Climate Science Hero Naomi Oreskes Promotes Anti-GMO Myths

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Naomi Oreskes is a hero of climate science. She completed one of the earliest database surveys of climate consensus among publishing climate scientists and contributed to the largest ever survey of consensus studies. She has taken on misinformants who think that smoking does not cause cancer, who think that acid rain was not an issue and those who deny that humans are the main contributor behind climate change. If there was a team of climate science superheros, she would be a core member.

However, dark clouds has appeared on the horizon. During the past few years, she has been slowly getting closer and closer to the anti-GMO movement. She downplayed the Green revolution and the scientific consensus on GMOs and even linked to conspiracy websites. This might be innocent mistakes since she did admit that she has not researched the area enough. However, recently Oreskes actively and intentionally promoted the harmful anti-GMO myth that GM crops caused an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers. In reality, empirical data shows that the introduction of GM crops in India has had no impact on suicide rates. As a public intellectual, Oreskes has an intellectual responsibility to avoid spreading anti-science misinformation.

Who is Naomi Oreskes?

Naomi Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science and an Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. She has edited, written and contributed to several important books about the history of continental drift and plate tectonics as well as science and technology during the Cold War. Another major area of interest is various aspects of climate science, including the history of research and opposition, as well as modern science and the issue of consensus.

Why is Naomi Oreskes a climate science hero?

Oreskes has made many achievements when it comes to the issue of climate science.

Together with Erik M. Conway, she has written one of the best treatment (the book Merchants of Doubt) of how climate deniers have used pseudoscience and deceptive corporations to spread uncertainty and doubt over mainstream climate science. It turns out that these are often the same individuals and groups that attacked mainstream science and scientists when it came to acid rain and the fact that smoking causes cancer.

In 2004, she published a consensus study on climate change acceptance among scientists and could not find a single paper between 1993 and 2003 that rejected the mainstream scientific position that most of the climate change during the past 50 years is of human origin. 75% of papers accepted the consensus and the rest made no comment on the consensus, having focused on various issues of methodology or climate in terms of geological history. The paper, published in the prestigious journal Science, can be found here. More details on why the objections made against this paper does not hold up can be found here.

In 2016, she collaborated on a large systematic review on studies on climate science consensus that concluded that 90-100% of all publishing climate scientists accept the mainstream scientific position on climate change. This is, to date, the largest study over carried out on climate consensus. This study can be found here.

Oreskes has also held a TED talk in 2014 on why we should trust scientists and has also written extensively on what Exxon knew about climate change in the 1980s.

If there was a group of superheros called the Climate Science Avengers or the Climate Science League of American, she would without a doubt be a core member of that group.

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What do we know about her stance on GMOs before this?

Oreskes has expressed doubts about nuclear power and genetically modified foods on a number of occasions. This is likely partly because such positions are popular within the environmentalist movement that does accept mainstream climate science. Because she academically lives partially in this underlying environment, it is understandable that she would hold some level of doubt on these issues.

Previously, Oreskes has downplayed the benefit of the Green Revolution, downplayed the scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of genetically modified foods and even linked to conspiracy theories and falsehoods about glyphosate and the developmental pipeline of GM crops. The same website rejects the consensus on GMOs, displayed conspiracy theories about genetic testing and mass surveillance and posts by anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva.

However, to be fair, this is probably an innocent mistake because she did admit that she has not really researched the issue. However, in a recent tweet, Oreskes willingly and intentionally promoted a classic anti-GMO myth about suicide and Indian farmers. That crosses the line.

What is her recent claim about GMOs?

In tweet (cache) made on 4 October 2016, Oreskes claimed that talking about social impacts of GMOs does not make you anti-science:

Oreskes on GMOs in 2016

Discussing social issues related to GMOs is not anti-science, but regurgitating disproved myths about GM crops from a newspaper with a long history of being careless about science does make you anti-science. The link goes to a Daily Mail article (cache) from 2008 that primarily cites Prince Charles as a source of the claim that the introduction of GMOs in India causes an epidemic of suicides among farmers. He is not a credible source since he has many anti-science positions, including believing in and defending homeopathy.

Some people, like science writers Michael Specter, called her out (cache) for her claim:

Oreskes on GMOs

It is certainly true that social and political issues are important, but that is not a license to spread anti-science misinformation.

Statistical data shows that farmer suicides are largely unaffected by GMO introduction in India

Let us take a closer look at the statistics on farmer suicides before and after the introduction of GMOs. A news feature called Case studies: A hard look at GM crops (cache) written by Natasha Gilbert was published in Nature in 2013 that went to the bottom of this issue.

