Anti-GMO and anti-vaccination campaigns – two faces of the same movement?

Reading this piece in the Guardian – about the successful campaign by the pro-science community to get the Tribeca Film Festival to drop an anti-vaccine documentary directed by disgraced ‘MMR-autism’ doctor Andrew Wakefield – my interest was sparked by this paragraph towards the end:

By Monday, conspiracy theorist websites were portraying the decision to pull Vaxxed as an act of censorship perpetuated by the “vaccine mafia”. Wakefield and the film’s producer Del Bigtree put out a statement saying: “We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth.”

The link to ‘conspiracy theorist websites’ goes through to the infamous anti-GMO website NaturalNews, run by the self-styled ‘Health Ranger’ Mike Adams. (I declare an interest here: I was once accused by Adams, along with other pro-science communicators, of being a ‘Nazi Monsanto collaborator’ and targeted for assassination.)

It seems that NaturalNews is the standard bearer for Andrew Wakefield: it is now running banner ads for readers to get tickets to the rescheduled showing of ‘Vaxxed’ in a different theatre in New York under the heading ‘The Truth Cannot be Censored!’ This got me thinking of the expanding overlap between the anti-GMO and anti-vaccination movements. 

There is plenty of evidence that many of the central characters are the same people – united by Big Pharma/Big Ag/Big Government conspiracy theories and a fetishisation of all things ‘natural’. There is also a lot of money being made by outright quackery, if the ads and other clickbait on the various websites is to be believed.

Admittedly, Mike Adams is at the extreme end even of the anti-GMO movement. One of his recent articles alleges that the Oregon community college mass murderer Christopher Mercer “was likely vaccine-damaged with autism spectrum disorder”. Adams believes, according to another NaturalNews article, that the billionnaire philanthropist Bill Gates is a “globalist eugenics promoter” who believes in “eliminating the ‘undesirable’ people from the planet, leaving only a superior race in charge”.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a favourite target for anti-vaccination scaremongers. (The BMGF funds the Cornell Alliance for Science, where I’m a visiting fellow.) These critics are not necessarily on the ideological extremes either – a recent report (PDF) by the charity Global Justice Now (formerly the World Development Movement), as well as the usual screeds against BMGF funding of GMOs, rather surprisingly devotes an entire chapter to criticisms of the Foundation’s polio eradication and child vaccine programs. Am I the only one to find it shocking that a supposedly mainstream UK charity focused on global development opposes the international eradication of polio?

The Global Justice Now report was given play in the media (e.g. this piece in the UK’s Independent) – but it seems no-one flicked through to the anti-vaccination chapter towards the end. This includes a long section about the administration of a supposedly poisonous vaccine in Chad:

Within hours, according to the VacTruth report, 106 children began to suffer from headaches, vomiting, severe uncontrollable convulsions and paralysis.

So what is VacTruth (caption: ‘Your Child, Your Choice’)? Here’s a screengrab.

Screengrab of VacTruth.com, 31 March 2016You’ll get the idea. Why is the media taking seriously a report by a charity that uses fringe anti-vaxx websites as a supposedly credible source? (Global Justice Now tries to wriggle out of this by stating at the end that it has been “unable to validate or investigate further” these “stories”. In which case, it is clearly irresponsible to repeat them.)

Update, 31 March 2016

Global Justice Now has acknowledged over Twitter that it was inappropriate to carry anti-vaxxer myths in its report, and has promised to update its report on the BMGF with an erratum. Exchange below:

I welcome this acknowledgement and look forward to reading the amended report. /end update

But anti-vaccine conspiracy theorising is seen right across the anti-GMO movement. For example, the most prominent GMO labelling campaign group, so-called ‘US Right to Know’ (which has harassed numerous public-sector biotechnology scientists with malicious FoIA requests), is funded to the tune of $234,000 by the Organic Consumers Association. OCA carries whole sections on its website opposing vaccinations. Here’s what it says in its Health Issues / Swine & Bird Flu section:

“It is important to know how to protect your children and yourself with homeopathic and natural alternatives to vaccines to build your natural immunity to the swine flu.”

