Being the conscientious and considerate person that you are, you’re trying to be an environmentally friendly consumer. You read on the internet that farming is part of the problem, so you shop only for local organic produce at Whole Foods, and as for GMOs? Ain’t nobody got time for that. You donate to PETA and Greenpeace whenever they’re holding up signs outside your local supermarket and you’ve been buying the coffee labeled “environmentally friendly” and “toxin-free” and “not harvested with blood diamonds or dragon labor.” To reduce carbon emissions, you’ve signed a petition to keep a nuclear plant out of the state and to keep clean coal running strong. You’ve even had a conversation or two about installing some solar panels.
You’re doing everything you can to help protect our planet, right?
I’ve got some news for you. And at least for once this October, it’s not about the election.
It’s a jungle of misinformation out there on the internet. And you’ve probably been following some bad advice while trying to be a good environmentalist.
Don’t get me wrong, you’re probably doing a lot of things you’ve read are right, and your heart is in the right place. Let’s navigate some of the ways that you’re not quite the environmentalist you think you are, and some easy ways to fix that.
1. You buy only organic.
Those friendly green labels do draw you in, don’t they? You’ve read rumors that they’re healthier or that they’re better for the environment, but held up to the light of science, all the rumors fade away. Organic is definitely not better for you, and it uses older, dirtier farming techniques that are, across the board, not as environmentally friendly. Contrary to rumors, organic farming uses pesticides, in some cases equally toxic pesticides that need to be applied more frequently. Organic also uses more land to produce the same amount of food, and that means it’s spreading those pesticides, farming run-off (including manure, yum!), and agricultural waste over a larger area of land. Additionally, that extra land that organic farming uses could have been taken up by native forests and wildlife, and instead is being used for industry. The use of significantly more land for the same amount of produce wipes out any shred of credibility for the claim that organic is better for the environment. Save your money on the overpriced organic produce.
2. You avoid GMOs like the plague that you’re sure they are.
Want to know what it’s like to yell “fire” in a crowded theater without getting arrested? Bring up GMOs in a Whole Foods in Los Angeles, and a hearty good luck to you! If you’ve heard any of the rumors, they’re putting fish genes into the tomatoes. They’re killing the ecosystem. They’re killing the butterflies, the bees, and they might be responsible for your cat and dog not getting along. Ahem.
But despite what you may have heard, GMOs have actually been a gift to the environment. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, refer to crops that have had a gene inserted in the laboratory to give them a desired trait. They’re differentiated from crops that are bred via hybridization or mutagenesis because though both involve altering the DNA of the plants, the modification is done via directly changing the genes in a process known as T-DNA insertion. Does this make it more harmful? It sounds scary, but no, the process by which the genes are altered does not affect the healthfulness of the end product.
In my line of work as a science activist, I regularly attend farming and agriculture conventions. I’ve asked third-generation farmers for their thoughts on GMOs, and they’ve said without fail that they apply less pesticides than ever before thanks to GMOs. The rumors that farmers are forced to buy GMOs are not just overblown, they’re wrong. If it were true, it would be strange to read stories that some farmers have gone back to growing conventional or organic. Their decisions have not been due to dangers of GMOs or health benefits of the organic seeds, but solely because there’s more opportunity for profit because people pay more for non-GMO. One of the reported disadvantages is that they have to apply more pesticides, but across the board, meta analyses of farming practices have shown that GMOs have dropped pesticide use by 37 percent. So if you want to buy environmentally friendly (and save some cash), you don’t have to hunt for the non-GMO label on produce.
3. You’re pro-clean-coal.
Clean coal sounds great, right? It’s an abundant source of energy, it’s kept a lot of American workers willing to do a hard job employed for centuries — what’s wrong with it? In reality, clean coal just doesn’t exist. It’s an oxymoron like “a pleasant root canal” or “Donald Trump’s good hair day.” Clean coal is, at best, a marketing term. Yes, coal-burning plants are less dirty than they were years ago, as regulations are in place to restrict the amount of impurities such as nitrogen and sulfur that can be released from coal-burning plants. A more accurate term would be “cleaner coal,” but that doesn’t sell as well. Limiting those impurities did not in any way limit the release of carbon dioxide, the main gas contributing to global warming. Coal still contributes 39 percent of the world’s CO2, waste from coal is still harmful to the environment, and the mining industry is still notoriously unsafe long term for miners.
Want to be environmentally friendly with your energy source? We’re going to have a tough conversation about something that you might think is controversial, but bear with me.
4. You’re anti-nuclear energy.
It’s got the word “nuclear” in it, it can’t be good, right? A lot of environmental groups are adamantly opposed to nuclear energy, and maybe you’ve signed a petition or two to keep a nuclear plant out of your backyard.
I’m just asking: Why?
If we’re going to have an honest conversation about climate change solutions, nuclear energy has to be an option. I’m not saying this because I’m against other sources of renewables. Rather, we’re a minimum of a few decades away from being able to meet all of our energy needs with solar due to myriad reasons (infrastructure scale-up, low solar energy capture rate, accounting for seasonal variability in solar energy generation just to name a few). And in that time, we’ll build up a lot of carbon if we don’t consider other sources.
Nuclear energy doesn’t produce any carbon emissions. Zero. None. I’m not claiming there have been zero problems with nuclear energy in the past (because there was an island and it was three miles, you may have heard of it), but you can’t advocate for the environment seriously without keeping nuclear in your purview. As a result of both some of the failures and continued research, nuclear has not only gotten safer in how the energy is produced and contained, the ways we manage nuclear waste long-term has gotten much safer. All of this without a single molecule of carbon dioxide.
If we want to reduce emissions, we have to leave the fearmongering behind and accept that this is just part of the solution.
5. You support PETA and Greenpeace.
Part of being environmentally friendly is supporting green organizations. PETA and Greenpeace sound like they’re pro-environment, with their pictures of a cat looking very innocent and the planet with a Band-aid on it, so you’ve signed a petition for them like a good environmentalist. After all, you talked to a college kid who’s making pizza money by nagging you before you pick up some kombucha, so why wouldn’t supporting these organizations be pro-environment?
Because both of these organizations are pretty full of shit.
PETA kills animals. No, really, they do. They present themselves as being pro-animal in every way, but if you turn an animal into the PETA run shelter, it stands about an 86 percent chance of being put to sleep. And though PETA has said they aren’t involved in the actions of radical organizations like the Animal Liberation Front, which has firebombed animal testing labs, their website still offers a statement of support, comparing ALF to the French Resistance and Underground Railroad: “Throughout history, some people have felt the need to break the law in order to fight injustice.” Meanwhile, the FBI calls ALF’s actions arson and domestic terrorism.
Greenpeace is no picnic either, protesting and spreading misinformation on Golden Rice. This glowing yellow rice is a genetically modified strain of rice that produces beta carotene, the molecule that your body converts to vitamin A. It can grow in any environment that naturally grows rice. Annually, half a million people worldwide go blind from vitamin A deficiency, and the company that spent over a decade researching and developing Golden Rice is planning to give it away for free as a humanitarian effort. Greenpeace’s logic? It’s genetically modified, so it’s bad. Scientists and nobel laureates are starting to come out in full force against Greenpeace, citing that Greenpeace’s position on GMOs is not supported by science and doing widespread humanitarian damage.