Planting Seeds

On Wednesday, Kickstarter changed its guidelines, adding a ban on offering genetically modified organisms as rewards. The move came a few weeks after Glowing Plants raised $484,013 to engineer light-emitting plants, a project its creators call “the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting.”

When asked why they banned GMOs, Kickstarter offered the following anti-explanation to the Verge: “we aim to be as open as possible while protecting the health and creative spirit of Kickstarter for the long term.”

It’s notable that they use the word “health” in their response. One of the big points made by anti-GMO activists is that they’re not safe to eat. However, there is no substantial peer-reviewed scientific evidence to suggest that any GM foods on the market today are harmful to humans. On top of that, Kickstarter didn’t ban GM foods, but all GMOs. And as far as I know, I haven’t seen any stories that bioluminescent GMO plants cause skin cancer or anything like that (though that’d be a hell of a headline).

But regardless of what you think of GMOs, the case brings up a larger discussion that has haunted Kickstarter for the past few weeks: What drives Kickstarter’s decisions to ban or take down projects?

This isn’t the first new ban of the summer. In June, the company was widely criticized over a campaign to fund a “seduction guide” intended to teach men how to pick up women (including women who clearly didn’t want to be picked up). The funding date came and went so it was too late to take down the campaign. But Kickstarter issued an apology and banned future campaigns involving “sex/seduction guides.”

While they may not be in good taste, are all sex/seduction guides deplorable, or just the ones written by people who promote sexual assault? Neil Strauss’ “The Game” was good enough for the New York Times best seller list, but not Kickstarter? And while that was nominally an expose of pick-up culture, I’ve talked to more than a few awkward young men who view it as a de facto seduction guide. Meanwhile, other headscratching items banned from Kickstarter include sunglasses, makeup and “social networking apps.” What app doesn’t have a social component these days?

(Note, I’m not saying that the offensive seduction guide in question should have been allowed to stay on Kickstarter. I’m saying Kickstarter should have flagged it from the start.)

As for GMOs, yes there are risks beyond the as-yet unproven health concerns. People worry about modified genes spreading to organic fields, which is especially worrisome when the genes are patented, as some of Monsanto’s are. But there are already laws in place that govern shipping and exporting plants or seeds. If Glowing Plants can prove that their project is legal (which they maintain it is) then why should Kickstarter care? And if the project isn’t legal, why doesn’t Kickstarter say so?

Much like with the seduction guide scandal, it feels as if Kickstarter is merely reacting to public outcry by banning GMOs. According to an ABC News survey, fifty-seven percent of Americans say they’d be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified. And because it’s such a hot-button issue, it’s not hard to sympathize with Kickstarter for wanting to wash their hands of it completely.

But I worry that Kickstarter is tossing the baby out of the window with these across-the-board bans. All GM crops are different, carrying unique impacts on the environment and economics. Plenty of GM research is devoted to promoting sustainable farming practices. And sure, maybe it’s not a debate that Kickstarter wants to get into, I get that. But Kickstarter videos can be expensive and time-consuming to make. And if the platform continues its reputation of unilateral bans and vague explanations, then potential crowdfunders might just as easily not take the risk, and bring their business elsewhere.