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We have numerous horrific historical examples of periods of mass hysteria on social and religious issues—times in which a majority, or at least a vocal minority, took control of an issue in the absence of sound scientific evidence, leading to disastrous consequences. We may have just such a situation bubbling to the surface in Kaua’i, which is caught in a fierce legal and emotional battle over how to regulate GMOs.
The island has been debating for months whether or how to restrict GMOs and pesticides. This is a serious and complicated issue, and worthy of a robust public discussion. The consequences of any potential legislation extend far beyond Kaua’i’s shores, as it is an international nursery for the seed industry. For anti-GMO activists, it’s become Ground Zero in their effort to kill the technology.
Last month the Kauai Council voted 6-1 to pass Bill 2491 after a marathon session that ended at 3:30 a.m. At the meeting, anti-GMO supporters, which included many angry citizens and some scientists and prominent local people, claimed the bill was not restrictive enough; anti-GMO activists and their mainland legal teams believed the bill would pass legal muster but most independent legal experts disagreed, as it conflicted with numerous state and federal oversight laws.
At the time of the vote, Mayor Bernard Carvalho pleaded with the council to head off an expensive and messy and divisive legal confrontation by deferring the measure in order to work with the state to figure out how to enforce the law. His pleas were ignored. Last week, after getting detailed legal opinions that the measure ran afoul of existing state and federal laws, Carvalho vetoed the act.
“I have always said I agree with the intent of this bill to provide for pesticide use disclosure, create meaningful buffer zones and conduct a study on the health and environmental issues relating to pesticide use on Kauai,” the mayor said in a statement. “However, I believe strongly that this bill is legally flawed. That being the case, I had no choice but to veto.” In the wake of his veto, all hell broke loose.
This frenzied and frightening reaction may be a case of a handful of fringe crazies—but maybe not. Based on the recent history of how this public “discussion” has unfolded in Kaua’i, there is every reason to believe that anti-GMO fervor has run off the rails, and now threatens to crystallize into a dangerous public mania.
In the 17th century, women in and around the Massachusetts town of Salem were arrested, imprisoned and often tried because a majority of the populace, or an outspoken minority that intimidated others into remaining quiescent, took the law into their own hands. There was no empirical evidence that the accused were in fact witches; people just believed it was true. Emotions ran wild. The episode marks one of the nation’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and stands as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, extremism and false accusations—and the substitution of emotion for science.
We’ve had lesser examples since then of precipitous actions by fevered majorities, including hysteria over the teaching of evolution; opposition to empowering American blacks; and protection of the basic rights of gay people in the United States. We’ve seen hints of this kind of intolerance in fringe elements of the tea party movement. In every case, fear was substituted for empirical evidence.
Although some may believe that suggesting parallels with the fringe elements of the anti-GMO movement in Kaua’i is strained, I would push back. I faced a barrage of over-the-top anger when I visited the islands for a week in August in an attempt to engage islanders in rational, fact-based discussions about the issues. I saw no Aloha when it came to discussing GMOs—and all of the finger pointing and hysteria came from one side and one side only: those who believed, with religious-like fervor, that GMOs posed an imminent health and safety danger to them and their children. The scientific consensus clearly contradicts those hysterical claims, as heartfelt as they may be.
There are legitimate issues on the table in Kaua’i, particularly as to the consensus desire that seed companies be more transparent in disclosing pesticide treatments. The empirical evidence, and numerous state and federal investigations, have concluded that current practices are safe and legal. But reasonable disclosures beyond what is required by current law are a fair issue for discussion. New restrictions are inevitable The State of Hawai’i acknowledges that, and just this week reaffirmed that it will be initiating new pesticide guidelines and increasing inspector positions for enforcement.
“This administration looks forward to working with the Mayor to determine a reasonable, thoughtful, and balanced course of action to address these issues and to provide the assurances of public health, safety, and protection,” wrote a Hawai’i Department of Agriculture chairperson, in a letter to the mayor. He reaffirmed the Mayor’s assessment “that complicated legal issues and practical enforcement and implementation details must be taken into consideration to effectively address community’s concerns.”
But for those dedicated antis looking for a witch to burn, measured responses by the state’s highest officials are not enough. The mayor now literally fears for his life and anyone who dares speak out on behalf of science faces public ridicule. If you are a farmer who grows or supports the growing of genetically modified crops, such as Rainbow papaya, you face a real possibility that your farm will be vandalized and your business destroyed.
Sadly, these frequent outbursts of intolerance have become staples of the anti-biotech movement on Kauai’i and increasingly on the mainland. Web pages like GMO Free Hawaii and Occupy Monsanto-Hawaii are repositories of vitriol and hate. The so-called pro-GMO forces—I hesitate to use the word “pro” because all of the GMO “supporters” freely acknowledge that there are challenging issues and legitimate public concerns—have been calm and reasonable to a fault. That was almost never true of anti-GMO activists. They were consistently rude and abusive.
A website, NGO Means No Aloha, poignantly summarizes the consistent stream of threats by anti-GMO activists. It was forced to remove an example of an emotional outburst by anti-GMO activists during the debate over Bill 2491, but otherwise has numerous illustrations of the way GMO opponents have comported themselves in recent months. For example, it links to University of Florida geneticist Kevin Folta’s interaction with Kauai activist Christi Demuth and the death threats that followed trips to Hawaii by Kevin and Karl Haro von Mogel, a University of Wisconsin graduate student. And it provides examples of web postings clearly designed to intimidate and squelch a science-based discussion of the issues. Scary stuff.
What about the charge, leveled by some anti-GMO activists, that scientists that claim they believe GMOs are unsafe are systematically threatened and discredited? Professor Folta recently addressed that allegation in a thoughtful essay:
A systematic response is what we see in response to highly questionable findings. It is not a conspiracy or some organized effort. The systematic response is triggered when scientists see examples where science is potentially being manipulated or presented as rhetoric—making some sort of statement that is fraudulent, false or highly questionable. Scientists jump on it. There is no conspiracy, it is a reaction of a scientific community that plays by specific rules.
Threats? Scientists don’t make many threats. If researchers are engaged in dodgy work they sometimes can face institutional charges for academic misconduct, but usually they fade to scientific irrelevance. Nobody believes their junk…. Except for the lay people duped by the bad science!
There are cases when ‘majority rule’ is a fig leaf for majority hysteria—and that appears to be the case in much of Hawai’i today when the issue of GMOs is debated. There is no Aloha on Kaua’i; I smell the burning of witches. And the responsibility for that falls directly on the shoulders of the extremists in the anti-GMO movement—and the mainstream leaders who do not have the integrity to denounce them, and in fact often egg them on.
“These people are the extremists that leaders are working with to make laws,” notes the website. “It’s no wonder why the community remains divided.”
Are you listening Gary Hooser?
Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.
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