Science, emotion, and labeling GMOs

Last month, Washington state tried- and failed- to pass a ballot measure that would mandate labeling of GMOs.  While some of my friends were quite zealous in their advocacy of the measure, I was fairly ambivalent about it, and wasn’t sure how to vote.  On one hand, people do have a right to be informed on what’s in their food.  On the other hand, there’s no real evidence that there’s a health risk associated with GMOs (a belief which seems implicit, and often is explicit, in GMO labeling supporters), and labeling them may cause unneeded alarm.  Ultimately, I didn’t get a chance to vote- I ended up being called away due to an unexpected family emergency before I could mail off my ballot- but the debate obviously still continues.

Part, I think, of what has made this particular debate so spirited is that while it is ostensibly grounded in science, the parameters of the discussion often stray far from the realm of the scientific method.  An article I stumbled across the summer really highlighted this for me – that, when you get down to it, an awful lot of the rhetoric around GMOs is ultimately grounded in an emotional response.

More specifically, I think there is a feeling, conscious or unconscious, that GMOs are somehow fundamentally trespassing in Nature/God’s Domain/whatever you want go call it, and this perception of unnaturalness elicits a strong reaction of disgust.  An anecdotal example of this occurred when some of the other TAs of the environmental science course I teach were discussing Proposition 522, and one mentioned that it should be easy to get people in support of labeling: after all, all you’d have to is bring up an example like the fish tomato, and people would be grossed out enough they’d support labeling.  He went on to comment on how terrible a fish tomato must taste, and speculate on whether it might have scales or not.

The problem is, there are no genes for fish scales-or any other high morphological structure, really. Genes, at the fundamental level, only do one thing, and that is biochemistry.  In the case of the fish tomato, the gene only produced an enzyme derived from fish that ostensibly would prevent damage from freezing (and which, incidentally, proved to be ineffective and never made it to market anyway).  Anything more complicated than that is the result of many genes in many cells working together to actually produce a complex organism[1].  This is an aspect of biology that really should be stressed more- I suspect a lot of the concern about GMOs among the lay public stems from people not really knowing how genes and genetic modification really work in the first place.

Regardless, I believe it is this sense of disgust- perhaps inspired by an incomplete understanding of biology- that motivates much of the sentiment behind the push to label GMOs. And, the thing is, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.  Some people don’t like lobster, or coconut, or escargot, because they think it’s gross.  Kosher is a labeling standard entirely born out of non-scientific concern.

The trouble arises from attempting to find scientific, objective justification of what is ultimately a subjective response.  I suspect this is why so many activists are convinced that GMOs must somehow be bad for you, even though after 20 years there’s virtually no evidence that’s the case- how can they not be, as unnatural and gross as they are? But this line of thought can only lead to trouble- either because it erodes the credibility of more legitimate concerns about GMOs (such as their impact on the wider ecosystems, or the ethical issues that come with patenting DNA [2]), or because it could conceivable set people  up for a “boy-who-cried-wolf” event if a GMO is ever found to be dangerous after making it to market- essentially, after years of being warned that GMOs are unhealthy without any evidence to back it up, people then ignore legitimate warnings.

Thus, I guess, in the grand scheme of things, I would have voted against labeling if I had the chance.  While Nathanael Johnson has argued that labeling could actually help the reputation of GMOs due to how people perceive assumed and involuntary risks [3], I’m not sure if I share his optimism.  Regardless, I suspect it’ll be a little while before there’s another attempt at labeling, at least here anyway, so it’s probably a moot point for the time being anyway.

[1] Because of this, I also tend to get annoyed when anti-GMO activists complain that biology (and sometimes science in general) is overly reductionist- if anything, biotechnology is actually more holistic than ever, they just haven’t bothered to educate themselves about it.

[2] This is actually the major point that concerns me- more to the point, given the capacity of genes for reproduction and horizontal transfer, it strikes me as very difficult to come up with an effective way to maintain intellectual property control on a GMO, especially if it’s something like the AquAdvantage Salmon[4], which is mobile.  Recall how the recording industry reacted to downloadable mp3s- now imagine how they would have reacted if mp3 were capable of making copies of themselves, and could install themselves on your friends’ computers without your knowledge or consent.

[3] This brings up another topic in the debate- the so-called Precautionary Principle.  Basically stated, the principle is that a new technology or product should be assumed “guilty until proven innocent”- i.e., that it shouldn’t be made available until it has been proven that it is not harmful.  In theory, I fully support this idea, particularly when it comes to industrial chemicals (at least in comparison to the approach used here in the U.S., where chemicals are assumed safe until proven otherwise, and which has lead to some nasty surprises in the past).  However, the devil is in the details- since you can’t logically prove a negative, you can’t “prove” that something won’t ever harm you.  As a result, at some point you end up taking a position based on risk assessment- is the risk of a detrimental effect sufficiently low enough that it is outweighed by the benefit of whatever this new thing is.  The problem arises from the fact that, as Johnson points out, people tend to be pretty bad at accurately assessing risks.  I would love to see the Precautionary Principle enacted in the U.S., but we’d need to make a point to educate people on how better to assess and understand risks before doing so.

[4] Actually, I am opposed to the AquAdvantage Salmon- not because of any medical, scientific, ecological, ethical, or legal concern, but simply because “AquAdvantage” sounds like something Douglas Adams would come up with.  “New!  From Sirius Cybernetics Corporation!  The AquAdvantage Salmon!”  Seriously, guys.  Couldn’t you come up with a less bland and corporate-y sounding name?


About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
This entry was posted in Criticism, Environmentalism, GMOs. Bookmark the permalink.

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