Sometimes science can be boring, or at least seem less-than-riveting to the general public. There are a lot of dry methodologies, frequent snafus, those pesky problems of having to reproduce results, and don’t forget peer review and meta-analyses. Though scientific advances are certainly exciting to many who follow them closely, the process from bench to discovery can seem dry.
Science activism on the other hand is anything but boring. Indeed, this past weekend proved to be a veritable soap opera. Here’s my recap of the highlights from Saturday May 23rd, the day of the third annual worldwide March Against Monsanto (MAM), and the first annual counter-protest against the anti-biotech group’s misinformation mongering. We at March Against Myths about Modification (MAMyths) were buzzing with excitement leading up to our first worldwide event, and were thrilled that it made far more of an impact than we anticipated. Bill Nye even showed up and took a picture with our MAMyths member Chauncey in NYC! MAMyths events happened in 13 locations around the world. My co-founders and I took to the street in Chicago, in the name of science and biotechnology. We were happy to give media interviews, and there was at least one documentary film crew we spoke with.
***Added bonus: Many of my followers have been waiting patiently for the story of my encounter with anti-biotech leader Zen Honeycutt, founder of Moms Across America. The wait is over, but you’ll have to read the entire piece for details!
Rational and calm vs. delusional vitriol
The overarching theme that emerged across the country and the world was that MAM protesters were unreasonable, angry, rude, and irrational, while MAMyths members were approachable, civil, and rational. We held signs like “Facts, not fear!” and “GMOs saved the Hawaiian Papaya,” and “Farmers never sued for cross-pollination.” In contrast, their signs were full of expletives and deluded messaging like, “Fuck Monsanto,” “OMG, GMO, WTF,” and even anti-vax signs, middle finger images, and chemtrail conspiracies.
Skepchick friend Kevin Folta wrote in his blog,
“The pictures from the scenes across the nation showed small clusters of MAMyths supporters out with signs, standing up for science. The best part was their apparent softness, the repeated theme, “Ask me about GMOs.” These were scientists, and science fans, out sharing science, and there is some real magic in helping people understand facts instead of fear.
It was outreach in action at ground zero of insanity, a potential to reach those that cannot be reached and hopefully influence the folks in the middle.”
Indeed, I am immensely proud of MAMyths members all over the world and on social media for marching bravely against myths, not against people. MAM on the other hand? No such kudos for the most part, although there were a few exceptions, MAM folks willing to have civil conversations.
While we stood with our signs and gave speeches on our side of the street in downtown Chicago, hecklers from MAM yelled at us. “How much are they paying you?” was a constant accusation. “You’re taking over the world with your corporate greed.”
One man came to our side to “chat,” though he didn’t let me or Karl do much talking. He insisted that “science is an option, not a necessity.” When we asked why he had a digital camera around his neck, which science helped provide to him, he claimed that his wife made him take it. He argued that since gay people can’t have children, therefore GMOs are unnatural. Yes, I’m serious. Then I asked him what he’d do if he got cancer. I kid you not he said, “I wouldn’t go to YOUR scientists or YOUR doctors. No. I’d go into the north woods, strip off my clothes, slather my body in peanut butter, and let the bears eat me.” And that was the end of that conversation.
In the meantime, MAMyths folks yelled some fun, nerdy chants like
- “Hell Yes, GMO!”
- “2,4,6,8 biotech is really great! 3,5,7,9, GMOs are really fine.”
- “Hey hey, ho ho, pseudoscience has got to go!”
- And my favorite, “What do we want? Safe technology. When do we want it? We already got it!”
Across the country and the world, MAMyths was busting myths, starting conversations, and handing out flyers. And across the country and the world, MAM was abusive and cruel. In Washington DC, a brave woman with autism held a protest sign while anti-GMO zealots yelled at her without concern for her obvious discomfort. Around the world, MAM protesters yelled insults and expletives at MAMyths members, often in front of their children, sometimes even challenging them to fight, many hiding behind masks because they’re cowards. We were all accused of being paid industry shills, yet when questioned as to why the same accusation couldn’t apply to them, they just didn’t want to hear that the natural food and organic industries shell out plenty of cash to lobby against biotechnology.
