Alright. I’m coming out of hibernation for this one. I have a lot of mixed feelings regarding this issue. If you aren’t in the loop yet, a couple of days ago the US House of Representatives passed a bill which would stop states from requiring genetically engineered (GE) food to be labeled as such. As readers of the blog will know, I’m a scientist, not a legal scholar. I haven’t read the entire bill (just like most of the representatives who voted on it). That being said, I figure if politicians are allowed to make woefully misinformed decisions on laws regarding scientific issues, I’m at least allowed to register an opinion on their job right?
My reactions are complicated, and they come from the viewpoint of an informed scientist and someone who leans libertarian, politically.
I. States’ Rights
Contrary to what most people might expect of me, my initial reaction was a little bit of disappointment. In my view, centralized and overgrown government is a threat to individual liberties in this country. We are a republic of states, and I therefore support the rights of states to make decisions and essentially govern themselves. That being said, I’m not a hard ass on this topic, I know there are certain things that ought to be centralized. However, whenever I hear that states have been prevented from making any decision for themselves, it means that the federal government is tugging the leash tighter.
On the other hand, in this case, the federal government is preventing the states from imposing more rules and limitations on people. Regardless of whether it is a state or federal law, I’m against it if it isn’t absolutely necessary. There’s no need to legislate my comfort. In my view, the government should ensure the safety, freedom and equality of all persons. A law which forces all GMO foods to be labeled as GMO foods serves none of these purposes, and indeed it infringes on freedoms. Now I know some people might argue that GMO foods are dangerous so an anti-GMO bill would actually be ensuring people’s safety. First of all, those people are grossly misinformed. Not only are they grossly misinformed, but they have almost definitely been shown the multitude of studies on GMO safety and chosen instead to march ahead with their worldview to get away from the cognitive dissonance related with being shown the truth. This puts them on the same level as people against vaccines or gay marriage or cannabis. Second of all, even though this is not a post about GMO safety (maybe another time!), I will briefly entertain that argument, leaving aside the more complex studies and addressing it superficially.
II. Broad Non-specific Laws
GMO is obviously a pretty big buzz acronym of late, but really it’s kind of a silly name. Genetically Modified Organisms. The most literal reading of the term implies that it refers to all living things which have had their genetic material modified…ever. Technically, this includes every food crop humans have ever cultivated. The corn, the tomatoes, the rice, and almost every plant we eat has been selectively bred in the past by centuries of farmers selecting for larger fruits or faster growth or pest resistance, etc. If we were to require labeling on all organisms which had ever been genetically modified, well that would be every single plant product in the store. This is obviously too broad to offer anyone the knowledge they need if they want to avoid what they think of as GMOs (although as I’ve insinuated, what many people think of as a GMO is a much narrower idea than what GMOs really are). You can already see how a law like that could easily be abused to obsolescence.
So then the law would need to be more specific right? When a lot of people think of GMOs, maybe they are thinking about crops which have been genetically engineered by some sort of genome editing. These are the kinds of techniques which allow scientists to take a gene which makes a grass resistant to caterpillars and put it into corn, so the corn can resist the pest too (this is just an example). But what about older methods of genetic modification? Some techniques involve forcing the plant to undergo random mutagenesis. This is one of the techniques which has, admittedly, a much less controllable outcome. That being said, I do want it to be clear that the chance of accidentally causing the plant to make some terrible toxin it doesn’t already make via this method is infinitesimal, nigh impossible. Not to mention this would be caught in subsequent tests.
There are a great number of ways that science can engineer crops to be better. The variety of techniques itself already complicates the matter. What kinds of techniques do we want to ban. Is this ban because we really think they are unsafe? Which techniques would be okay? What if we decide to ban foods produced via random mutagenesis. So then would we have to take away all the crops which have been rescued by these kinds of techniques, or at least label them? What if the crop is grown primarily by small farmers in Hawaii, and the GMO label causes less people to buy it because they are misinformed about what the dangers are (or more aptly, what the dangers aren’t). Now all those poor Hawaiian farmers, what are they going to do! All because some upper-middle class, privileged groups think that pest-resistant corn is icky.
Now I know some people must be thinking “Author of Anthrax Laundromat, what do you mean poor hawaiian farmers? All GMOs are made by Monsanto and benefit Monsanto! Well have I got news for you.
III. Entertaining the Fabricated Dangers of GMOs
Not only can scientists make plants which grow faster, or have larger fruits, or are naturally seedless. Technology allows us, for example, to make a plant which produces a vital nutrient. This is precisely the case with “Golden Rice”, which is a rice crop which has been engineered to produce vitamin A. The seeds for these real life super-foods was distributed to poor farmers, and has saved thousands and thousands of lives which would have been threatened by blindness and other vitamin A deficiency symptoms.
Does Monsanto reap enormous gains from GMO crops? Of course. However, this is a problem with their business, and with agriculture. It’s not something that will be solved by going after GMOs. All we’ll do in that case is legitimize the terrorist acts committed by groups which destroy or otherwise keep golden rice and other vital foods from suffering populations. Again, on the whim of privileged rich people (Greenpeace supports the destruction of vital GMO crops in the Philippines)
In the end, it’s a good thing that this bill was passed. It prevents states from infringing on individual liberties with no good reason, and it also refuses to legitimize the continued efforts of anti-GMO activists (and terrorists, in some cases) to attack these crops.