A few weeks ago, my daughter took six of my grandchildren to Ground Zero in a major measles outbreak: Disneyland.
We had no fears about it. They’ve had their vaccinations, unlike the victims who contracted the disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) speculates that a foreign traveler had become infected, visited the amusement park, and spread the highly contagious virus among people who had not received their immunizations.
Through the first two months of this year, the CDC recorded 170 cases of measles in four separate outbreaks. This has sparked a national debate over childhood vaccinations. It has also exposed a dangerous movement of people who chose to ignore science and insist that vaccinations are risky.
Some fads are harmless, such as humming “Uptown Funk” or watching the “Sharknado” movies. I’m not sure I’d call the anti-vaccination movement a full-blown fad, but it has become disturbingly popular. In many places—including affluent areas with well-educated parents—vaccination rates have started to dip below the level needed to prevent outbreaks.
Let’s be clear: Every child should be vaccinated. This is not a personal opinion, but rather a scientific consensus.
Shortly before measles hit the headlines, the Pew Research Center asked members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science whether childhood vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella should be required. A remarkable 86 percent said yes.
The good news is that most Americans agree. The same survey found that 68 percent of adults support mandatory vaccinations. We still need to close an 18-point gap between the beliefs of scientists and the public, but at least we’re dealing with healthy majorities that are on the same page.
On another important matter, however, the scientists and the public are much further apart. In fact, they disagree with each other.
The dispute involves food with genetically modified ingredients. A whopping 88 percent of scientists say GM food is safe to eat. In other words, scientists are slightly more likely to believe in the safety of GM foods than in the need for mandatory vaccinations.
The public, however, holds a radically different view: Only 37 percent of Americans think GM foods are safe to eat.
That’s a separation of 51 points.
This isn’t a mere gap. It’s a yawning chasm. We need to close it through a deliberate campaign of public education that speaks the truth about science and technology.
If we fail, our ignorance will inflict untold suffering on the world.
Demographers expect the global population to pass 9 billion by 2050. We’ll have to find a way to feed everyone, using sustainable farming practices that protect the environment. One of the most promising approaches involves the genetic modification of crops, which boosts production and helps us grow more food on less land.
We won’t make the most of this opportunity, however, if ordinary people reject the scientific consensus on GM food.
The recent controversy over vaccines offers a sign of hope. Perhaps you had heard the rumors that vaccines spread disease rather than prevent it. Maybe you had listened to a celebrity on a talk show.
If you scratched beneath the surface—if you looked up some of the research on vaccines or read a serious piece of journalism about the measles outbreaks—then you soon learned the truth. The claim that vaccines are bad for you is bogus. The infamous paper that put forward this finding was withdrawn and its author discredited.
Most people now know beyond any reasonable doubt that refusing to vaccinate children puts them and others at risk. Children who don’t receive vaccinations but remain healthy are lucky. They’re protected by herd immunity, which means they’re protected by all of the other parents who did the right thing for their own kids.
When it comes to GM foods, we face a similar choice. Accepting new technologies will give us a chance to feed the world. Rejecting them invites a bleak future in which people all over the planet will go hungry, suffer from malnutrition, and die of starvation.
We must inoculate ourselves against the virus of misinformation—and accept the scientific consensus on the safety of GM food.
Reg Clause is a Jefferson, Iowa farmer and business consultant. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).