But would mandatory labeling, even if unwarranted, really be such a disaster? I don’t think so. There are good reasons to believe that the deleterious effects of mandated labels will fall more heavily on commercial producers like Monsanto than on the broader cause of food bioengineering. The most important reason is that secrecy is a key driver of risk perception heuristics: When information is being withheld from us, we immediately assume the worst. That’s especially true if the topic is complex and poorly understood, which is why right-to-know is the most powerful argument the anti-GMO forces have. (Journalist and GMO advocate Mark Lynas, who favors labeling, made this point well in a recent speech.) For all their shortcomings, label laws would at least partially disarm the conspiracy theorists and nudge the mainstream debate in the right direction: toward a clear-eyed, case-by-case discussion of the costs and benefits of specific GMOs.
Scientists who spend their time fighting labeling also risk eroding their standing with a distrustful public, especially those in the middle who are suspicious of GMOs but may yet be persuaded the technology is worthwhile—unless they sense that information is being withheld from them. Transparency is a hallmark of good science (and good journalism), but when we push for more of it only when it benefits us directly, yet oppose the types of disclosure the public overwhelmingly wants, we look like hypocrites or worse. History is littered with the consequences of this type of duplicity; I describe a particularly horrifying example in my most recent book about long-hidden pollution in an American town.
So instead of resisting labeling laws that are almost certainly coming anyway, Scientific American and the broader science community should respond to the crisis of public confidence in food biotechnology by speaking up much more aggressively in support of GMOs that have obvious humanitarian benefits. For GMOs whose benefits are not as clear, let’s be just as aggressive in expressing well-founded reservations instead of acting like any criticism is a betrayal. Of course, science will never be able to speak with one voice on genetic engineering; there will always be disagreements about the merits of specific applications. But that is exactly what the public must understand before the ruinous discourse over GMO foods can shift to more productive ground.
For the sake of the world’s malnourished billions and its overtaxed soil, water and biota, we need to prove that the absolutists are wrong and that there really is a road between.