The business of spreading mistruths about GMOs

This essay was submitted to the European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation as a contribution to the 11th International Vernon Smith Prize 2018.


Spreading mistruths about the scientific background of GMO foods is not only done from a purely ideological basis, but can also have an organisational or even financial advantages for those engaging in it. Understanding the structure and purpose of those NGOs who advocate against GMOs helps getting an idea on who is likely to both suffer and/or benefit from the battle against them. In order to achieve this goal, this essay intends to focus on both the organisations engaging in public discourse on the question of GMOs – by taking a wider view on the tactics and influence they have – and by displaying a set of consequences presented by wide-spread bans on the practice of genetic engineering.

In September this year, the Austrian research portal “Addendum” released a bombshell video regarding the facts, figures, and positions regarding GMO foods. In this report that attempted to explain the reality of both the technology, economic implications and public discourse, the site sat down with both current and former Greenpeace activists, leading them to reveal the awful reality of anti-science activism.

Whoever was under the illusion that organizations the likes of Greenpeace are actual environmentalists who pursue the improvement of human health and biodiversity, will suffer a severe shock from the exchange included in the Addendum video. Sebastian Theissing-Matei, spokesperson for Greenpeace in Austria gave these answers:

“Interviewer: In organic shops, I can buy that were produced with radiation of chemicals (sic). Does it make sense to allow one thing, while demonizing the other [GMO foods]?

Theissing-Matei: This is indeed a certain unsharpness which is born historically –  we have to be honest about it.

Interviewer: Shouldn’t Greenpeace also fight against certain types of apples that are being sold in organic shops and that were produced through radiation?

Theissing-Matei: As said, these are types that historically have existed for much longer. There is an unsharpness in the law, no doubt. We always concentrate on the things that are currently political debates.

Interviewer: Should the arguments of Greenpeace not be based on reality, meaning the danger or non-danger and possible utility [of technological progress], and not only on based on what is being discussed in the media?

Theissing-Matei: We are a political organization. Of course we try to act in the best interest of the environment, but momentarily the political debate is whether or not new methods for genetic modification should be placed under current legislation of genetic modification.”

Greenpeace has more or less consistently refused to accept grants from governments (including the European Union), which does not endanger any of their funding by that token. It would have to be pointed out that the billion-dollar NGO has, in Europe in particular, benefited from financial support from green political parties, which themselves are entirely government-funded.

As for the political debate that the Austrian Greenpeace spokesperson addresses, it is interesting hearing such a thing from this particular organization. As far back as 1996, Greenpeace was seen protesting the arrival or a transport ship in the harbour of Hamburg, Germany, containing “the first set of genetically modified soybeans in Germany”. The protest had shown its effects: The then German minister for research demanded that producers label all of their foods if they have been genetically modified. So people talk about an issue that Greenpeace raised, and now this is the only topic it can address. Greenpeace is, in a beautiful fashion, fulfilling its own prophecies.

By any means, it is one thing to oppose genetically modified food in 1996 than it is more than 20 years later. The recent Nature-published meta-analysis on genetically engineered maize on agronomic, environmental and toxicological traits shows clearly that insect that do not feed off of maize are not affected, and that genetically modified maize shows considerably lower concentrations of cancer-causing mycotoxins. But for Greenpeace, it’s not the scientific evidence that counts, but the fear it can spread as an effective business model. This is confirmed in the same Austrian report, by former Greenpeace activist Ludger Wess, who is now a science writer who was one of the first journalists in Europe to cover the emerging biotechnology and high-tech industries:

“Greenpeace was actually open-minded towards the idea of genetically modified foods. They said: “If it’s true that plants become resistant to insects, then that’s great because we’ll use less insecticides. So we’re for it.”

After getting back from a science-conference on genetically modified maize in 1989, Wess returned to Greenpeace:

“I came back, armed with a whole suitcase of papers, and after having a lot of conversations with scientists, and they were all able to defuse my worries. I wasn’t convinced anymore that it would be a danger to human health. I told them [Greenpeace]: we cannot continue to claim that genetically modified foods are bad for human health, it’s simply not true. I was told that Greenpeace would still continue to make that claim, because only if people are in fear over their health or the health of their children, they’ll open their wallets for donations. Everything else, they said, isn’t suitable for campaigns.”

Greenpeace has a history of being more interested in publicity than actual constructive debate and informed discussions. Be it violently blocking petrol stations in Luxembourg, aggressively disrupting the work of an oil rig, or even painting a massive roundabout in Berlin yellow, with water-polluting paint, and causing car damages and thousands of euros of cleaning costs: Greenpeace is not interested in public debate or solutions, but in complete disregard of human decency for political purposes.

The coalition of organizations urging sharp restrictions or bans on GMOs: Corporate Europe Observatory, Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network, Health and Environment Alliance,, Foodwatch,  Nature&Progrès Belgique (French for “Nature & Progress Belgium”), Global 2000, Safe Food Advocacy Group, campact!, Avaaz, GM Watch, Friends of the Earth, Umweltinstitut München.

The list of the individual EU member states is considerably longer, and would likely exhaust the capacity of a post on this website. While appearing to be a vast range of different organizations acting independently, they are actually linked together closely in their campaigns in various ways, organizationally and financially.