MAM’s own founder, Tami Canal advocated for her protestors to offer MAMyths drinks of Roundup. She also threatened to cut ties with one of the MAM chapters for offering to give MAMyths 5 minutes to speak. I wonder what she’s afraid of…
My encounter with Zen Honeycutt
Zen Honeycutt is a figurehead in the ideological anti-GMO movement. She’s the founder of Moms Across America, an anti-biotech organization that lobbies against GMOs, and for GMO labeling (which I am staunchly against for reasons you can find in my writing, including here.) She promotes all manner of myths, including that going GMO-free and organic cures autism, and that glyphosate causes maladies ranging from mental illness to infertility. She was also involved in the group of anti-GMO bigwig women who questioned my identity and connected me to the Koch brothers so as you can imagine she has an interesting place in my heart. Zen came to Chicago to attend the Autism One conference, which I like to call the the Who’s Who of Autism Woo, and she made an appearance at MAM to give a speech.
I figured I would go over and shake her hand like the affable person I am, and one of my MAMyths co-founders, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel came with me, along with one of the MAM people who had been talking with us all day on and off. He was one of the few civil and rational MAM folks, and he wanted to speak with us some more. While we waited for Zen to finish chatting with the stragglers, the two of us were surrounded by a mob of about fifteen MAM protesters. Our green MAMyths shirts were prominent, they were riled up, and they pounced. A large man got about a foot from my face and shouted that I was scheming to take over the food system. He was so angry, I could see the spit flying from his lips. They kept shouting “who’s paying you? Why are you here?” I finally calmly said, “Nobody is paying me, I’m a writer, a science activist, and a mom of two.”
Then, something tragic happened. A 13-year-old boy, his face contorted in fury, shouted at me, “You’re killing your children!” Saddened, I simply shook my head. The child thought I was arguing with him and he repeated, “Yes you are, you’re killing your children! You’re poisoning them!” I turned my back. I couldn’t argue with an indoctrinated child. I will never forget that moment.
Finally, Zen was free. She was incredibly paranoid. There was a film crew there and she kept asking them who was funding them, and they explained that they’re independent. Zen refused to let them film her, and threatened to sue every person in the vicinity with a camera. She insisted we walk to another area, and I complied. At first only Zen and I were together, Karl was a few feet away talking with MAM guy (I forget his name.) I put my hand out to shake Zen’s and said (and a lot of these quotes will be paraphrased but their content is pretty spot on), “Hi Zen, I just wanted to introduce myself and start a dialogue with you because we’ve interacted indirectly on social media. My name is Kavin Senapathy and that’s actually my name. I’m a science activist and a mom of two and I feed my kids genetically engineered food every day.”
She then asked a question that she repeated throughout our conversation, “If even one study shows harm from GMOs, why would you put your kids at risk?”
I calmly explained that one study doesn’t mean much, that results have to be reproduced to be meaningful, and that yes, I’m perfectly confident in feeding my kids GMOs. She looked angry and repeated her question.
At this point I grabbed Karl and he came to join us with MAM guy, who had a camera around his neck. So when Karl came over and I introduced him as my co-founder, scientist and genetic engineer she snapped, “who are YOU?” to MAM guy. We all reassured her that he’s on the MAM side. She said, “How do I know that?” The guy just wanted to be part of our conversation, but she kept shooing him away. I politely asked him to please leave because I didn’t want Zen to feel uncomfortable. So he nodded and left, but as he walked away he incredulously told Zen that she’s paranoid. HER OWN MAM PERSON CALLED HER PARANOID.