OCA also prominently features stories promoting Zika virus conspiracy theories, including one back on 30 January with this bizarre preamble:

Okay, boys, here’s what we do. We’ve got this old virus called Zika. It’s been around for 60 years that we know of. It never caused anything serious… So let’s build up Zika into a terrifying killer. Get our PR folks moving. Spread some money around. You know, the usual. And we make out on the back-end with a Zika vaccine.

Tellingly, the Organic Consumers Association is also a member of the ‘Health Liberty coalition‘, which includes the National Vaccine Information Center (an anti-vaccination network), Consumers for Dental Choice (campaigning against mercury in dental fillings), Mercola.com (see below), the Institute for Responsible Technology (another anti-GMO group led by Jeffrey Smith, a former dance instructor and yogic flyer) and the Flouride Action Network (opposing water flouridation).

With thanks to Chuck LaskerAnother prominent anti-GMO funder, the US-based millionnaire quack doctor Dr Mercola, also features anti-vaxxer theories, amidst the usual tropes about GMO dangers and attempts to sell various fake pills to the credulous. Mercola has contributed millions to GMO labelling campaigns in different states, and features in this long and tedious video pledging a fundraising drive to assist the Organic Consumers Association, funder in turn of US Right to Know.

Many of the leading lights in the anti-GMO scene are heavily invested in alternative health theories. The UK based activist Dr Mae Wan Ho, for example, combines her struggle against biotechnology with consistent promotion of the long-debunked autism-MMR theory advanced by Andrew Wakefield. Dr Ho was also the originator of a Zika conspiracy theory prominently covered by the Ecologist magazine, which I took apart in this Guardian piece.

Dr Ho publishes under the banner of the unfortunately-named ISIS – standing for Institute of Science in Society. She has co-published with many of the anti-GMO scene’s leading lights, and makes no secret of her ultimate agenda: her most recent screed (PDF) is simply called ‘Ban GMOs Now – Health and Environmental Hazards’. A long article by Ho published in February claimes that Wakefield’s findings on MMR vaccine and autism have been “amply replicated worldwide” and other common anti-vaxxer talking points.

I could go on – Stephanie Seneff, a ‘Senior Research Scientist at MIT’ (a claim that has been challenged) has become celebrated in anti-GMO circles for promoting theories about glyphosate causing everything from cancer to Alzheimers. (Here she is talking to Jeffrey Smith.) Seneff also believes vaccines cause all sorts of health problems. She writes:

“The aluminum in the Hepatitis B vaccine is a likely source of the association found between this vaccine and autism… The elderly are greatly encouraged to renew their flu shots every single year, and I think this is another major factor that is steadily increasing their risk to Alzheimer’s disease. About half of the flu vaccines administered contain mercury as a preservative, and mercury is probably the most toxic heavy metal known.”

The Global GMO-Free Coalition, which prominently features Vandana Shiva and OCA director Ronnie Cummins on its steering committee, also includes Sayer Ji, from GreenMedInfo, a website opposing virtually every aspect of modern healthcare and seeking to replace it with various herbal and ‘naturopathic’ alternatives. One recent article featured on the website claims that the AIDS pandemic was caused by the administration of oral polio vaccine, neatly combining two killer conspiracy theories into one.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions. How do Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other serious environmental groups who still actively campaign against GMOs feel about being de-facto aligned with these dangerous quacks and conspiracy theorists? I’ve never seen any statement from them condemning anti-vaccine statements from their anti-GMO allies. Also: why do people keep taking anti-GMO activist groups like USRTK seriously despite these overt funding links to anti-vaccine campaigners? (Full disclosure: USRTK has criticised the Cornell Alliance for Science, where I’m a visiting fellow.) And it would also be reassuring to see an explicit disavowal of the Organic Consumers Association from the serious side of the organic movement – those who are in organic because they want to learn more about sustainable agriculture, rather than fight ideological battles against science and modernity in general.

My assessment is that the anti-GMO scene is getting more extreme as it becomes increasingly marginalised in the mainstream discourse, and that as the scientific community gets better organised in combating its myths and conspiracy theories – as has happened with combating anti-vaxxers – this tendency will only increase. Expect more AIDS denialism, vaccine-autism scaremongering and anti-GMO activism, all increasingly under the same banner.

© Mark Lynas
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