Are the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine movements merging?

By Mark Lynas

December 6, 2017

Visit the March Against Monsanto website and you’ll see a strange ad peppering the pages, among the usual dubious stories about the evils of Monsanto, GMOs, pesticides and so on. It’s an advert for a “docu-series” called Vaccines Revealed, claiming that it is “Exposing the biggest public health experiment… ever!”.

Click through and you’ll be confronted with typical anti-vaccine conspiracist propaganda, alleging sinister corporate “experiments,” huge damage done to so-called “vaccine injured” people, and entreaties not to go around “blindly jabbing lab made cocktails into our bodies.” This ad is no accident March Against Monsanto now carries explicitly anti-vaccine stories on its site.

What struck me about Vaccines Revealed in particular was the list of so-called experts featured in the documentary. Here, sandwiched between lead anti-vaxxers Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Andrew Wakefield (of MMR-autism infamy), is Stephanie Seneff, listed as a Senior Research Scientist, MIT. )

The “experts” featured in an anti-vaccine “docu-series.”

Seneff is notorious for promoting a bogus graph purporting to link glyphosate applied to corn and soy (and thus the real bogeyman, GMOs) with a rise in autism diagnoses. This graph has become a classic of correlation-causation confusion, and has been satirized by similar graphs showing an equally good correlation between the rise in organic food sales and Jim Carey movies and autism.

Further down the list is Sayer Ji, a long-time commercial promoter of natural health woo via his website GreenMedInfo. This carries enormous amounts of content opposing every vaccine around, from diptheria to flu shots. Ji appears alongside modern agriculture opponent Vandana Shiva, the president of the EU-funded International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and other luminaries in the Global GMO Free Coalition steering group.

Sayer Ji recently promoted a conspiracy theory taken up by prominent Catholic priests in Kenya that “a WHO/UNICEF sponsored tetanus vaccination campaign may conceal an agenda of forced contraception for over 2 million Kenyan women.” This dangerous myth threatens the lives of thousands of Kenyan children, who are now exposed to tetanus, which is easily preventable with a safe vaccine.

The most influential anti-GMO group in the US, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), has also been directly involved in anti-vaccine campaigning. Earlier this year, OCA alongside anti-vaxxer groups the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota, the Minnesota Natural Health Coalition and the Minnesota Vaccine Freedom Coalition organized a meeting targeting Somali-Americans in the state, among whom vaccination rates have plunged.

According to National Public Radio, the activities of OCA and other anti-vaccine groups have led directly to a resurgence of measles among the Somali-American community. The measles outbreak resulted from myths spread by OCA and other groups about vaccines supposedly causing autism. As the Washington Post reported, discredited doctor Wakefield was another of those featured at events in the state. Wakefield’s theories about MMR vaccine and autism have led to a worldwide resurgence in preventable childhood diseases, leading inevitably to the deaths of some young children.

Despite these appalling activities, which include suggesting that Ebola can be cured by homeopathy and other such quackery, I am not aware of any move in the wider organic movement to censure the activities of the OCA or its leader, Ronnie Cummins. Cummins was one of the lead organizers of last year’s “Monsanto Tribunal” in The Hague, which attracted many of the anti-GMO scene’s other leading lights.

The OCA’s most influential activity has been its funding support of US Right to Know, which has targeted many biotech academics working at public universities with FoIA requests for thousands of their emails. OCA has pumped over half a million dollars into USRTK, enabling it to conduct influential campaigns to smear academics such as Kevin Folta, and to hire activists such as former Reuters journalist Carey Gillam to push out anti-GMO information in the media.

Another prominent funder of anti-GMO causes is the alternative health website Mercola.com, which has large amounts of coverage of the supposed health problems caused by vaccines, and even publishes a special supplement, “How to Legally Avoid Unwanted Immunizations of All Kinds.” Mercola.com broadcasts conspiracy theories against “big pharma,” enabling it to earn millions from selling “natural health” remedies as alternative treatments for those who believe its scare stories.

According to the Genetic Literacy Project, Mercola.com has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the OCA, and also America’s leading anti-vaccine group, the National Vaccine Information Center.

As the Alliance for Science reported last week, anti-vaccine scaremongering has become increasingly successful in recent years. In Japan, campaigners against the HPV vaccine have contributed to a collapse in the rate of vaccination against HPV, from 70 percent in 2013 to less than 1 percent today. With 3,000 Japanese women dying from cervical cancer annually, and hundreds of thousands more deaths across the world, the mortality toll from HPV anti-vaxxers is likely to be high.

It is too early to claim that the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are fully merging, but there seems little doubt that the circles of followers in their Venn diagrams driven by similar conspiracist fears about big corporations, ideological preference for “natural” alternatives and opposition to modern science generally are increasingly overlapping. The scientific community both medical and agricultural needs to get its act together if it is to successfully fight back.