By Reynard Loki
Editor's note: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms—either plant- or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based—would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.
In 1994, a tomato known as Flavr Savr became the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. Scientists at the California-based company Calgene (which was scooped up by Monsanto a few years later) added a specific gene to a conventional tomato that interfered with the plant's production of a particular enzyme, making it more resistant to rotting. The tomato was given the all-clear by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Since then, both the U.S. and Canada have embraced the genetic engineering of food crops, while Europe has broadly rejected the use of such technology. Only five EU nations—the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain—grow GE crops and in such minor amounts that all five countries make up less than 0.1 percent of GE cultivation worldwide.
It appears Europe has been right all along to renounce GE crops. An in-depth examination recently published by the New York Times found that GE crops have largely failed to achieve two of the technology's primary objectives: to increase crop yields and decrease pesticide use.
New York Times Takes Critical Look at False Promise of GMOs https://t.co/ojJKF4jtiR @TrueFoodNow @justlabelit— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1477965307.0
Pesticides in particular have come under increasing fire in recent years, not only for their negative impact on human health and wildlife, but for decimating populations of key food crop pollinators; specifically bees, which we rely on to pollinate a third of food crops.
New USDA Data Shows 85% of Foods Tested Have Pesticide Residues https://t.co/yVwXEZJff8 @gmo917 @TrueFoodNow— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1479941410.0
While consumer awareness of the effects of pesticides has grown, the ongoing battle over GE crops has largely zeroed in on whether or not such foods are safe to consume. But as the New York Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim points out in his article about the paper's analysis, "the debate has missed a more basic problem"—that GE crops have "not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides."
Analyzing academic and industry research, as well as independent data, the New York Times compared results on the two continents and found that the "U.S. and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields—food per acre—when measured against Western Europe." The paper also cited a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found "little evidence that the introduction of GE crops were resulting in more rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields in the U.S. than had been seen prior to the use of GE crops."
New York Times: Behind the Times?
For many farmers, researchers and activists, the New York Times' conclusion was not news. Ronnie Cummins, co-founder of Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Minnesota, told AlterNet that the paper's analysis simply "confirms what many of the world's best scientists have said for years: GE crops have benefitted no one except the corporations selling the chemicals required to grow them."
"I'm glad that the New York Times has now discovered what those of us in agriculture have known for 20 years, that the old and exaggerated claims of genetic engineering by Monsanto and their allies are bogus," Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer, told AlterNet. "They have not panned out and I'm glad that now the newspaper of record has made this clear to a lot of people." Gerritsen and his wife Megan have owned and run Wood Prairie Family Farm in northern Maine for 40 years. "A lot of us have been saying this for a long time," he said.
While it may not be news for those working toward a more sustainable food system, the New York Times story was unexpected. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, DC, told AlterNet that the New York Times piece is "a surprising ray of light illuminating the longstanding GE crops debate." He said that the paper "for so many years had ignored the science about genetic engineering and bought the Big Lie" that Monsanto and its cohorts have been telling the public for so long: "that GE crops 'reduce pesticide use, increase yield and are key to feeding the world.'"
Seeing Through Monsanto's Propaganda
These recent findings fly in the face of Monsanto's stated claim that "the introduction of GM traits through biotechnology has led to increased yields." But the company is sticking to its guns. When shown the New York Times' findings, Robert T. Fraley, the company's chief technology officer, claimed the paper had selectively chosen the data in its analysis to put the industry in a bad light. "Every farmer is a smart businessperson and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don't think it provides a major benefit," said Fraley. "Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously."
On its website, Monsanto backs its claim by citing statistics reported by PG Economics, a UK-based agricultural industry consultancy. However, that firm that has been exposed as a corporate shill by Lobbywatch.org, a UK-based nonprofit that tracks deceptive PR practices. PG Economics has been commissioned to write reports on behalf of industry lobby groups whose members include the Big Six agrichemical giants: BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Syngenta.
"Most of the yield advancement since GE crops were first commercialized is attributable to traditional breeding techniques, not the GE traits," Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, told AlterNet. Kastel, who worked for several agribusiness giants including International Harvester, J.I. Case and FMC before making what he calls the "paradigm shift to sustainable farming," said that since GE crops were introduced in the U.S., farmers have experienced boom-and-bust cycles and today are "generally hurting," regardless of the scale of their farming operations. "GE crops have not been a panacea for economic sustainability," he said.
