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Fear of science will kill us

By Michael Specter, Special to CNN
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Denial of science 'spells disaster'
  • Michael Specter says fear of science can have deadly consequences
  • He says the debate over genetically modified foods is off base
  • All of the food we eat is genetically modified, Specter says
  • Genetic improvement of food is the key to feeding billions more people, he says

Editor's note: Michael Specter is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens our Lives." TED, a nonprofit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading," hosts talks on many subjects and makes them available through its Web site,

(CNN) -- American denialism threatens many areas of scientific progress, including the widespread fear of vaccines and the useless trust placed in the vast majority of dietary supplements quickly come to mind.

It doesn't seem to matter how often vaccines are proved safe or supplements are shown to offer nothing of value. When people don't like facts, they ignore them.

Nowhere is that unwillingness to accept the truth more evident than in the mindlessly destructive war that has been raging between the proponents of organic food and those who believe that genetically engineered products must play a role in feeding the growing population of the Earth. This is a divide that shouldn't exist.

All the food we eat -- every grain of rice and kernel of corn -- has been genetically modified. None of it was here before mankind learned to cultivate crops. The question isn't whether our food has been modified, but how.

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I wrote "Denialism" because it has become increasingly clear that this struggle threatens progress for us all.

Denialists replace the open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment. It isn't hard to find evidence: the ruinous attempts to wish away the human impact on climate change, for example. The signature denialists of our time, of course, are those who refuse to acknowledge the indisputable facts of evolution.

Nowhere has the screaming been louder, however, than in the fight over how we grow our food. If you are brave enough to set a Google Alert for the phrases "genetically modified food" and "organic food," you will quickly see what I mean.

The anxiety is certainly understandable. When it comes to food -- the way we produce it and particularly the way we consume it -- we have a lot to worry about.

One third of American children are overweight or obese; for adults, the numbers are higher. Our addiction to mindless consumption has made millions sick and costs this country billions of dollars. The financial toll comes in terms of time lost at work and money spent treating and supporting people with diabetes, heart disease and many cancers, who, had they followed a better diet, would never have fallen ill.

Nonetheless, better eating habits have nothing specific to do with organic food, which provides no nutritional advantage over more conventionally raised products. Opponents of genetically modified food constantly argue that it is unsafe. There has, however, never been a single documented case of a human killed by eating genetically modified food.

If every American swallowed two aspirin right now, hundreds of us would die today. Does that mean we ought to ban aspirin? Of course not. It simply means that there are risks and benefits associated with everything we do and with every decision we make.

When people say they prefer organic food, what they often seem to mean is they don't want their food tainted with pesticides and their meat shot full of hormones or antibiotics. Many object to the way a few companies -- Monsanto is the most famous of them -- control so many of the seeds we grow.

Those are all legitimate complaints, but none of them have anything to do with science or the way we move genes around in plants to make them grow taller or withstand drought or too much sun. They are issues of politics and law. When we confuse them with issues of science, we threaten the lives of the world's poorest people.

We are doing that now. By 2050, we are going to have 9 billion people to feed, a huge increase over today's 6.8 billion. It's not a figure about which there is much dispute. To feed that many will require nearly 50 percent more food than we produce now.

It's not enough to simply say we waste food and consume too many calories, so that if we distributed it more intelligently everyone could eat just fine. Not in sub-Saharan Africa, where drought is nearly permanent.

Many of those people subsist on cassava, the basic potato-like staple in the region. It lacks most protein, nutrients and vitamins.

You cannot survive for long without them, so a team of international scientists funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is engineering vitamins and micronutrients into cassava.

They are engineering success into a failed crop. It will save and prolong many lives; that is farming and genetic modification at their best. Who could be opposed to that?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Specter.