In the United States, the public panic about the dangers of genetically modified foods is fading fast. This is an amazing—and rare—triumph of reason and science over public hysteria and political posturing.
On Monday, for example, the New York Times published an article by Knuvul Sheikh detailing recent advances in genetically modified crops without offering a single word about potential health dangers or environmental concerns. In fact, it seems there’s a rebranding effort on the left to hype GMO foods as a vital response to climate change.
After describing the benefits of growing plants under artificial light conditions, Sheikh writes: “Researchers have also adopted new genetic techniques to optimize flowering times and make plants more resistant to the rigors of a warming planet.” What types of techniques? None other than Crispr-style gene editing: “Unlike older crossbreeding and crop modification techniques, newer tools like Crispr allow scientists to snip out portions of the plant’s own DNA that may make it vulnerable to disease. [Plant geneticist] Dr. [Lee] Hickey and his team are working on adding Crispr machinery directly into barley and sorghum saplings, in order to modify the plants’ genes while simultaneously speed breeding them.”
Scientists are going full Frankenplant and the New York Times thinks it’s just great: “With cheaper, more powerful technology, opportunities are opening up to improve crops around the world.”
At least in recent years, the Times hasn’t been overly concerned with the supposed dangers of consuming genetically modified foods. But it has been skeptical of the benefits that such technology could yield. In 2016, Danny Hakim wrote that “genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.” (Never mind that, by this point, GMO foods had saved millions of lives worldwide.) And this was only one report in the Times’s “Uncertain Harvest” article series, which examined “the globe-spanning relationship of chemical companies, academics and regulators, and the powerful toxins and genetically modified seeds used to grow food in many parts of the world.”
Apparently, the Times isn’t so uncertain anymore. Monday’s article supports a headline that reads like a promotional pitch: “Grow Faster, Grow Stronger: Speed-Breeding Crops to Feed the Future.” It’s hard to believe now, but not that long ago, the term Monsanto would pop up in apocalyptic headlines daily.
What happened? First, the gap between frightening claims and any evidence to support them became too great to sustain. Virtually all the reputable literature on GMOs has found no indication of increased health or environmental risks from genetically modified foods. The science is conclusive. Second, it helps to have the right people supporting a cause. Bill and Melinda Gates, above all others, have poured hundreds of millions into GMO research and promotion, seeing accurately the good that it does and the promise it still holds.
For those of us who believe that warnings of a ruinous climate crisis are at least overblown, the fading of the American anti-GMO movement is somewhat heartening. GMO hysteria and climate alarmism are similar in a number of ways. They’re issues that allow activists to broadcast their virtue and pose as saviors of the planet. They both fit nicely into an anti-American, anti-capitalist framework. And they’re both fueled by emotion instead of reason.
Climate data is, alas, a bit murkier than reproducible experimental data on genetically modified crops. And there are no broadly esteemed public figures ready to come forth and champion a sober assessment of global-warming claims. But all public panics die out at some point.