Instead, GE crops have been a source of financial growth for the agrichemical industry. Kimbrell said that the Big Six "make tens of billions of dollars in profits by selling ever more pesticides, especially herbicides. Why would they spend hundreds of millions of research dollars and then billions in advertising and lobbying to promote crops that actually 'reduce pesticides' and thereby destroy their bottom line? Are these companies committing economic suicide in an altruistic attempt to feed the world? Obviously not. You can accuse Monsanto of many things, including myriad corporate crimes over many decades, but altruism is not one of them. The vast majority of [genetically engineered crops] are not designed to decrease herbicide use, but to massively increase it."
A Toxic Plague
The New York Times' Hakim notes that, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, while insecticide use has actually fallen by a third since GE crops were introduced in the U.S. in the mid-'90s, herbicide use has exploded, growing by more than a fifth over that same period. French farmers, by contrast, have been able to reduce insecticide use by a far greater margin—65 percent—while decreasing herbicide use by more than a third. "Although some insecticide use has been reduced, overall agrochemical applications have grown exponentially," said Kastel.
American tomatoes may take longer to rot than their conventionally grown European counterparts. But with GE tomatoes being one of the most pesticide-contaminated foods in the U.S. food supply—not to mention the fact they won't feed more people (there'll be a staggering 8.5 billion of us by 2030, 11.2 billion by 2100)—the Flavr Savr is just a trick and perhaps ultimately a dangerous one. While the real toll of industrialized GE agriculture on human and environmental health is hard to calculate, its track record is dismal. By some estimates, pesticides have killed an estimated 250 million bees in a just a few years. The New York Times reported that some commercial beekeepers have lost more than a third of their bees in 2013. Pesticides have also impacted populations of fish, amphibians and songbirds.
But it's not just wildlife that suffers. The general public is ingesting pesticides on a regular basis. Kastel notes that "eaters are consuming copious amounts of biological insecticides built into the genome of corn," adding that "the cumulative health impacts are unknown." People who live near GE crops have to contend with an additional health impact: pesticide drift, agrichemicals blown into their communities by the wind.
The heavy reliance on pesticides has started a vicious cycle, leading to the rise of pesticide-resistant superweeds. "Weeds and insects are becoming resistant to the herbicides and genetic insecticides that are spliced into the plants," said Gerritsen. "To combat resistance, some farmers are using a chemical cocktail of multiple herbicides while biotech companies are introducing resistance to even more powerful and toxic chemicals." He estimates there may be 60 to 80 million acres of farmland in the U.S. with "superweeds" that have built up a resistance to Roundup. Cummins said superweed resistance has forced farmers to "use higher and higher amounts of increasingly dangerous poisons" so that "soils are eroded and degraded. Water is polluted. Foods are contaminated. And to what end?"
It may take years, even decades to fully understand the unintended consequences of industrialized agriculture. "These chemicals are largely unknown," David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, told the New York Times. His research has linked the loss of millions of IQ points among children 5 years old and younger in the U.S. to a single class of insecticides. "We do natural experiments on a population," he said, referring to human exposure to agrichemicals, "and wait until it shows up as bad."
Activists of the World, Unite
Hakim also points out that "profound differences over genetic engineering have split Americans and Europeans for decades," noting that anti-GE sentiment across the pond has been much more active, with Monsanto drawing the ire of thousands of protesters in cities like Paris and Basel, as GE opposition is firmly established as a primary plank of Europe's Green political movement.
The prospect of a Monsanto-Bayer merger has only galvanized the opposition in Europe, even as activists recognize new and different kinds of challenges ahead. Jan Perhke of the Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers, a German NGO, says that Bayer's diversification has made it a more difficult target than Monsanto, whose business is simple: GE seeds and pesticides. Monsanto, which has emerged as the primary worldwide target of the anti-GE movement, has been steeped in controversy recently, particularly since Roundup's main ingredient glyphosate was deemed a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization in 2015.
States Join Fed's Antitrust Probes of #Bayer-#Monsanto, #Dow-#DuPont Mergers https://t.co/WirBDusi9Y @nongmoreport @NonGMOProject @Nutiva— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478621730.0
"We have tried to put the focus not only on Monsanto and to let people know that behind Monsanto there are many agrochemical multinationals which are very big and also have very dangerous products," Perhke told DW. There has been speculation that, if the merger goes through, Bayer will drop the Monsanto name, which would force activists to rebrand their campaigns.
