SOC: Activism and the "Anti-GM" Movement
Tue, 5 Oct 1999 21:21:04 EDT

While the news regarding Monsanto's decision to not deploy the "Terminator" gene may actually be seen as a good thing by those advocating "open source genetics", I think it may mark an important and negative watershed. This item was reported on NPR and the BBC this morning in triumphalist terms, with long interviews with "environmental advocates" (including Jeremy Rifkin's lawyer preparing the "genetic antitrust" suit). One source they interviewed quoted figures to the effect that instead of the 25% increase in planting of genetically novel crops in 1999 in the US that had been projected last year, the figure is likely to be a 25% decrease, now that Gerber's baby food and leading Japanese beer makers have said they won't use any genetically modified food products in their processes.

I believe we're seeing the results of a bad miscalculation on the part of geneticists and the biotech industry. It seems that the biotech industry radically underestimated the impact that well-organized, experienced groups like Greenpeace have had and will continue to have on public opinion. Industries with a vital interest in widespread acceptance of genetic technology have apparently done essentially nothing to prepare public opinion for the real-life arrival of the technologies they've been developing. No doubt they looked to how quickly and easily the great mass of people took to computers and advanced communication and entertainment technology and simply assumed that the same attitudes would ease consumer acceptance of their products.

Organized groups opposed to rational use of genetic technology have made the complete banning of genetically modified food and the use of advanced genetic technology in human medical applications a key policy objective. So-called
"environmental" groups like Greenpeace have large, grass-roots organizations
and well-trained media contact people who know how to "work" reporters, editors and producers of newspapers, magazines and news programs. By and large, their media targets are not scientifically literate and come from an essentially anti-science background in university training in the humanities. There is no opposition to these anti-science groups that is nearly as well organized and, at least so far, nearly as articulate and effective. Losing battles over genetic engineering of food products is a major setback for disseminating the fruits of scientific progress into wide application in society, both because it will deny the benefits of that technology to the people who need it the most and also because it sets a precedent in public policy and public opinion.

The forces of enlightened scientific and technological progress MUST become more effective in communicating their message or, I believe, the luddites will succeed in significantly slowing the pace of that progress. Investors will not be willing to risk funds to support advanced biological research if they fear that laws banning the development of the fruits of that research into valuable products will be passed. This is EXACTLY the result that the organized antitechnology movement desires. I believe that the people who maintain that adoption of advanced genetic technology is inevitable are being proved wrong even as I write these words. Believing that the life-saving power of advanced biotechnology alone will be sufficient to overcome opposition is naive: Most Western democracies have already accepted the idea of government rationing of health care. Extension of that power to outlaw medical technology that is portrayed as "unnatural" is a small step and, in the case of human cloning (admittedly not medically or scientifically significant in it's own right) is a step that's already been taken in most Western countries.

It's time for individuals and groups that support humanist, progressive, pro-science and pro-technology policies to stop being defensive and reactive. It's time to be clear, open and effective in explaining that the anti-science and anti-technology movement's agenda really means that life-sustaining and life-saving innovations will inevitably be throttled by irrational fears and muddled invocations of "nature". The fact is that the so-called "anti-GM" movement is really just the beginning of putting the
"Unabomber manifesto" into action. The fact is that science and technology
have provided every development in agriculture and medicine that sustains human life on Earth today. Unfortunately the simple invocation of the word
"frankenstein" is sufficient to blind many people to this simple truth.

In a great irony, the opponents of progress are using the Internet, the quintessential product of science and technology, to organize themselves more effectively than ever and to refine and disseminate their message. It has never been easier to contact your government, to write a letter to the editor, to easily and quickly send messages to friends and family. Write to your congressman. Write to your local newspaper or television station. Write to your friends and family. Post messages to email lists outside of the scientific and technological community. Be an activist.

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
     Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                           Thomas Huxley