The core dataset is illustrated in the below graphic that shows convincingly that suicide rates are more or less unchanged before and after the introduction of GM crops in India:

Farmers do not kill themselves due to GMOs

The news item go into additional detail:

GM cotton has driven farmers to suicide: False

During an interview in March, Vandana Shiva, an environmental and feminist activist from India, repeated an alarming statistic: “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she said. “It’s a genocide.”

The claim, based on an increase in total suicide rates across the country in the late 1990s, has become an oft-repeated story of corporate exploitation since Monsanto began selling GM seed in India in 2002.

[…]

But, says Glover, “it is nonsense to attribute farmer suicides solely to Bt cotton”. Although financial hardship is a driving factor in suicide among Indian farmers, there has been essentially no change in the suicide rate for farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton.

That was shown by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, who scoured government data, academic articles and media reports about Bt cotton and suicide in India. Their findings, published in 2008 (ref. 4) and updated in 2011 (ref. 5), show that the total number of suicides per year in the Indian population rose from just under 100,000 in 1997 to more than 120,000 in 2007. But the number of suicides among farmers hovered at around 20,000 per year over the same period.

And since its rocky beginnings, Bt cotton has benefited farmers, says Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany, who has been studying the social and financial impacts of Bt cotton in India for the past 10 years. In a study of 533 cotton-farming households in central and southern India, Qaim found that yields grew by 24% per acre between 2002 and 2008, owing to reduced losses from pest attacks. Farmers’ profits rose by an average of 50% over the same period, owing mainly to yield gains (see ‘A steady rate of tragedy’). Given the profits, Qaim says, it is not surprising that more than 90% of the cotton now grown in India is transgenic.

So to sum up, it is entirely false that the introduction of GM crops in India has massively increased suicide rates among farmers. It is an anti-GMO myth created and amplified by Vandana Shiva. This myth is just as tiresome as the myth promoted by climate denier about how there has allegedly been no warming since 1998. In reality, that claims is based on cherry-picking start and end dates and when you look at longer time periods there is a clear warming trend.

Conclusions

As a public intellectual and a defender of science, Oreskes has an intellectual responsibility to not promote anti-scientific myths about GMOs. She is free to criticize corporations (because they have done a lot of bad and illegal things) and discuss social and political issues related to GMOs, but it is not acceptable to regurgitate misinformation created by the anti-GMO movement. Indeed, as a defender of scientific consensus, she has an obligation to be well-informed about many of these issues. Not just for the purely scientific issues, but also the surrounding social and political issues as well.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

2 thoughts on “Climate Science Hero Naomi Oreskes Promotes Anti-GMO Myths

  • October 22, 2016 at 23:49
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    It seems to me to be convenient to smother data signal of the BT-Cotton-correlated suicide rate by showing the graph for deaths across 28 Indian states. Cultivation of Bt Cotton is concentrated in 5 states and particularly in Maharashtra. We know that many states have had extended problems with water availability and quality for several years – this is apparently why the national rates start to jump in 1997. In some states, rainfall conditions have improved, and we might expect a corresponding decline in the contribution of these states to the national suicide rate, Can we see the graphs for deaths in the states where significant quantities of Bt Cotton are cultivated please?

    Reply
  • October 23, 2016 at 15:35
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    That’s a great question. The only credible source of information I could find about this was the following paper:

    Plewis, I. (2014), Indian farmer suicides: Is GM cotton to blame?. Significance, 11: 14–18. doi:10.1111/j.1740-9713.2014.00719.x (online, cache, PDF)

    Their major conclusions:

    – Suicide rates are comparable over time for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, suicide rates increase both before and after GM introduction. In Gujarat and Maharashtra, the rates are decreasing since GM introduction and Punjab shows a slight increase.

    – The difference between Maharashtra and Punjab (both have high % of farmers growing cotton and comparable rate of Bt adoption) is believed to be that yields have increased in the former, but declined in the latter.

    – “To that extent, then, the claim that farmer suicides have increased since growing GM can hold – but only in Punjab. And those who would base their opposition to GM upon it must accept also that the opposite holds in Maharashtra – that farmer suicide rates there have decreased in the GM era, as they have for India as a whole.”

    – “Our conclusion must be that the data do not support the view that farmer suicides have increased following the introduction of Bt cotton. Indeed, taking all states together, there is evidence to support the hypothesis that the reverse is true: male suicide rates have actually declined since 2005, having been increasing before then.”

    – “In fact, we find that the suicide rate for male Indian farmers is slightly lower than for non-farmers. And Indian suicide rates as a whole are not notably high in a world context. The pattern of changes in suicide rates over the last 15 years is consistent with a beneficial effect of Bt cotton, albeit not in every cotton-growing state.”

    Genetic Literacy Project has a well-referenced examination of this issue as well.

    Reply

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