The March for Science and the missing protest sign

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Paul Danish

Whatever else last weekend’s marches for science accomplished, they produced some of the best protest signs in years. (My favorite for sheer comedic creativity was the one carried by a guy in a dinosaur suit reading, “Have some respect for the dead! Seek alternatives to fossil fuels.”)

There were plenty of signs and speakers denouncing planned budget cuts to federal institutions studying climate change, and scads of denunciations of Trump. No surprises there.

But there was one protest sign and protest narrative unconscionably missing from the marches. There was virtually no mention of the sustained, global assault on scientific agriculture and genetically engineered crops.

The route of the Boulder march went from the bandshell in Central Park to the county courthouse, where the most egregious local attack on science in living memory took place when the County Comissioners — or more specifically when Commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner — voted to ban genetically engineered crops from Boulder County open space.

But if any of the roughly 1,000 marchers protested the ban, either with speech or with signs, it escaped the notice of the local press.

The Jones/Gardner ban is a brazen affront to science.

Just as there is a “scientific consensus” on climate change, there is a scientific consensus on the safety and benefits of crops developed by genetic engineering. Only it’s much broader and supported by a lot more empirical evidence.

Granted, “Scientific consensus” shouldn’t be taken as holy writ; game-changing scientific breakthroughs often fly in the teeth of the existing consensus. But to the extent that a “scientific consensus” is a measure of the weight of scientific evidence, the consensus on GMOs is more compelling and empirically supported than the one on climate change.

Jones and Gardner had plenty of empirical evidence available to them before they voted to ban GMOs, but they chose to spit on it.

They knew that by banning Bt and Roundup Ready corn and sugar beets, the farmers planting those crops on county open space would have to use alternate combinations of pesticides that were five to nine times more toxic.

They knew that banning Roundup Ready corn and beets meant farmers couldn’t use strip till (or minimum till) farming, and as a consequence will have to burn four times more diesel fuel than they would otherwise, and will have nine times more water loss from plowing. They knew that the carbon dioxide released from the soil by conventional tillage is 3,000 pounds per acre, as opposed to 500 pounds per acre with minimum tillage.

And they knew that they were throwing all those benefits away in order to prevent the application of a thumping one quart of Roundup (aka glyphosate) per acre per year to the corn and sugar beet fields.

(Roundup is one of the most benign herbicides known to science. Millions of homeowners spray more of it on their driveways in a weekend than a Boulder County farmer will spray on an acre of ground in a year.)

Jones and Gardner knew these facts because they were all contained in a report prepared for them by agronomists (aka scientists) at the County Parks and Open Space Department and the Colorado State University Extension.

Jones and Gardner’s reaction to that report was to try to suppress it.

Major reductions in pesticide and diesel fuel use, in CO2 release and water loss, yet Jones and Gardner have the temerity to portray themselves as God’s gift to “sustainability.”

That claim is also an affront to science  — and a monument to their hypocrisy.

It’s not surprising that the Boulder March for Science focused mostly on climate science and Trump’s proposed budget cuts. Local jobs will be on the line if the cuts go through. Moreover many climate scientists consider climate change to be an existential issue.

But the GMO issue the marchers failed to address is also existential.

The attack on scientific agriculture and GMOs is a much more immediate threat to humanity than the dangers posed by climate change. That’s because the consequences of climate change unfold in slow motion and there is ample time, decades and in some cases centuries, to adapt to them, while the consequences of falling behind in the Malthusian race between population growth and agricultural productivity are a clear and present danger.

If you have any doubt about the terrible urgency of winning this race, consider just one number: 80 million. That’s the number of people by which Earth’s population increases each year. The first time local activists tried to get GMOs banned in Boulder County was in 2003. Since then the world’s population has increased by more than one billion.

So far American farmers have been winning the race, in no small part thanks to scientific agriculture and genetically engineered crops, and despite the efforts of anti-science politicians like Jones and Gardner. In 2016 the American corn crop averaged 174.6 bushels an acre a new national record and up from 126.7 bushels an acre in 1997, the year before Roundup Ready corn was introduced.

In the light of all this you would think the local marchers for science would have been raising hell in front of the county courthouse; the ban is a perfect example of the politicization of science the march was intended to protest. But not a word was heard or a protest sign raised.

The marchers need to ask themselves this: By ignoring the attack on GMOs were they tacitly approving it? Were they marching for science or for political science?

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

  • The greatest threat to scientific progress is people who claim to be pro-science while treating the research consensus like a cafeteria line where they can pick and choose. If Boulder were as serious in its support for science as it claims to be, Jones and Gardner would never have been elected.