I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.
But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.
On the GMO issue, this is a terrible shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write
so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.
More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:
..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.
As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.
Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.
To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.
Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.
Another example, from the story:
The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.
A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.
None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.
None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.