Many anti-GE activists can be found in Vermont, the first state to pass GMO-labeling legislation. In its 2016 report Vermont's GMO Addiction: Pesticides, Polluted Water, and Climate Destruction, the nonprofit group Regeneration Vermont describes the terrible impact chemical-based industrial agriculture has had on the state's economy and environment:
The true nature of GMO agriculture in Vermont today is a stark and dangerous difference from the promises of its corporate advocates. According to data collected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, pesticide use is up 39% and increasing rapidly while, at the same time, new pesticides are being added to the arsenal. Climate-threatening nitrogen fertilizers have been up about 17% per year in the decade of GMO's rise to dominance (2002-2012) and climbing as our denuded soils require more and more inputs for high production. And the pollution to our climate, water and soil from these increases continues to rise, keeping us on a steady degenerative decline, environmentally, economically and culturally.
Lining Corporate Coffers
"The great economic promise of genetically engineered crops has flowed primarily to bankers, suppliers and the biotechnology industry," said Kastel. "Rather than improving the bottom line, it enabled farmers to grow larger and automate crop production with fewer people involved."
The agrichemical industry is the chief beneficiary of those economic benefits. Over the past 15 years, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto and Syngenta have grown more than sixfold. And these companies are profiting on both ends. "They sell the seeds and the poisons sprayed on those seeds. Great for their bottom line, terrible for the rest of us and the planet," said Kimbrell. "For Monsanto and the other chemical companies, genetically engineering crops is just another way to significantly increase profits." If the mergers of Monsanto and Bayer on one side, and Syngenta and ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned agrichemical company, on the other, were to go through, the two newly created behemoths would each have combined values in excess of $100 billion.
Meanwhile, bees are dying in worrisome numbers, in part due to the increased use of neonicotinoids, a dangerous class of pesticides produced by Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical and commonly used on GE corn, soybean, canola and cereal, as well as many fruits and vegetables. But because bees work for free, the estimated $15 billion in ecosystem services they provide to society each year is not included in economic calculations.
Is It Too Late?
Even as crop yields have shown no improvement versus conventional methods, U.S. growers have increased their use of herbicides as they have converted key crops—including cotton, corn and soybean—to modified varieties. Meanwhile, American farmers have been overtaken by their counterparts in France, Europe's biggest agricultural producer, in the overall reduction of pesticides.
Is it too late for the U.S. and Canada to get off this ruinous track of industrialized agriculture? For advocates of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture and agroecology—who seek to place farming within the context of natural ecosystems as opposed to objects of chemical-based production—the answer is a resounding no.
Regenerative Agriculture Will Feed the World and Cool the Planet https://t.co/qWmR0ZPF79 @SoilAssociation @RootsofChange— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478818866.0
"Research has shown that agroecologically based methods—such as organic fertilizers, crop rotation and cover crops—can succeed in meeting our food needs while avoiding the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture," argues the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "As farmers incorporate these practices into their work, many benefits emerge: Less pollution. Healthier, more fertile soil that is less vulnerable to drought and flooding. A lighter impact on surrounding ecosystems, resulting in greater biodiversity. Reduced global warming impact. Less antibiotic and pesticide resistance."
In fact, a 2015 global study conducted by researchers at Washington State University and published in the peer-reviewed Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences found that despite lower yields, the profit margins for organic agriculture are significantly greater than conventional agriculture. Part of that increased profit margin may come from not having to pay a premium for Big Ag's seeds and pesticides.
"Why would a farmer want to pay a premium for Roundup Ready soybeans if the Roundup is no longer working?" Gerritsen said. "What has been happening, widespread, is that farmers are going back to non-GE soybeans and growing them as they did before the Roundup Ready soybeans came in 20 years ago. Then, the best among them have figured out that there is a growing market worldwide for a non-GMO soybeans."
He notes that some U.S. farmers raising conventionally grown, non-GMO soybeans have found competitive markets in Asia, where they receive a premium for their produce. An added benefit for these farmers is that they can save their seeds instead of having to buy them each season from Monsanto, which actually leases its seeds and regulates them as intellectual property. For thousands of years prior, seeds were considered a part of the wealth of the commons, free and available to anyone who planted and grew crops.
