Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and Emmanuel Bronner

Having a cult following among hippies, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap boasts to have many uses besides simply cleansing skin, such as toothpaste and breath freshener. We should also include supporting anti-agriculture campaigns and spreading the sermons of a mad scientist.

Escape from the Asylum

Dr. Bronner was a German immigrant who was committed to an asylum by his sister, finally escaping and making his way to California in 1947. Bronner, a devotee to nude sunbathing, feared fluoridation of the water supply and (falsely) claimed to be the nephew of Einstein.

If committal to an asylum seems extreme, think again: Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap bottles are covered with what must seem like the ravings of a lunatic. Each bottle of soap comes with a message, sometimes totaling 6,000 words in tiny print, regarding what Bronner termed the “The moral ABC of astronomy’s Eternal ALL-ONE-GOD-FAITH [that] unites the Human Race!” Bronner spoke of “uniting spaceship Earth” and believed that Halley’s Comet was the Messiah.

The full “Moral ABC” is available as a 72-page pamphlet on Dr. Bronner’s website and ranges from general rants about the universe to specific advice, such as how to supposedly use a mixture of lemon juice and Vaseline as birth control.

The good doctor—whose credentials are unclear—died in 1997, but his “Magic Soap” company lives on today. (Bronner claimed that by being a “soap maker master chemist” he had the German equivalent of a Ph.D. in chemistry.) Bronner’s son Jim rescued Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps from bankruptcy in 1988, turning the organization from a nonprofit into a for-profit. The company is now run by Bronner’s grandson, David, who agreed to lead the company “on activist terms” after a stint immersing himself in the drug culture of Amsterdam. David Bronner has been arrested twice for hemp activism.

Anti-Biotechnology Activism

While the quirky Bronner may have been an excellent chemist, biology isn’t necessarily his company’s forte. In 2013, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps removed “Moral ABC” rants from soap bottles and replaced them with “agitprop” promoting I-522, a ballot measure in Washington State that would mandate labels on foods containing ingredients that were genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Dr. Bronner’s is a leading funder of both the Washington state initiative and a similar 2012 referendum in California that failed by a 6-point margin.

Dr. Bronner’s claims that genetic engineering equals “more pesticides” and thus “more profit for chemical companies,” which is a bit odd given that the use of genetic engineering to grow crops more efficiently has led to a decrease in the application of pesticides. One ready example is Bt corn, which has a gene inserted from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria to kill pests. This cuts back on the amount of insecticide farmers have to use (organic farmers spray this bacteria onto their crops). This misses another point: Modern pesticides themselves are not very hazardous.

Dr. Bronner’s also claims that people “should have the right to choose” whether to buy products with genetically modified ingredients—which people already do. They can buy organic. And producers can put GM-free labels on their food. But since Dr. Bronner’s also has a line of “organic” snacks, which by definition contain no GM ingredients, the company may think it would benefit from a scare campaign about genetically modified foods.

Dr. Bronner’s also implies that GMOs could carry a long-term health risk, a scare tactic repeated ad nauseum by anti-GMO cranks, claiming no long-term independent safety studies have been performed on the possible health risks of GMOs. It’s a desperate argument that anti-GMO zealots use because all the current science indicates that there is, and has been, no harm at all from human consumption of these crops. The World Health Organization writes that “no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” The FDA evaluates genetically improved foods, and notes that (contrary to what some activists would have you believe) “the foods we have evaluated through the consultation process have not been more likely to cause an allergic or toxic reaction than foods from traditionally bred plants.” In addition to the FDA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the European Commission have all found that GM crops are as safe as non-GM varieties.

It’s the oft-regurgitated, and impossible, task required by anti-GMO activists who demand that scientists prove a negative by proving that GMOs aren’t harmful. That’s like asking someone to prove that space aliens won’t invade Earth tomorrow. It can’t be proven. But the relevant scientific authorities have conducted enough analysis to determine that GMOs are just as safe as other foods.

The debate comes down to this: Would you rather trust seasoned biologists and plant experts, or a “Magic Soap” company founded by a raving madman?