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Self-interest, the denial of climate change, and resistance to agricultural biotechnology

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | September 25, 2017

I first encountered the debate on climate change in the 1980s when I helped to organize a workshop at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Our aim was to discuss the findings and implications of emerging research on climate change. As I recall there was not yet a consensus among meteorologists and other scientists about interpreting observed changes, but by the early 1990s most scientists accepted that humans contributed significantly to global warming, and importantly, that it is a major risk to humanity and that it requires a managed, political response.


This emerging consensus resulted in the UN Convention on Climate Change in 1992, which led to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and signed by many nations, including the US in 1998 under Clinton but not ratified by the Senate. I was part of a White House taskforce that initiated research and education efforts that attempted to lead to ratification by the US senate. We organized workshops in Washington and elsewhere, met with staffers, legislators, lobbyists, and experts. Through these, I realized that representatives opposed Kyoto not because they didn’t believe in climate change, but because it is against the immediate self-interest of their voters. Most representatives and staffers recognized the key point that climate change poses risks to society but they felt that their constituents would not want to pay the price of mitigation. Furthermore, for representatives from some regions (e.g. the Dakotas) global warming seems like climate improvement. A key feature of the Kyoto Protocol was that developed countries would reduce emissions since they contribute a greater share to GHG emissions and subsidize reductions by developing countries (they still need to grow).

I knew of very few scientists that were skeptics (their number has declined over time), and some people denied climate change because of religious beliefs. One strategic approach of politicians who didn’t want the US and developed countries to pay the lion’s share of mitigation was to assume the role of skeptics, or even deniers of climate change. But my impression is that many of the deniers are not ignorant and do believe in science, but they do not want to pay. Someone once summarized it as “they are not stupid they are mean.”  I would not go that far though – they are driven by short term self-interest. This is not a unique situation. For example, in retrospect we have found that much of the denial of the health effects of cigarettes by tobacco companies used the same logic.


My interpretation of some of the resistance to GMOs is similar. I was introduced to agricultural biotechnology in the late 1980s, as some of the early researchers were on campus and I knew some of them. I worked on pesticides and realized that chemical pesticides provide significant value but are costly both economically and environmentally. Development of new crop varieties, by various means (including use of radiation to generate mutations) has been an effective way to develop pest and disease control. I knew that some of the developers of new pest controlling traits aimed to reduce or replace chemical pesticides and even expand the tools of organic agriculture. They also have other goals, such as reducing dependence on fertilizers (i.e., by enhancing nitrogen fixation), improving nutritional content of food, etc. I appreciate that biotechnology relies on basic understandings of processes inside the plant. I expect, as many others, that this knowledge and its applications will improve over time as we will have more knowledge and improved tools which will lead to more sustainable diverse and efficient agriculture, allowing to improve human well-being and environmental health.

However, understandable and exaggerated concern by activists has led to excessive and costly regulations that gave major companies like Monsanto an edge in developing new products. Companies that were threatened by new biotechnology products lobbied against it. I recall that in a hearing of the NRC committee on the future of pesticides, a presentation by a Bayer official stated that GMOs have limited potential to solve pesticide problems and they recommended larger investments in chemical pesticides. It is ironic because now Bayer is acquiring Monsanto, with its relative advantage in agricultural biotechnology. Herbicide manufacturers, like the American Cyanamid Company, were affected negatively by RoundUp Ready varieties. Most of the chemical companies that were negatively affected by biotechnology were European, and Monsanto, who kept tight control of IPR, was American, and that was one of the self-interest drivers to European opposition to biotechnology. And I suspect that it even led to implicit partnerships between environmental groups and companies. There are many other political economic reasons for opposing GMOs in Europe. The negative attitude towards GMOs spilled over to some of the public and increased the political power of the opposition. They also realized that by picketing near retailers, they could reduce the spread of the technology. This led to severe restriction on the use of GMOs in Europe, and utilization of the technology around the world. Even worse, it led to heavy restriction of the use of GMOs in developing countries, contributing to malnutrition in Africa and blindness in South Asia, among other problems. The recent letter by many Nobel Laureates and scientists bring these points home. This letter implicitly supports my argument that some opposition to GMOs doesn’t reflect ignorance about the benefit but rather self-interest of various groups. It is ironic that the potential of transgenics to contribute to adaptation to climate change has been ignored by the IPCC, which I believe reflects political economic considerations.


