Flying over the midwest, the land all scored into neat sections, the squares and rectangles connected by the straight lines of farm roads, I'm confronted by the vastness and efficiency of American agriculture. The idea that this much land could be optimally cultivated without technology is immediately rendered ludicrous.
We're never going back to the oxen and plow, the scythe and the hoe — not with 7 billion human mouths to feed, plus livestock and pets. It's time to stop romanticizing about “yardens” and local agriculture, and recognize that while they're legitimate small pieces of the food puzzle, they're never going to replace what agtopians disparagingly describe as “industrial ag.”
Later, walking through the Phoenix airport, I noticed a sign on a heavy door offering “temporary sanctuary” and I thought, oh, how nice, a respite from the chaos and noise of the terminal crowds, like the meditation room at the Seattle airport. Then I realized no, it's where you run if a shooter opens fire.
And that made me think of how, before the start of the Cornell Alliance for Science “Ask Me Anything About GMOs” public Q&A session, we'd identified an escape route at the Ithaca Unitarian Church in case we had to get the five scientists off the stage in a hurry, seeing as how some crazies had issued death threats against Kevin Folta, one of the panelists.
The anti-GMO troops had already been harassing Kevin relentlessly on social media, posting his address on Craigslist and urging folks to pay him a visit at home, where his wife was alone, with their dog, listening to strangers pound on her door in the dead of night. They'd already inundated his administrative assistant with nasty, frightening phone calls, prompting his dean to disconnect the number to spare her further trauma, and flooded his in-basket with abusive emails. Some of them were sent by folks I recognized as extremists in the Hawaii anti-GMO movement.
Kevin's “crime”? Accepting $25,000 in an unrestricted grant from Monsanto for educational outreach, as revealed in emails gathered under a Freedom of Information Act from an anti-GMO group — an effort, as Kevin characterized it, to smear any scientist who speaks favorably about biotechnology.
In other words, the anti-GMO groups are bound and determined to make people STFU if they're talking sense about biotechnology, and scare off those who contemplate adding voices of reason. In the religion of anti-science/anti-GMO, facts are heresy, questions are sacrilege and those who speak up are akin to the devil.
Before the discussion, we'd all sat in a room and discussed whether the panelists should disclose every source of funding they'd ever had until I said, no, these aren't the McCarthy hearings. This is an educational forum, where public sector scientists have volunteered their time to answer questions from their fellow citizens. Guilt by broad association has no place here.
How has this topic become so insane? Why has it stirred up the same irrational emotional fervor as abortion, gun ownership? And more important, at least to me, why are we allowing the extremists to define the debate? Why aren't more good people speaking up against these terror tactics? Why aren't the voices of reason publicly condemning the politicians and activists who have created a movement based on bullying?
After witnessing the ugliness of the anti-GMO debate in Hawaii, I wasn't surprised at how the Ithaca “Ask Me Anything” event unfolded. I was expecting the misinformation campaign on social media that preceded the event, the paranoia about the format, the pontificating, the allegations that we'd deliberately sabotaged the live stream, the unwillingness to entertain another point of view, the discourtesy and outright rudeness of many audience members, the hypocrisy of those who denounced biotechnology, then munched down on the refreshments without knowing whether they were made from organic or genetically engineered ingredients.
As one scientists noted afterward, "I think it went well. At least we weren't shot."
But many of the Alliance for Science Global Fellows, some of them in the United States for the first time, were shocked, even frightened. I saw their expressions of disbelief and dismay as they witnessed the unruly crowd. I noticed several of them looking askance at people who talked over others and loudly muttered comments from their seats.
Yeah, this is what “democracy” and “free speech” can look like. Bet you guys are just itching to take it back to your countries, too.
What really caught my attention, though, was when some of the international students and Global Fellows spoke up. One student from China told of how she'd seen people starving before she left home, villagers desperate for something, anything, to eat, and asked how Westerners could quibble about labeling while her countrymen perished from lack of food. A Fellow from Africa wondered how Westerners could advocate keeping biotechnology on the shelf while the people of Africa struggled to ease poverty and hunger.
They weren't questions and perspectives that Western progressives and greenies are typically forced to face, or even consider.
But to me they underscored the reality that the anti-GMO campaign is predominantly a movement of well-fed white people who have no real understanding of the ramifications of their actions. Because if they did understand, how could they morally continue?