In a recent moment of procrastination I found myself on the product accreditation page of the Vegetarian Society and was intrigued by one of their requirements, that all products must be free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This seemed interesting as not even the Vegan Society goes this far – it only excludes GMOs which contain animal genes or animal derived substances. This got me thinking, why should the vegetarian society accreditation, which exists to help vegetarians avoid foods containing meat, care at all about whether the product contains GMOs? After all, if the world was to start eating less meat for both ethical and environmental reasons, GMOs would be a great way to both increase the yield of crops and to create meat substitute products.
My explanation to this comes down to two factors. First is the inherent conflict between different green ethical beliefs and second is many environmentalists’ uncomfortable relationship with scientific progress.
The first of these two elements has been explored in quite some depth in the academic literature on environmental ethics. There are inherent conflicts between ethically ‘green’ desires which are often ignored and difficult to balance. For example, one might want to promote intensive industrial chicken production to create a low carbon source of protein for consumers. On the other hand one might want to promote animal welfare and implement minimum standards for chicken production. This may in turn, increase the price of chicken compared to other more carbon intensive meats which would increase carbon emissions as consumers switch. Similarly, one might want to promote tidal energy or hydro power at the cost of the natural environment in the surrounding areas. Currently all these beliefs are gathered under the banner of ‘environmental’ and ‘green’ beliefs, even though they are often contradictory. Resistance to GMOs is one of these contradictions, based on a general desire to minimise human interference with nature.
There is perhaps a growing split in the environmental movement between those who want to progress and those who want to regress their way out of climate change. The view of progress is realist, takes a broader range of ethical beliefs into account and puts faith in science to find answers to the problems of climate change and green living. The regressive view, that of the campaigners who oppose GMOs, is against economic growth and consumerism, prioritises environmental beliefs which minimise interference with nature and has a skeptical view of science when it challenges their preconceived beliefs. The problem is that the latter group of environmentalists tend to set the agenda, something that may be damaging to the environment in the long run.
The second element of the explanation relates to the difficulty which many environmentalists have with scientific progress. It seems a great irony that the green movement seems to attack those who reject the scientific evidence for climate change, yet themselves unquestionably reject any scientific evidence for the benefit and safety of GMOs. This contradiction has also bled into the political sphere, where governments prefer to ignore and shut out scientific evidence on GMOs. This was best evidenced by the firing of the European Union’s chief scientific advisor Professor Anne Glover over her support for trials of GM crops. The goal of a true ethical environmentalist should be to transition to a low carbon economy with high levels of animal welfare and the protection of the natural environment. GMOs can be an amazing tool to help to achieve these goals.
A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die….
The same also applies for other controversial scientific subjects such as geo-engineering, which may be the only solution the world has to avoid severe climate change. The environmental movement needs to learn to respect science at all times, rather than just when it agrees with what they already believe. We need to recognise that interfering with the natural world, as humans have done for time immemorial, may be the only way to protect it. In the mean time, the vegetarian society should think about whether opposing GMOs is part of their remit at all.