Flew into Reno, shocked by the sprawl. Things sure had changed since last I was there: 1979, driving out to attend college in Denver, my 1964 VW bug crawling up the Truckee pass at 35 mph, me praying all the way it would make it.
From the Reno airport I drove west, stunned by the clear-cutting, the Truckee River a mere trickle. My destination was South Lake Tahoe, where UC Davis is hosting an international conference on transgenic animal research.
I've spent the last few days immersed in talk of chimeras, clones, genetic editing, gene therapy, pluripotent stem cells, CRISPARs and other stuff that was way over my head.
That I was there at all might surprise Kauai Councilman Gary Hooser, who has been proving he flat out makes stuff up by spreading the rumor that I'm being paid to promote the agrochemical companies. Actually, I'm not getting paid to promote anything, and I'm interested in learning more about all aspects of biotech. Like many antis, Gary seems to think biotech is only and all about the multinational seed companies, when there's a whole lot more to it.
Like cows genetically engineered to produce plasma with antibodies used to make vaccines. Goats engineered to produce lysozyme, an enzyme found in human breast milk, saliva and tears that shows promise in preventing and treating the intestinal illnesses that sicken and kill tens of thousands of children in developing nations. Transgenic sterile male mosquitoes that are proving effective in controlling dengue fever. Sheep and cattle resistant to trypanosomiasis, a disease that sickens and kills livestock around the world and is particularly devastating to African farmers.
I don't pretend to understand the science, but I'm fascinated by the social and environmental implications of the technology, and most especially, the irrationalism of the rabid anti-GMO movement.
As one researcher noted: “They'll think nothing of putting a genetically engineered product directly into their veins, but they won't eat it.”
Because genetic engineering in medicine is going great guns, with no complaints or outcry, but GE agriculture is under attack.
Sitting at dinner with a group of researchers, I relayed some of what's been going on in Hawaii with the anti-GMO movement the past few years — the threats, the intimidation, the harassment, the bullying, the fear-mongering and most of all, the intense disinformation campaign led by people like Gary Hooser and his pals at the Center for Food Safety.
I recounted that I'd been an avid environmentalist — and though that hasn't changed, I've lost all faith in the “green” movement — and opposed to GMOs until I witnessed the ugliness of the anti-GMO movement, and started doing more research into biotech.
They all laughed when I said that people — folks like Felicia Cowden and Shannon Rudolph — were spreading the rumor that I must've suffered a brain injury because they otherwise couldn't fathom how I'd so dramatically shifted my views.
“You mean, they didn't understand you'd educated yourself?” asked one scientist, incredulous.
Yeah, it's a difficult concept to grasp for those who are gripped by ignorance.
Another researcher told of the poll that asked people whether food with DNA should be labeled, and 70 percent said yes. When asked if GMOs should be labeled, the figure went up to 73 percent. So only about 3% of the population is rabidly anti-GMO, but they're manipulating the ignorance of the masses because of course all food contains DNA.
It made me think of a quote I'd read in The Garden Island, in a story about the end of WWII. “It’s amazing that the Japanese — so small a little country — could occupy China,” [Marine J.Q.] Smith said. “But it was all out of fear, people would be scared to death. They controlled by fear.”
And that's what we're seeing here, with the anti-GMO activists viciously attacking scientists, journalists, farmers, policy makers and anyone else who speaks up with a different point of view. It's called intimidation, and it's fed by a concept known as the spiral of silence. People don't want to risk being socially isolated, so they often don't speak up when they believe their views are in the minority. This allows the loud-mouthed bullies, with their misinformation and nonsense, to dominate the debate.
Which is why GloFish — a fluorescent aquarium fish — is the only GE animal approved for commercial sale. Yet other applications with humanitarian, environmental and animal welfare benefits languish in the regulatory process, or wither from lack of funding because investors are put off by an arbitrary, highly politicized regulatory process fueled by misguided activism.
It's time to turn the tables. Folks need to educate themselves about this technology because it's not going away. New things are often scary — people fought artificial insemination and machine-produced ice, for example — and they can threaten the economic interests of groups. But that shouldn't stop us from talking about this technology honestly and intelligently, rather than allowing a small group to control policy through intimidation and fear.