Why Science Denialism Is Costing Us A Fortune

Farmer Gene

GMO Answers Forbes blog has recently published a piece by Dr. Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto.

In “Why Science Denialism Is Costing Us A Fortune,” Dr. Fraley opens by arguing that climate change, vaccines and GMOs are popular targets of the war on science. In his piece, Dr. Fraley focuses on the financial costs of scientific denialism in the areas of vaccinations, climate change and genetically modified crops:

In case you haven’t heard, the moon landings were faked, the measles vaccine causes autism, climate change is a hoax, and genetically modified crops (GMOs) are, you know, the pits. If you want evidence, just check the Internet.

Without genetically modified crops, the price of food would be 5 to 10 percent higher than it is now.

Without genetically modified crops, the price of food would be 5 to 10% higher than it is now. 

Scientists like me adopt all kinds of strategies in trying to combat these beliefs, which we sometimes refer to collectively as “science denialism.” We write articles citing scientific evidence, testify before regulators, give interviews to reporters, and earnestly soldier on with our work. Polls show that on some issues we seem to influence public opinion, on other issues not so much.

So in this piece, I want to take a different approach. Instead of discussing the scientific issues or matters of human or planetary health, I want to talk money – specifically, the financial costs of scientific denialism in the areas of vaccinations, climate change and genetically modified crops.

The Real Costs of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Although vaccinations to prevent diseases are one of mankind’s greatest achievements, fear-mongering over them pervades the Internet. And needless measles outbreaks like the ones we saw last winter don’t only cause illness and anxiety; they also cost the public money. In 2011, 16 measles outbreaks involving a total of 107 cases were found by doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to have created a “total economic burden on local and state public health institutions of an estimated $2.7 million to $5.3 million US dollars.” Although cost estimates aren’t available, that burden was presumably higher in 2014, when there were 23 outbreaks, with more than 600 cases, and again this year, when there were more than 180 cases just through July, most of them tied to one big outbreak that started in California.

Besides those dollars there are private costs too: for doctors’ visits, for time missed on the job by working parents, and so on. Studies show the cost of each case exceeds $10,000.

In short, both the public and some parents pay a price for what the anti-vaxxers have wrought.

The Real Costs of Climate Change

Here one could argue that, with only the fate of the world as we’ve known it at stake, cost estimates might be simply too challenging, as well as in some ways beside the point.

But efforts have been made to itemize where some of the current and potential economic costs of climate change will be felt in the absence of aggressive action to slow it.

A 2014 report sponsored by the nonprofit, bipartisan Risky Business Project sought to quantify some of the impacts of climate change on just the United States. It found that if we continue on our current path, by 2050:

  • Between $66 billion and $106 billion of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level; by 2100 the numbers go to $238 billion to $507 billion.
  • The average American will likely experience 27 to 50 days a year in which temperatures exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit – two to three times more than the average of the past 30 years. The economic results will include:
    • Dramatically lower productivity for outdoor workers
    • Surging demand for electricity to power air conditioners
    • Crop losses in some parts of the country of up to 50% to 70%

The Real Costs of Eliminating GMOs

Finally, consider the economic consequences if the critics of genetic modification were to have their way and eliminate this technology, in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus in its favor.

PG Economics, a British agricultural economics consulting firm, calculated that in 2013 farmers worldwide realized a net economic benefit of $20.5 billion from planting GMO crops. Farmers in the developing world, many of them poor and working small plots, actually get a higher return on each dollar invested in GMO seeds  than their counterparts in the developed world, PG found.

Meanwhile, in 2014 researchers at the University of California Berkley published a study examining the impact of genetic modification on food prices. They calculated that in 2010, the adoption of genetic modification lowered corn prices by 13% and cotton prices by 18%. One of the researchers, David Zilberman, professor of agriculture and resource economics, estimated that without bioengineered crops, the price of food would be 5 to 10% higher than it is now  – especially for meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and processed food.

Also important is the impact that GMO crops can have on the amount of time small holder farmers and their families spend controlling insects and hand-weeding their fields. In many African countries, as much as 90 percent of the farm work is done by women and children. In these societies, therefore, GMOs offer kids the chance to go to school instead – and thereby escape generational poverty traps.

Take away genetic modification, Zilberman noted, and “The poorest people will suffer the most.”

The Real Costs of Science Denialism

Science denial isn’t only jeopardizing our health and the future of our planet, although that’s quite enough.

It’s also costing us a fortune.

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