But moving from industrial agriculture to organic farming isn't easy, especially when the transition period to get organic certification exposes growers to financial risk. The authors of the Washington State University study say that the impetus for change must come from policymakers, who should "develop government policies that support conventional farmers converting to organic and other sustainable systems, especially during the transition period," a 36-month withdrawal period from the time a farmer last used an unapproved material, like a pesticide.
But considering the powerful Big Ag lobby, getting policymakers to help farmers move to organic is a daunting task. Gerritsen acknowledges that "it's hard to out-gun the tremendous resources of Monsanto and what basically amounts to a calculated propaganda effort to misrepresent reality, to gain position and dominance." He said the deck is stacked against farmers. "Sadly, this is nothing new to agriculture. The history of agriculture is one where farmers who were spread out and independent by nature and by geography have a hard time competing with the concentrated power structures within agriculture. This has gone on for 150 years. Only now, the accelerated rates of concentration is no more stark than in the seed industry. Just a small handful of companies now control the vast majority of world seed resources. Monsanto is chief among them."
If regulators approve the $66 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger, the resulting corporation would have control of nearly a third of the world's seed market and nearly a fourth of the pesticide market.
"In all probability, one story, albeit a major one, is probably not enough to finally debunk Monsanto and friends' Big Lie about GE crop technology," Andrew Kimbrell said about the New York Times' analysis. "You will probably continue to see the common sense-defying claims for a while yet. But if as the ancients said, the truth is like a lion; just let it loose. Then maybe we can finally go past the already failed but still dangerous GE experiment and move to an ecological agriculture that really will reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides and provide a secure sustainable food future for us all."
Whether or not the U.S. and Canada will move toward a more sustainable agricultural model remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The 20-year-old experiment with genetically engineered crops has proven to be a false promise, suggesting that the creation of completely new organisms is better left in the hands of Mother Nature, not scientists in laboratories.
"When you begin to genetically engineer organisms by mixing plant and animal genes, you now have the ability to alter ecosystems, which can have unintended consequences," Robert Colangelo, founding farmer and CEO of Green Sense Farms, America's largest network of commercial and sustainable indoor vertical farms, told AlterNet. "Mankind does not have a good track record when it tries to alter nature."
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?
By Laura Beil
Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
Vitamin D<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vitamin-d-supplements-lose-luster" target="_blank">Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied</a> supplements (<em>SN: 1/27/19</em>). <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-12/" target="_blank">Certain foods</a>, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections:</strong> In 2017, the <em>British Medical Journal</em> published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583" target="_blank">might help prevent respiratory infections</a>, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.</p><p>But one key word here is <em>deficient. </em>That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).</p><p>"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.</p><p>And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19:</strong> Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.</p>
Zinc<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6457799/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies of using zinc for colds</a> — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in <em>BMJ Open</em> <a href="https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e031662" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">did not find any value for zinc lozenges</a> for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.</p><p><strong>What we know about zinc and COVID-19:</strong> The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine-no-evidence-treatment" target="_blank">hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19</a> (<em>SN: 8/2/20</em>).)</p>
Vitamin C<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.</p><p><strong>Why it might help:</strong> It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong>Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the <em>Journal of Medical Virolog</em>y, looked at <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jmv.25707" target="_blank">what is already known about vitamin C</a> and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."</p><p>But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">didn't support the idea</a> that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: </strong>About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.</p><p>In a review published online in July in <em>Nutrition</em>, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vitamin may help prevent infection</a> and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.</p><p>Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's <a href="https://www.drugsincontext.com/can-vitamins-and-or-supplements-provide-hope-against-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful</a>, the pair concluded in July in <em>Drugs in Context</em>. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.</p><p>And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."</p>
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By Elliot Douglas
In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."
The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.
“Rather than a Moonshot 🌕, we need Earthshots 🌍 for this decade.” Watch Prince William’s @Tedtalks talk in full:… https://t.co/m5NCj6TQzH— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)1602408749.0
But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.
With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?
'Count Me In'
"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.
Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.
"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."
Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.
German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.
"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"
"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.
Assessing Success Is Complex
But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.
"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.
Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.
"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."
A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.
"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.
Awareness Is Not Enough
Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.
"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."
But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.
"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."
However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.
Choosing the Right Celebrity
Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.
For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."
McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.
But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.
But Does It Really Work?
While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.
"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.
This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.
The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.
"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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