If self-interest plays an important role in the denial of climate change and opposition to GMOs, what can we do about it? First, we shouldn’t give up on the power of persuasion and information. We need to continue research documenting the likelihood and impact of climate change, and the benefits of GMOs and the costs of opposing it. The technology needs to be delinked from Monsanto and other companies. While they possess intellectual property rights on certain varieties and technical knowhow, they do not own this plant breeding technology. It is part of the shared human knowledge. Many politicians and people are on the fence about it, and might respond to additional information, which will affect the debate. It may be useful to connect real-world phenomenon to climate change and biotechnology delicately. For example, the strength and frequency of recent hurricanes may give people who oppose taking action against climate change to realize the cost of this strategy. Second, we need to recognize some of the reasons for the objection and accommodate them in developing policies. I am a big believer in carbon taxes to reduce GHG emissions. But once they are introduced, some of the proceeds should address coping with higher energy prices, especially by the poor. Transition from one form of energy to another may be associated with transfers that make the adjustment easier. In the case of biotechnology, developing and introducing traits that address major social concerns and clearly benefit consumers and the poor will make the technology more appealing.


I am not deluding myself, the denial of climate change and resistance to biotechnology will continue and society will pay the price. Our challenge is to develop research and educational efforts that will lead to faster change of mind, and better policies.


Links for pictures:

GMO picture

Climate change picture

Comments to “Self-interest, the denial of climate change, and resistance to agricultural biotechnology

  1. Avi, the entire point of this article is about following the *facts* rather than trying to twist them based on self-interest. European consumers, thanks in part to the spread of mad cow disease in the ’90s, became extremely mistrustful of large scale corporate agriculture. And in France, a major European ag producer, there’s a historical romantic commitment to the small-scale, labor intensive peasant ag of “la France profonde” (though few of those impoverished farmers can still make a go of it). So opposition to foreign ag technology finds a ready market among consumers there. Meanwhile, organizations like Greenpeace, EWG, FOE, etc. depend on promoting fear of technology for their donation stream. (See for example Will Saletan’s epic takedown of Greenpeace’s opposition to genetic engineering in Slate.)

    Though there are always at least two sides to an argument, on factual matters only one side can be right. (This isn’t a question of ethics. Unless you think there’s a meaningful ethical distinction to be drawn between radiation and chemical mutagenesis that gave us popular wheat and grapefruit varieties often grown “organically” vs. the GE that gave us virus resistant papaya. See Nathanael Johnson in Grist for more examples and the impossibility of drawing a line in the era of CRISPR.) The question that animates most consumers is about safety, and on this score, as you probably know, every major scientific society that’s expressed a view has stated, in more or less similar terms, that foods created by GE techniques are no less safe than those created by other techniques in widespread use. (Obviously organizations like ENSSER have a different view, but that organization at any rate was created expressly for the purpose of having the different view, not of being a scientific society first and having an opinion on the subject second.)

    • Wow. Money really does talk, huh?

      Let me restate the obvious, which is what brings on this anxious obfuscation from the sockpuppets of industry:

      Does it follow that promotion of GMOs is done out of selfless interest in the common good?

      If we impugn NGOs and state actors for having interests that are less than pure, how do we manage to be willfully blind to the interests of the commercial corporate promoters?

      Don’t tell me someone’s parking in my driveway while you are busy mining my whole backyard.

      • “Money really does talk, huh?

        Let me restate the obvious, which is what brings on this anxious obfuscation from the sockpuppets of industry”

        The implication being that I’m one of those sock puppets, right? Never mind that I work in an entirely unrelated business, my savings are in index funds, and I have no interactions (other than reading their writing) with people working in biotech. It’s never too early to use the shill gambit, is it?

