A friend shared this on Facebook this morning. It’s a compelling image, right? On the left, sepia-toned Americana: The classic farmer, in the field with his felt hat and his overalls. On the right, the modern farmer, his bright yellow hazmat suit protecting him from the dangers of his monster crops.
But of course, it’s pure deception.
Let me say up front here that I’m neither anti-GMO or pro-GMO. I approach genetic modification the way I approach any science: There’s the potential for good or bad, but the science itself is neither. It’s just science.
However I do find most of the arguments of anti-GMO advocates faulty. ” The one criticism that does hold any water–that farmers have soaked their crops in so much Round-Up that weeds are evolving resistance–is not a problem with GMO itself, but with its implementation. Other claims, that GMO crops cause cancer or other health problems, that farmers are prosecuted for growing non-GMO crops, that GMOs are toxic and unsuitable for consumption, all turn out to be mistaken or intentionally deceptive.
Which brings us back to this image.
First, the guy on the left. I’m not convinced that photo is actually decades old (it looks artificially aged) but he’s at least meant to illustrate the halcyon mid-century days “before Monsanto.” You know, the days before farmers knew the health risks of the pesticides they were spraying in abundance. The health risks of pesticide were hardly considered at all until the 1960s, and not well-understood until decades later–and the pesticides that were used in the 1950s were much more dangerous than those used even by GMO farmers in the 21st century.
The guy on the right, meanwhile, is not a farmer at all. He’s a model in a stock photo that’s appeared hundreds of times across the web, mostly on sites espousing the dangers of GMO crops.
But GMO farmers don’t wear hazmat suits in the field unless they are spraying or testing new pesticides, the same circumstances under which organic farmers would do the same. Any farmer might wear protective equipment when spraying pesticides, because any pesticide, no matter how safe, can be dangerous in large, repeated doses like a farmer might encounter. The EPA in fact requires certain minimum safety standards for spraying pesticides, and though they stop short of requiring the complete containment of a hazmat suit, many farmers choose to do more.
Hopefully you aren’t still under the impression that organic farming means “no pesticide.” That’s a myth that has, I hope, been largely debunked by now; organic farmers simply use different pesticides, organic pesticides, and may actually use more (by weight) than GMO and non-organic farmers. They still spray their crops, and may wear hazmat suits or other protection when they do so–which is a smart thing to do when working with large quantities of virtually any substance.
It’s a popular rhetorical tactic for anti-GMO folks to associate farming with hazmat suits. It’s a smart image, frankly, to convey the thesis of their argument–that modern science has turned the farm, an icon of abundance and nutrition, into something toxic. But it’s deceptive. It’s common for activists to pose in fields wearing hazmat suits, and then misrepresent those images as being of the farmers themselves–and this image is not much better.
I’m not attempting to take down the anti-GMO crowd completely here. It’s entirely possible that GMO crops may have negative impacts we haven’t identified yet, and I think it’s every person’s right to eat (or refuse to eat) whatever they choose. My issue is with the tactic of deceiving and frightening people into perceiving a health risk that isn’t proved to exist–giving the false impression that farmers must now wear hazmat suits in fear of their own crops, in an effort not to protect people but to win an argument.