like Minchin, only finds cod explanations for them.

In the Observer, Will Hutton urges that ‘We have a duty to put our faith in science, not trample on it’, and that ‘Anti-GM campaigners would do well to remember that progress is dependent upon scientific research’.

Victorians could see that science and capitalism were engines of progress. Today, we see corporations as manipulators of science to create huge personal fortunes for a distant, antisocial elite at the top – and the public realm in which scientific advance might be discussed is dominated by media careless of objectivity.

This is a culture that generates movements such as Take Back the Flour that trust no one and it won’t change until companies are forced, or volunteer, to rejoin the society of which they are part. And until we create media that respect truth.

Hutton is nearly right. There is a cultural aversion to progress. But it has little to do with corporations and capitalism in the way he imagines. It was the ‘antisocial elite at the top’ who most embraced environmentalism, warts and all. And I include in that elite their defenders at Guardian and Observer newspapers. It was the establishment which created the idea that nature was fragile, and that corporations would plunder it with rapacious technologies. It was they, who banged on about catastrophic climate change, and the need to respond to it with powerful political institutions, including treaties which enshrined the precautionary principle. It was they who said we need to use our cars less and walk more, and to eschew the benefits of industrial society; to make do and mend, to recycle. It was them who said our desires for more would send us to hell in a handcart. It was them who changed science from something which could liberate our potential into something which contains that potential by legitimising a form of politics based on ecological risk. That was the ‘scientific consensus’, they claimed. Their lack of foresight is now manifested in the anti-GM protest movement. They have the inconvenient environmentalists they deserve.


  1. Luis Dias

    Brilliant. Nothing more to add.

  2. TDK

    Interesting comment by Will Hutton. Despite what he says there are many companies queuing up to buy into the Environmental message, not least many of the oil companies.

    I am working for a IT company that spends a great deal and money on this – it buys offsets, backs 10:10, designs products that with “reduced footprints”, marketing that highlights it’s efforts, encourages employees to support both internal and external activities to support the environment (giving time off, use of public transport), posters, communications, blah blah blah. Yet such companies are invariably accused of Greenwashing by the Guardian et al.

    One wonders how Will squares this. What exactly do companies have to do to be seen to have rejoined society? Call me a cynic but this strikes me as a deliberately impossible demand. The absence of a clearly stated objective demonstrates that anti-corporatism is far more important than all the concessions a company might make.

  3. Pat

    The problem it seems to me seems to be the “Precautionary principle” itself. If we automatically assume the worst possible outcome from an experiment, and forgo any possible benefit then we cannot advance as a society.
    Had out ancestors embraced it we would not have had fire. Certainly that would have prevented a lot of people from burning themselves, but it would have left everyone cold, without a means of cooking, without metal tools, therefor with far poorer housing- and human suffering would have been far greater.
    It seems as illogical to forgo the potential advantages from GM crops because there is a risk as to ignore the risks and go ahead without trials- the carrying out of trials seems the sensible approach.
    Similarly, the abandonment of available power sources on the off chance that their use might possibly cause warming and sea level rise as well as make inhospitably cold lands habitable is crazy- risks and benefits need to be balanced.

  4. mick

    “Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May.

    He is on the right lines, but more accurately he should have said:

    “Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s racketeers extorting vast sums of money via a quasi political movement”

  5. Robert of Ottawa

    David Suzuki … grrrr#####

    The Precautionary Principal is not a guiding principal of science, but of the anti-progressives, as you say. Had that principal been in play at the time, we would never have dropped from the trees and learnt the control of fire; we would have become extinct.

    Oh, wait, that’s what these arsehats want isn’t it? Except for their own wise, precious arses of course.

  6. intrepid_wanders

    But Ben, you missed the best NGO for such a study ;)

    Union of Concerned “Scientists”

    Impacts of Genetic Engineering


    Eight Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture
    Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture
    FAQs: Seed Contamination
    How Does Seed Contamination Occur?
    Biotechnology and the World Food Supply
    Potential Benefits of Genetic Engineering


    Report Documents Pesticide Use Increases on Genetically Engineered Crops
    Anti-Hunger Legislation Should Be Technology Neutral
    Rice Contamination a Mystery
    Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops — Recent Experiences
    Risks of Genetic Engineering
    Roundup Ready Soybeans

    Not a single article from pal-reviewed “litachur” or even a faux science magazine. The precautionary principle can not even apply to something that has no problem. Apples and 10mm bolts have more in common than cAGW and Anti-GMO ;)

  7. geoffchambers

    Whenever some abstract principle is elevated to the status of a general guide to action, (particularly with capital letters like The Precautionary Principle) you can be sure it’s being used to avoid or disguise unpopular political decisions.
    To get a better idea of it’s real status, it’s useful to consider limiting cases. It would seem unreasonable to apply it to every new medical treatment, for example, on the grounds that it might have unfortunate side effects, since this would effectively ban all medical progress. We understand that where we have to make a decision between two opposing lines of action, with serious consequences on both sides, the precautionary principle is useless. We can’t avoid making a serious decision based on risk assessment.
    On the other hand, it seems ok to use it to ban the use of a colouring agent in kids’ sweets, since on one side is the risk of side effects, and on the other nothing but the trivial pleasure of a brightly coloured sweet (and the manufacturer’s pleasure at increased sales).
    If the Precautionary Principle can only be used in cases where a serious harm is balaced against a trivial pleasure, then it is itself essentially trivial. The trick is to redefine everything you want to ban (consumerism, fossil fuel consumption, travel) as trivial pleasures.

    By a roundabout route this analysis seems to confirm a point that PeterS has often made here from a psychoanalytic perspective – that environmentalism is about the suppression or denial of desire.

  8. Alex Cull

    “They have the inconvenient environmentalists they deserve.” Fifty-year-old wild child Hector Christie probably ticks every single box, in that regard.

    Re environmentalism as the suppression of desire, I’m not so sure, as environmentalists, on the whole, appear to be passionate people. The problem is: they want their desires to override ours, every time.

    Hector Christie, for example, has a desire for organic farming and permaculture. His blue-collar neighbour in Bideford, on the other hand (not being supported by a trust fund) might desire the sort of affordable food sold by Tesco. Live and let live? Each to his own? Well, not exactly…

    The people insist on their reasonably priced supermarket food? Insolent chavs. Let them eat permaculture!

  9. SayNoToFearmongers

    “This is a culture that generates movements such as Take Back the Flour”

    Movements? We get bigger “movements” advancing on the local comprehensive school each time the bus arrives.

    Here’s a link to picture, just to clarify – of a movement in all its glory at Rothamsted Park on Sunday.

  10. Peter S

    Geoff – When it comes to desire, Environmentalists have much in common with the most slothful of couch potatoes – with both groups being impressively conscientious to the project they share. Occupying two sides of the same coin, their only difference is in approach. One preempts his desire and tries to cure himself of it by self-medicating pizza, cake and daytime TV etc… whilst the other’s stab at a cure involves policing his desire to death. Whether junk-food or junk-science is the medium, it is desire – and the unwanted knowledge of ‘loss’ it brings – which ‘must’ be got rid of.

    By ‘eating one’s cake and not having it’, we can see that two ‘its’ are gone… the cake and the desire. Rather than internalising the object, the Environmentalist believes that outlawing it will achieve the same end… the ridding of his human desiring (and all its vagaries). It’s a preoccupation as old as mankind itself – once being the exclusive domain of religion, it has now been secularised and re-legitimised as ‘science’ in our modern (and godless) world.



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