For a long time, I was part of the anti-GMO movement. It wasn’t until I took a class about global political and social challenges that I learned about sustainable agriculture, including genetic modification and what that really entails. I then scoffed at my past self for having subscribed to the myths against GMOs, assuming that this anti-science stance was probably a conservative idea since right-leaning people are much more likely than the liberal left to deny climate change. I wondered how I had fallen for something touted by the party I view as backwards — but then I did some simple research.
I was surprised to realize that it’s actually almost equally conservatives and liberals perpetuating anti-science falsehoods against GMOs. Harder still to grapple with was learning the fact that the majority (60%) of “anti-vaxxers,” for whom even I have always felt intense disdain, are liberal — this is the category of people who claim to be progressive, yet anti-vaccine advocates constantly spout an idea that can be described as nothing but regressive.
Realizing that I had not only been wrong but judgmental on top of it was embarrassing, but it helped me grow and become more prepared for my career in journalism: it instilled in me the power of fact-checking while dismantling my ideas about stereotyping based on partisan affiliation.
So what exactly did I learn?
Let’s start with GMOs, since they’re what got me here in the first place.
In Defense of GMOS (Genetically Modified Organisms)
39% of Americans incorrectly believe that genetically modified (GM) foods pose health risks. In the U.S., it’s recently become mandatory for companies to label GMOs, though the bill saying so is pretty vague in its wording. It gained enough traction to be passed in 2016, largely due to the argument that people have a right to know what’s in their food. While I understand and agree with that statement, I’m against the use of the rhetoric to justify requiring GMO-labeling because it implies that genetic modification involves putting dangerous substances in food that don’t belong there. We’re basically hanging up caution tape when there hasn’t been a crime scene.
GMOs simply aren’t dangerous, and many people who advocate against them don’t even know what they are or how they’re made:
To clear up the misinformation circulating out there, genetic modification is a breeding process where engineers identify, isolate, and tag a small piece of DNA containing a gene that codes for a specific trait, such as large size or resistance to infection. Then, they copy and insert it into the genome of another organism of that species. Genetic modification can also be as simple as moving, replacing, or “turning off” a gene to prevent an undesirable trait from manifesting during growth. (This video explains it visually.)
Scientists aren’t just scrambling genomes for fun, of course. There are plenty of reasons to genetically modify crops. For now, the most attractive benefit of implementing biotechnology in food production is that it helps farmers yield larger harvests while reducing the damages caused by weed growth and pests. This means that they can apply fewer pesticides and herbicides, lowering costs for consumers and lessening the environmental impact of agriculture. Remember, too, that genetic modification is a technique, not an additive or a “thing,” and it’s used across the board in science and health fields, including the development of medicines and vaccines — another unnecessarily controversial issue we struggle with today.
In Defense of Vaccines
A story ran last week that piqued interest among pro- and anti-science communities alike: in Italy, parents will soon be required to vaccinate their children before enrolling them in public schools. That’s a great idea that should be established worldwide (with exceptions, obviously, for those who can’t receive them safely due to weakened immune systems). Here’s why:
Today, vaccines have an excellent safety record and most “vaccine scares” have been false alarms. Serious side effects are rare, and it’s sometimes inconclusive whether or not the ones that do appear were even caused by vaccination. They’ve worked wonders in terms of reducing the global burden of disease, disability, and death because they help prevent and even eradicate illnesses: immunization prevents almost 6 million deaths worldwide each year, and the U.S. has seen a 99% decrease in cases of nine specific diseases with high fatality rates.
Vaccinating the majority (95%) is crucial because it helps build immunity in an entire society, called “herd immunity,” which even protects those who are unable to receive their own vaccines as it limits the opportunity for outbreak. When people who are eligible for vaccines refuse to get them, that weakens an entire population’s ability to resist the spread of disease, making it a selfish and indefensible choice.
When any antigen (a virus or bacteria) enters a human body, that person’s immune system immediately reacts to form antibodies, proteins that can “kill” or “fight” the invading cells. Antibodies can then recognize the proteins in the antigen, so the body can react more quickly if exposed to the same disease again. Vaccines operate using that information. They contain dead or extremely weak versions of a disease so that they’re not strong enough to make the person sick when injected, but still contain the genetic information that the immune system “reads” to create antibodies. That way, if the person later encounters a live version of the disease they were immunized for, their body already knows how to react due to the antibodies built upon vaccination. The immune system can react more quickly, preventing or reducing the chances of that person falling ill.
Forgoing vaccines can be deadly because sometimes, our bodies take too long to form the antibodies needed to fight off a disease naturally. Infection may spread, leading to complications and death. (For more information on types of vaccines and how they work, click here.)
A common argument against vaccines is actually a complete myth, and that’s the idea that they cause autism. Its origins are unscientific and likely fraudulent, and the man who started it had his medical license revoked afterwards.
These parents’ beliefs and observations were reinforced by a small study of bowel disease and autism, published by Wakefield and his colleagues in 1998 (Wakefield et al 1998). The study’s authors suggested that there was a link between the MMR [Measles, Mumps, and Rubella] vaccine and autism. This study did not include scientific testing to find out if there was a link. The authors relied on the reports of parents and families of the 12 children with autism involved in the study to make their suggestion. The study did not provide scientific proof that there was any link.
We don’t know the exact causes of autism, but research shows a blend between genetic and environmental factors, which may include the age of the parents, the length of time between pregnancies, and complications during pregnancy or at birth — not vaccination.
Here is a list of real, science-based studies debunking the concern of autism and several others regarding the safety of vaccines, and here is an article exposing the truth on several myths perpetuated by anti-vaxxers. And here’s another in case anyone is still unsure.
The anti-GMO and anti-vaccination movements are no more defensible than climate denial. It’s time that we all start accepting truth, embracing the 21st century, and celebrating rather than demonizing the incredible advances we’ve made in science.