Science and the Labeling of GMOs
22 Feb, 2012
There have been several articles talking about opposition to GMO foods as being “anti-science” and raising the issue of the precautionary principle1, but in fairness, we have to consider what the role of the precautionary principle is, before we just blow it off as an alarmist parlor trick.
Let’s be clear. ALL questions have scientific legitimacy and some may be well-thought out, while others may be totally off the mark. This doesn’t make them unscientific, it just makes them uninformed. If a particular view persists after the proper information has been provided, then the individual could be accused of being unscientific, or at least obstinate.
However, when answers are not clearly provided, then one can’t simply argue that these are fears raised in an anti-science appeal because one would then have to answer the question of what possible difference such a position would make. After all, what difference if someone is anti-Newton or anti-Einstein. Even those that oppose Darwin are largely irrelevant except for one thing…. it isn’t about the science.
The only time anti-science is raised as a position is when the issue isn’t about science in the first place. It’s about public policy and economics. It doesn’t particularly matter if I think GMO foods are safe or unsafe, unless someone is trying to use the power of the government to force me to consume them [especially if it's without my express knowledge]. Just as AGW opinions aren’t relevant unless someone is attempting to establish an economic policy or legislate actions.
This brings us to the crux of the problem. We all have our political views, and clearly there will be some items we agree with and other we don’t based solely on our political orientation in some cases. So, when our political views are challenged, it doesn’t automatically mean the opposing side is “anti-science”, or “anti-capitalism”, or anti-whatever. What it does mean is that, in the absence of accepted evidence, we have a disagreement about something that is being pushed for public policy decisions.
Here’s some of the existing problems with GMO foods that have NOT been adequately addressed.
1. If the objective is to feed the world’s hungry, then how do GMO foods solve the political/economic/distribution problems that have prevented existing food supplies from reaching those in need?
2. If GMO foods are targeted for this environment, then why are they being marketed in areas that have no need of them?
3. What is the economic model that is supposed to resolve feeding the world’s hungry [who, by definition, have no money]?
4. Why are the corporations so opposed to letting the free market decide by proper labeling of GMO foods?
It’s this last one that is particularly troubling. In the first place, we already know that it is a blatant lie to claim that nothing ever has a negative effect. So, scientific honesty would argue that while GMO foods are as safe as anything currently produced, we already know that people die just as readily from common foods. So in truth, we would expect that some people, for whatever reason, may react adversely to GMO foods.
This doesn’t make GMO foods unsafe or unhealthy, it’s simply recognizing there out of 7 billion people, there will be some percentage that will suffer some unexpected consequence or reaction.
We do know that many people are unusually sensitive to allergies* as they pertain to foods, so without specific evidence to the contrary (which is impossible to obtain), we would again have to argue that prudence dictates we accept that some percentage of individuals may be affected.
Once again, this isn’t an argument against GMO foods, since such sensitive individuals will always be at risk for some foods.
Certainly we can improve things by having better information, but this is where the labeling issue becomes really troublesome.
If we are serious about introducing a significant change in our food supply, then what’s the rush? We can readily introduce it. People are free to purchase it or not. We can use it in parts of the world that would benefit the most. What’s the problem?
The problem is that if we don’t label the food, then we can’t ever determine whether there are negative effects. In short, we would be running a massive scientific experiment on the world’s food supply with absolutely no data to correlate any possibly negative [or positive] results.
So, if we’re going to talk about being anti-scientific. Then let’s acknowledge that the most un-scientific aspect of this whole thing is to restrict the data being collected so that some corporations that want to reap the benefits of this technology can escape liability in the event that they’re wrong.
I’m not being anti-corporation in this. Instead I smell a rat when corporations are looking for legal protections to sell me a product that I don’t need. I don’t need GMO foods… and I don’t need a scientific community that would be willing to give up its ability to collect data so that someone’s economic forecast looks rosier. However, for those that think I’m being unduly critical of corporations and their ability to bring products to market, consider this. Perhaps someone can explain why corporations would be willing to spend millions of dollars lobbying legislators precisely to ensure that no one knows they have a product on the market?
As I’ve said before. It’s a simple solution. Label the foods and let the free market decide how acceptable they are. This would also ensure that we can readily track the data on how well these GMO foods perform. Without that, its simply another form of marketing.
1. The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. Source: WikiPedia