        Your claim seems to be that prof. Zilberman is another of those paid shills. (Also I guess Saletan and Johnson, along with other journalists such as the NYT science writer Amy Harmon who and the New Yorker writer Michael Specter, both of whom have written in recent years on GE and the bogus arguments used by oppositional NGOs.) There’s no other argument in anything you’ve written here – certainly no response to the substance of what he wrote. Just colorful metaphors of obscure meaning. Your screed seems to reduce to:
        1. GMOs are evil
        2. No right thinking person could possibly think otherwise unless paid to do so
        2. Person X supports GMOs
        3. Therefore person X has been paid, and GMOs and their promoters are even more evil (for their underhanded behavior).

        Do I have this right?

        • Oren, are you protesting too much? I don’t see where I made any more claim than that ascribing impure motives to critics while ignoring impure motives of promoters is a strange thing to do. [‘Strange’ if your interests are best outcomes for most people.]

          As the sainted Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

          Is there any more obvious fact than that a salesman wants to sell his product?

          It doesn’t necessarily follow that the claims he makes about the product are false, but it does follow that those claims need to be examined with a critical eye, and that anyone who discourages you from such examination can be, in some measure, suspect.

          Imagine you want to buy your granddaughter her first car for her 16th birthday, and the salesman at the dealership says that you should not read Consumer Reports or Car And Driver (or whatever) because those publications are just trying to generate clicks or gain subscriptions, or appeal to gearheads or somesuch. You should trust what the salesman says about the cars his dealership carries, because he knows the truth. Are you going to scramble for your wallet and say “Please take my money and give my precious Sarah that shiny SUV?” or are you going to hustle to learn about the alternatives that are on offer across the automall? What’s the wise response to being told by the man whose income depends on the sale that you don’t need to consider what people whose income doesn’t depend on the sale have to say?

          I do not mean to imply that Zilberman or you are shills. What I mean to be explicit about is what Phil Donohue famously said about journalists and Kissinger: If you are having dinner with Henry, you can’t be covering Henry (responsibly).

          I am not qualified to evaluate the merits or faults of any particular GMO product. I have to be a discriminating consumer, and a modest political actor. So, when I see people with closer connections to the enterprises that are involved shining more light on the motes in critics’ eyes than on the beams in the eyes of industrialists, it triggers a duty to call it out, as I’ve done in a small way here and have with previous Zilberman advertorials.

  2. I would agree that self interest has been a major part of the acceptance and rejection of climate change and GMO’s.

    I just want to mention the role of self interest in designing climate policies which set the tone for the rejection of the proposed policies and by implication climate change.

    You have mentioned the carbon tax versus the carbon market debate. Kyoto was a market decision and we thus saw a government appointed board demand the withdrawal of a paper submitted to a respected journal by an employee of a prestigious research organisation In Australia. This paper studied the merits of a market versus tax system and on balance favoured the tax system.

    Like wise the Kyoto agreement and side agreements had designed a system to generate profits for merchant banks through marketable securities with known risk profiles.

    Thus the gross-net accounting for the privileged industries versus net-net for the rest. I can go on for pages just in reference to agriculture’s position.

    Unfortunately these fine print catches are not easy to explain and the practical lobbying tactic is to oppose the whole program by the doubt and uncertainty route.

    GMO crop supporter.

  3. If we follow along with your line of argument that self-interest plays a role in opposition to GMOs, does it therefore mean that promotion of GMOs is done out of selfless interest in the common good?

    Don’t pee on my shoes and then tell me it’s raining, as the saying goes.

  4. This essay is ridiculous. We already produce enough food to feed the whole planet twice over. The problem is distribution not production. GMO opposition contributes “to malnutrition in Africa and blindness in South Asia”? I wish we would stop thinking that tech will solve our problems when in fact it is how we related to ourselves and our lands that are at issue.

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