THE BLOG
01/16/2014 12:33 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2014

Humanity Needs Science, Not Ideology

Tom Merton via Getty Images

Many people feared it was unsafe. Others argued that simpler, traditional methods were preferable. And still others believed the proponents were withholding information and motivated by money.

Decades of evidence proved that it worked, while the scientific consensus behind it grew rock-solid. Yet fierce opposition continued -- and continues to this day. In fact, with the advent of the new tools of the Internet and social media, opponents have enjoyed rising success.

You might well think that the subject under discussion here is genetically modified (GM) crops, which proponents like myself believe could have a hugely positive impact on global food security, but which are opposed at every turn by passionate detractors. After all, many of the same basic arguments have been mounted against GM technology now for at least 30 years, despite an international scientific consensus supporting its safety for people and the environment.

You would, however, be mistaken. The "it" referred to above is the practice of vaccination -- which, despite having saved hundreds of millions of lives, has been fought bitterly ever since its debut in the late 18th century in the fight against smallpox.

And still is fought bitterly, I need to add. As a result, measles and pertussis (whooping cough) are again on the rise in the United States. Taking vaccine opposition one step further, some American parents are now even rejecting Vitamin K injections for their newborns, even though medical science says such injections keep thousands of newborns each year from hemorrhaging -- and some from dying -- without posing any risk.

Why do the parents oppose the Vitamin K injections?

"In some cases," a certified nurse midwife was recently quoted in my local newspaper as saying, "it is a simple fear of big pharma and mistrust of government recommendations. Other parents in our practice believe strongly that babies are born with a delicate balance of hormones, bacteria, blood cells, etc., that we don't fully understand and can easily disrupt with unknown consequence," she said.

The parallel to the opposition to GM crops is striking: Just substitute "big corporations" for "big pharma" and the environment in general for the environment of a baby's body. That parallel is all the more glaring when one learns that the Internet discussion of Vitamin K injections is dominated by the opponents.

The point of this comparison is simple: Opposition to GM technology is a complicated challenge in which science is only one battleground. After all, the scientific battle over vaccines, let alone Vitamin K injections, was won long ago, yet the fight goes on. Likewise, the scientific battle over the safety of GM technology, as applied to date, has also been won. As the internationally renowned, non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) has said:

"Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe... The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques."

Despite that sweeping endorsement, it's true that every so often a paper that seems to cast doubt on the safety or efficacy of approved GM crops is published. Last year's episode involving a French study that won front-page news in that country provides only the most recent example.

But such episodes have only ended up reinforcing the scientific consensus on GM crops, because other scientists have soon roundly repudiated them. That happened with the French study, whose publisher recently took the unusual step of retracting it for faulty methodology.

At some point, proponents of GM crops would hope that the scientific community's endorsement of GM crops would win more mainstream acceptance, as vaccines have. Yet it appears that for some people -- whether the issue is vaccination, GM technology, pasteurization or climate change -- there can never be enough proof. And this may be especially true now that we have the Internet, where bad information never dies, and where millions of people -- especially the scientifically naïve -- can so easily be misled.

It's all the easier when the opposition fits into an ideology, or belief system, which many people find appealing. In the case of GM crops, somewhat like vaccinations, the belief system often appears to involve a romanticized fondness for the past -- whether that involves farming methods or birthing methods. It also involves a deep distrust of anything deemed "unnatural," although opponents often apply that term in capricious and unscientific ways to suit their own purposes. (Little to none of the food on your plate, for example, grows in the wild; it is the product of sometimes thousands of years of human intervention through breeding.)

In some cases, the belief system also involves a fear and distrust of science itself (captured in the term "Frankenfood"), or of large institutions like governments (what's the FDA know, anyway?) or big, for-profit corporations (all they care about is money, right? -- especially the American ones).

This deeper belief system seems to lead some people into GM technology-opposition even when that position forces them into bald contradictions. Many of those who reject the AAAS's word on GM crops, for example, are in the same camp that applauds its views on climate change. (The AAAS says climate change is real, a growing threat, and caused by human activity.) Why? Because climate change involves a different narrative.

The consequences can also be contradictory. By thwarting the application of GM technology, GM opponents are abetting climate change, because agriculture's biggest contribution to greenhouse gases is through the conversion of more land to farming. GM crops save land from cultivation because they produce higher yields per acre.

Likewise, by securing unnecessarily high and cumbersome regulatory barriers, the opponents inflate the cost of entering this market. That leads to exactly the situation they deplore -- only deep-pocketed companies can afford to get in.

And most significantly, their influence -- especially in Europe, to which African governments often look for direction -- ends up denying food and income to people who desperately need both and for whom access to GM seeds and GM food can literally be the difference between life and death. This is "let them eat cake" on a continental scale.

H. G. Wells famously said that "civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe."

The global population is set to increase by more than 2 billion over the next 35 years. Some 800 million people are already suffering from malnutrition and the climate is getting more problematic for agriculture. Meanwhile, more and more people think it's cool not to get vaccinated or let their babies go without Vitamin K shots.

We've got a lot of work to do.