It's a striking development. As The Washington Post reports, 107 Nobel laureates have signed a letter blasting Greenpeace for opposing the deployment of a GMO rice which would help fix a dreaded condition, vitamin A deficiency. As the letter states:
The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 — 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.
Sounds pretty serious. So what does Greenpeace have against "Golden Rice," the GMO strain that is proposed to deal with this. Well, strictly speaking, nothing. As the letter notes:
Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.
The mania around GMOs is a strange thing. In the U.S. it's still relatively a fringe phenomenon, but in Europe, particularly France, it's completely mainstream. Centrist politicians compete over who will ban GMOs more.
The simple fact of the matter is that humans have been modifying their environment — animal and vegetal — for millennia. There's no such thing as a wild cow, or a wild pig, or a wild shih-tzu. Wheat and corn as we know them bear almost no resemblance to their wild and distant ancestors.
There's nothing new, unusual, or dangerous about GMOs. Nothing. And all the science confirms it. And yet a strong and vocal fringe, and indeed a majority of people in some advanced countries, are opposed to GMOs. Here's Bernie Sanders vowing to fight for GMO labeling at the federal level.
This anti-science fringe is much less attacked than other fringes, because it is associated with the political left, and much of our media and commenting class assume that hostility to science is a value of the political right.
But the environmentalist left has a long history of damaging hostility to evidence, a hostility which has cost many, many lives over the decades.
Let's come up with just two examples. The biggest cause célèbre, which is also known as the founding of the modern environmentalist movement, is the (in)famous case of DDT. As a long article by Robert Zubrin in the review The New Atlantis explains, this miraculous insect-killer eliminated malaria, as well as many other insect-borne diseases, from the Southern United States, Southern Europe, and parts of South Asia, and was poised to do the same thing to Africa until it was banned by a fledgling EPA on unscientific grounds.
In 1970, in a comprehensive review on the pesticide, the National Academy of Sciences stated:
To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It has contributed to the great increase in agricultural productivity, while sparing countless humanity from a host of diseases, most notably, perhaps, scrub typhus and malaria. Indeed, it is estimated that, in little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable.
But no matter. DDT might have endangered the spotted owl (there's no evidence it did, by the way). And so it had to go.
Another famous example is nuclear power, which has almost no carbon emissions, is very cheap to run, and works fine. Opposition to nuclear power seems mostly motivated by superstition. Indeed, coal kills 4,000 times more people per unit of energy than nuclear, but in almost every country in the world, it's basically impossible to build a nuclear power plant. After Fukushima, despite a notable lack of tsunamis on German shores, Germany banned nuclear power and replaced it with a mix of dirty coal power and imported French (i.e. nuclear) power.
And what about all those ludicrously insane predictions of Armageddon that all those scientists made in the 1970s, warning that we would all be dead, or something like it, by the year 2000, if we didn't shut down power plants and oil wells right this minute?
Environmentalism sometimes has a little bit of a whiff of a death cult. It sometimes leans towards an anti-human worldview, one that views the Earth goddess as the only valuable "life-form" and humans as parasites. And it sometimes feels like more of a fundamentalist religion than anything else.
And as we all know, fundamentalism can be mostly funny, until it kills. Protecting the environment is a great good. But environmentalist fads and junk science have killed a lot of people, and continue to, and too few people know about it. It's a shame.