Politics: Fears Win Over Facts

Amy Harmon writes about the impact of science and technology on American life for The New York Times, perhaps the country’s last great newspaper.

Harmon is good at what she does — good enough to have won two Pulitzer Prizes, the most recent in 2008 for a series of articles titled “The DNA Age.” In 2012, her article on autism garnered the Casey Medal for excellence in reporting on children.

On Jan. 4, Harmon’s “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” appeared in the Times. (A shorter version of the article was carried by Honolulu Star-Advertiser a few days later; the complete version was available in the paper’s Internet edition.)

First-term Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan undertook the quest in response to a proposal in May of last year by Councilwoman Margaret Willie to ban genetically engineered crops on Hawaii Island.

Testimony before the Council overwhelmingly supported the ban. Opponents, according to Harmon’s account, blamed genetically modified crops for cancer in rats, an increase in childhood allergies, the possibility of superweeds, contamination of other organisms by nearby GMOs, overuse of pesticides, disappearance of butterflies and bees, and an increase in suicides by Indian cotton farmers. In short, the introduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) meant a veritable Hawaii Island horror show.

Never mind that University of Hawaii biologists testified that “the global scientific consensus was that existing genetically engineered crops were no riskier than others.” Never mind that genetically modified papaya, the famous (or infamous, depending on which side of the GMO debate you stand) Rainbow papaya, had saved Hawaii Island farmers from the papaya ringspot virus in the late 1990s.

Ilagan minded. Over the next six months, the councilman and his staff chased down the cancer in rats study, the disappearing bees and the superweeds. None of it stood up under scrutiny. In December, Ilagan joined two other Hawaii Island councilmembers in voting against the ban. It passed, 6-3, and Mayor Billy Kenoi signed it into law.

According to Harmon, Ilagan’s 2012 campaign manager warned him that voting against the ban could mean political trouble. So too did the 5-1 ratio of testimonials for the ban as opposed to those against it. Add a nationwide crusade by political liberals, from natural foods store owners to celebrities against GMOs, and Ilagan’s quest for facts on GMOs might well turn his political career into an exercise in tilting against windmills.

That would be a shame, for Ilagan and for all of us, but understandable all the same. In politics, as often as not, fear trumps reason — fear of things we don’t understand, in particular.

Genetically modified organisms certainly fit into that category. It’s hard for the layman to get his mind around them. Images of mad scientists and complicit politicians, corrupted by corporate monoliths, are easier to understand than the science of GMOs.

Ironies abound in Harmon’s account of Ilagan’s quest. A high school graduate and community college dropout, the first-term councilman wrestled with the arguments for the ban. He tried to understand the issue and what it meant to ignore the science or to label it simply “corrupted.” Others followed an easier course.

Such is politics.