GMO Labeling a Good or Bad Thing?: Consumers want labels because their food choices are, at least in part, expressions of their affinities, aspirations and fears. The coercion of mandatory labeling ought to be reserved for information that is relevant to health Image: Alexis Baden-Mayer/Flickr
SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.
There’s a chilling moment in act 3 of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s great allegory of McCarthyism, that gives me the shivers every time. Threatening a witness whose wife has been falsely accused of witchcraft in 1692 Massachusetts, the zealous judge declares, “But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there is no road between.” The shocked husband abruptly realizes he is trapped; all remaining hope drains from his face—and yours.
I think about that scene when I hear the way many of my environmentalist friends talk about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, an ill-fitting term that has come to stand for plants, animals and other living things whose genes have been directly manipulated in the lab using the techniques of modern biotechnology. (Ill-fitting because humans have been indirectly, and much less precisely, modifying plant and animal genomes for thousands of years via selective breeding, and evolution has been doing it for as long as there has been life on Earth.)
The same plague of us-or-them absolutism that has infested the small community of self-described “climate skeptics,” wrecking any chance they could have played a positive role in critiquing mainstream climatology, now threatens to overwhelm the much larger “safe food” movement, too. It’s hard to have an intelligent conversation about how, when and whether to use GMOs when a huckster like alternative medicine guru Joseph Mercola calls them “one of the largest threats that we have against the very sustainability of the human race.” Such scaremongering is especially painful to me because even though I do not think that government-approved GMO foods pose meaningful health risks to consumers, and even though I believe strategic genetic engineering can be an important tool to ease human suffering on our warming and resource-constrained planet, I share the concerns of many environmentalists about the homogenization and consolidation of the global food system—trends that are accelerated by the spread of industrially produced GMOs.
There’s still plenty of debate focused on whether the monocultures and dependencies fostered by first-generation GMO products like Monsanto’s pest-resistant corn and cotton and Roundup Ready soybeans nullify their purported benefits of higher yields and reduced insecticide use. But what is beyond dispute is that those products were introduced not because they were the best way to employ genetic engineering to address critical global food issues, but because they were thought to be the fastest, most reliable route to profits for Monsanto and other producers.
Their adoption of a profits-first strategy was a fateful decision because the seemingly endless furor over Roundup Ready and other first-generation GMOs, fomented by green campaigners and Monsanto’s own missteps, have turned world public opinion decisively against bioengineered foods. Even in the U.S., whose citizens are more open-minded about GMOs than Europeans, the signs are ominous. We are all reaping what Monsanto has sown, and it is a bitter harvest for those of us who think that humanitarian-driven GMO projects such as drought-tolerant maize and vitamin-fortified cassava, developed by nonprofits and thoroughly tested by local researchers, should already be in wide use in countries that want them. Whereas GMOs should never be seen as a panacea, they can do a world of good as important tools within a broader strategy to combat starvation, disease and environmental degradation in places like sub-Saharan Africa.