Zen then became hostile, saying “I was asking you, not him.” I responded, “Well Karl is a scientist so he’s great to speak with about risk.” Still, I humored her and explained that’s not how science works, pointing out that one can cherry pick studies to show harm of almost anything. I asked her about the methodology used in the study she was referencing. She didn’t answer my question but gave a spiel about how glyphosate negatively affects the human gut microbiome (patently false), thus causing inflammation in the nervous system, causing autism and mental illness. I asked her if the study results (which we believe is the debunked Stephanie Seneff study published in a pay-for-play journal) had been reproduced. She snapped, looking at Karl this time, “Why don’t YOU reproduce them? All you scientists should take all these studies showing harm and you reproduce them and fund them yourself.”
I said I would love to continue a dialogue with her, but that she has blocked me on social media. She claimed that blocking me was necessary, because I’ve been “running around on the internet being abusive.”
Again she asked why I’d risk my kids. At this point, it seemed like she was accusing me and all parents who don’t choose organic of being bad parents. I asked Karl to speak to risk to give a different perspective. She angrily asked him (and I quote), “are you a dad?” Karl said (quote), “Not yet.” Zen barked, “I don’t want to talk to you then.” Because apparently non-parents don’t get a say, even if they’re experts.
She then asked how much Monsanto or industry paid us to be there. This is when I started losing my cool. I retorted angrily, “How much are YOU getting paid to be here? How much is the organic industry paying you to be here?” She retorted that organic is how “God intended it.” When I explained that organic is a modern construct, she became even more angry.
I explained that I didn’t mean the organic shill accusation, and that I was simply pointing out that the shill gambit is meaningless and irrelevant. She again asked in an accusing tone, “You haven’t answered my question, if even one study shows risk, then why would you subject your children to that?” Karl jumped in to discuss scientific methods but she swiftly silenced him, “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to her. You don’t have children. You don’t know what it’s like. You haven’t had a child come from your body.”
You cannot make this stuff up.
This is when it went downhill. My voice was raised by this time, my finger pointed. I said, “You know there are studies showing organic food causes harm. So why in the hell do you risk YOUR KIDS?” That pissed her right off. We shouted back and forth. I explained that Zen’s co-opting of motherhood and implying that we’re all harming our children is baseless and disrespectful and if she keeps saying that, she needs to reexamine her understanding of the word “risk.” I told her in no uncertain terms that the mom card is all a subterfuge. After that, she stormed off in a huff.
The film crew then approached us and said, “We got that whole thing recorded. And she can’t sue us. She’s in public. We hope she sues us.” I was shocked yet pleased! I wonder if they’re the same film crew we spoke with earlier, and I hope they release the footage of the conversation.
Suffice it to say, I intended to stay friendly, but it didn’t end that way. I’m sorry for yelling, but I meant everything I said. Truly, I felt as if I was speaking for all rational, pro-biotech parents who have been thrown under the bus for far too long. It felt cathartic.
A day later, Zen was claiming on Facebook that she was “ambushed” by MAMyths. I wasn’t aware that two people, a nerdy mom and a geeky scientist, constitute an ambush.
I stand by my words even after she deleted them. I’m willing to have an unedited, live discussion in any forum of Zen’s choosing. I’ve made the same offer to Vani Hari and other anti-biotech leaders.
Yes, sometimes I raise my voice though I shouldn’t. I’m only human. But for the most part I’m calm and collected. And after all, I’m the co-founder of MAMyths. My friends Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel and David Sutherland stand together to fight against myths and misinformation, we never fight people. That’s what MAMyths is all about, and we’re looking forward to and already planning for our organization’s future.
Kevin Folta wrote, “I would rather stand shoulder to shoulder with one honest person, than march among a throng of the ignorant.” We appreciate his kind words, and I hope that even more will stand shoulder to shoulder with us as MAMyths grows. Follow fb.com/MAMyths, @mamyths on Twitter, and MAMyths.org to follow along or help!
Featured image credit, my friend The Chow Babe