Anti-GMO campaigners are promoting a new conspiracy theory conflating the pioneering genetics technology of RNAi with anti-vaxxer myths and a supposed effort to eliminate black people.
According to NaturalNews, the website of the self-described “Health Ranger” Mike Adams, RNAi is already being used for "population control" as part of a "concerted, organized and longstanding effort to eliminate African Americans from the gene pool and Africans in general."
In reality, RNAi is being used to protect plants against diseases and more recently, to combat pest infestations as a substitute for insecticides. RNAi stands for RNA interference, a biological process whereby gene expression is inhibited by the targeting of messenger RNA molecules, whose normal function is to translate the coding sequences of DNA into proteins.
Adams is at the crazy end even of the increasingly wacky anti-GMO scene. His obsessions vary from the fluoridation of water to the supposedly harmful effects of childhood vaccines to the promotion of raw (unpasteurized) milk. Adams is also an HIV/AIDS denialist, and has claimed the Ebola outbreak in west Africa "was not an accident."
Although obsessed with pollution and rabidly pro-organic, Adams is hardly a liberal environmentalist, promoting conspiracy theories against Hilary Clinton and circulating other alt-right memes. A recent post railed against what he termed "left-wing truthism" and its supposed "hatred toward Christians, whites and President Trump."
Adams is a self-declared “prepper” — someone who stockpiles food and usually also weapons in preparation for the upcoming zombie apocalypse — who openly states that he carries a concealed weapon 24 hours a day. Hilariously, he even sells his own brand of organic prepper food, the so-called “Ranger Bucket Organic Emergency Storable Food Supply,” which can be yours for a mere $249 apiece.
As a kind of InfoWars for the anti-GMO movement, Mike Adams clearly belongs on the lunatic fringe. However, according to the Genetic Literacy Project, Adams is able to "generate huge traffic volume," with 1.1-1.7 million unique visitors per month. This puts his site in the same range as the Mayo Clinic and far above the US government's official cancer.gov website.
Adams’ radical views have not ostracized him from the “mainstream” anti-GMO scene. He has established a close rapport with Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association over the years, with several meetings and interviews appearing online. You can also see him campaigning side by side with anti-GMO activist and faux-researcher Jeffrey Smith in this video.
The Organic Consumers Association funds the US Right to Know group that has targeted numerous biotech scientists at public universities with FoIA requests for thousands of their emails. The group also tipped the New York Times to a story that smeared science educator Kevin Folta, prompting him to file a libel suit. Some of the nuttiest pages from NaturalNews appear copied verbatim on OCA's website, such as this 2009 article about how homeopathy apparently cured swine flu in Mexico City.
Although NaturalNews generates most of its traffic from the United States, the global nature of the web allows its conspiracy theories to circulate and cause serious damage elsewhere. In African countries in particular, anti-GMO and anti-vaccine myths have been adopted by nationalists and home-grown anti-science campaigners who recycle memes picked up from the internet for a domestic audience.
In Nigeria, for instance, anti-GMO campaigners have assiduously promoted myths that genetically improved seeds are intended to sterilize Africans. In a recent interview with the News Agency of Nigeria, one “scientist” levelled the wildly false claim that GMOs "can cause autism and cancer" and some included a "gene capable of causing mass sterilization of people via consumption of foods without the consumers finding out."
Another campaigner, who is on the steering committee of the “Global GMO free coalition” alongside Cummins and Vandana Shiva, is Sayer Ji. He promotes 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."
According to newspaper reports in 2016, Cardinal John Njue, the head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, "asked Kenyans to reject the [tetanus] vaccine and GMOs and said that certain powers with a hidden agenda were behind the two controversial issues." The report continued: "Besides the tetanus vaccine, the Catholic Church has also opposed the polio vaccine, claiming that it is laced with birth control drugs."
In reality, the tetanus vaccine has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, especially of young children in Africa. Although debunked numerous times, including recently on the fact-checking website Snopes.com, conspiracy theories about the tetanus vaccine in Kenya refuse to die.
The most infamous consequence of anti-vaccine myth-making took place in Nigeria, derailing efforts to eradicate polio in 2003. According to the fact-checking website Africa Check, "In that year, a group of religious and political leaders in northern Nigeria advised their followers against having their children vaccinated against polio. They claimed that the vaccine would make them infertile as part of a Western-led plot to reduce the population in the Muslim world."
Although tests on the vaccines quickly showed that the claims were baseless, "the media still reported the claims without checking and, by the time they were withdrawn, the damage had been done. Polio surged from 202 cases in 2002 to 1,122 cases in 2006."
Like anti-GMO myths, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have traction in Africa because of popular insecurities about the continent's lack of development, which fan the flames of xenophobia and populist anti-foreigner sentiment. These psychological insecurities are especially on show regarding enduring myths that GMO corn “feminizes” African boys and can turn children homosexual.
Although it is tempting to dismiss Adams, Cummins, Ji and others as irrelevant lunatics, the fact is that they clearly can have a real and very damaging influence on popular opinion and policy far and wide. Pro-science campaigners therefore have little choice but to hold their noses and continue quickly debunking anti-GMO and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories whenever they appear. Lives are on the line, especially in Africa.