Global 2000 is an Austrian environmentalist organization which cooperated with eight organizations that were previously mentioned in a joint report in 2017 accusing industry groups of “buying science”. In fact, these NGOs routinely cooperate with each other, attend each other’s events and benefit from the same donations. Corporate Europe Observatory and Friends of the Earth not only profit from donations from the same foundation (the Isvara Foundation, run by agro-business millionaire Ayman Jallad), but share the same office address in the EU’s capital in Brussels.

This exact address (Rue d’Edimbourg 26, 1050 Brussels) is also shared with Counter Balance, an activist group that challenges public investment banks, and which has Friends of the Earth as one of its members. Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), one of the NGOs that campaigns against GMOs, has three accredited lobbyists to the European Parliament, yet only spends €10,000 year ($12,300)–which raises serious questions about its workings.

GM Watch (an anti-GMO activist group in the UK), also in the list of contributors to anti-GMO campaigns and also funded by the same Isvara Foundation, simultaneously receives contributions from Friends of the Earth. The Isvara Foundation itself is, according to Politico Europe, incorporated in Liechtenstein and managed by the Swiss bank UBS in Zurich, and only one of the five donors to Isvara is even known to the public. This lack of transparency and hidden relationships, financial and otherwise, is the hallmark of the anti-glyphosate movement–ironic in the light of its attacks on Big Ag.

Most of these environmentalist NGOs all have different public faces but are interconnected, with common reports, events, membership and general funding. This provides the illusion of a ‘mass uprising of outrage’ by disparate groups but is actually an ideological collective that shares resources and has the same agenda. Many of these groups also receive grants from the European Union itself.

The aforementioned NGOs have over 30 accredited lobbyists in the European Parliament, which means that if all of them talked to only one parliamentarian a day, they’d cover the entire body within four weeks. That’s 751 elected officials, and doesn’t even account for their countless meetings with members of the European Commission, which is the body that proposes legislation in the EU.

In order to include civil society on important issues, the EU also regularly launches so-called consultations, in which it tries to get feedback from civil society. On free-trade deals, which were also opposed by these organizations (because GMO foods might be imported, amongst other things), NGOs have hijacked the process in their favour.

In 2016, the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) published a 147-page report regarding the rise of anti-TTIP (the trade negotiation between the European Union and the United States) advocacy groups, in which it writes this about the consultation process for TTIP:

“During the ISDS consultation, 97 percent of all replies were submitted by a small number of campaign groups. These responses were often identical or at least very similar to one another. Prior to the consultation, a few anti-TTIP civil society organisations had set up easy-to-use online tools to facilitate participation in the consultation proceedings.”

The voices of activists, and the organic and green lobbies that financially support them, appears well represented. Just as a reference, Greenpeace operates on a budget exceeding €200 million. The key missing voices however are: farmers, and consumers who are forced to pay higher prices for food, and the consumers in developing countries hurt by the lack of innovation.

Take the example of golden rice.

As one of the creators of this rice variety, Ingo Potrikus, explains, the problem in developing countries is not only a lack of nutrition but also malnutrition. It was this scourge that he wanted to tackle, particularly vitamin A deficiency, by creating a genetically modified organism to prevent this deficiency. He therefore created a variety of rice enriched with beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

The stakes are high. Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to blind nearly 500,000 children and cause between 1 and 2 million deaths each year.

As it is a genetically modified organism (GMO), it has raised controversy. Golden rice has been genetically improved: invented in the early 1990s, it is still not available for human consumption, although it was developed for humanitarian purposes. Since its conception, golden rice has been subjected to the wrath of anti-GMO activists who question its usefulness and are calling for more and more tests and studies to prove its safety. The release of this rice is still not on the horizon – although its inventor, now 80 years old, still hopes to see its production before his death. Science by definition can never prove the total absence of risk, and to ask any scientist to do so is simply to sign a stop to scientific progress in itself. The only thing scientists can do is to gather evidence that technology allows for better or simply less harmful procedures.

With regard to genetically improved organisms, it is obviously necessary to study each case by case while keeping figures in mind. Many expert opinions indicate that GMOs do not pose a risk to the environment or to consumers who have been eating them for more than 20 years. Between 1996 and 2012, biotech surfaces were multiplied by 100, based on the observation that new varieties have been tested more thoroughly than those developed by older methods.

And yet, many of them are subject to moratoria, bans and requests for tests. In the case of golden rice, Ingor Protikus had to prove the effectiveness of rice, which he recently succeeded in doing by showing that a daily portion of rice could cover 60% of daily vitamin A requirements. In fact, anti-GMO activists are causing increasing regulatory costs and delays, estimated at $136 million between 2008 and 2012, including 35 million to meet the regulatory constraints on each new genetically improved variety.

Allowing golden rice is helping to save lives. We have the right, as individuals, to be for or against GMOs and not to wish to consume them. On the other hand, prohibiting others from using genetically improved organisms is the definition of an abuse of power. Scientific literature is held against the importance of gathering donations for NGOs wishing to outlaw it. As Ludger Wess explained in his anecdote regarding Greenpeace: facts are not convenient to collect donations. However, playing the fear game is a much more enticing method of gather campaign budgets in the millions.

NGOs are free to campaign and operate as they wish, and this should be particularly true for those NGOs operating on purely private donations. However, the freedom to speak entails the risk of being contradicted by someone else. There is an urgent need to call out anti-GMO activists for the mistruths they spread, and to lay out to the general public that the claim that these organisations are representative for civil society is highly questionable. For the purpose of innovation, and the advancement of humankind, we need to push back on these organisations, and the tactics they use.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

Thanks for liking and sharing!

About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s