GMO Label Soapbox

Forgive me for a moment while I stay up on this soapbox and write some more about genetically modified organisms and labeling. After a few days discussing it in a few online forums, I feel the need to write a lot down. But I’m a really long-winded writer so there will be multiple posts. I considered not posting these at all, but with the California initiative and misinformation flying every which way, repetition is useful.

Likely posts in this series:

  • GMO Labels and Ignorance. I think the current GMO labeling plans will just exacerbate fear-driven reactions to technology due to ignorance and, to be honest, intentional exploitation with exaggerated claims. The result might be decreased use of GM crops and restricting the field (possibly leaving it even more in the exclusive realm of large agribusiness, such as Monsanto).
  • Label Everything. A tongue-in-cheek guide to other facts you have a right to know about your food.
  • GM Safety Studies. There are some common claims of danger cited from genetically modified foods. This post will detail what these studies are and why they might not be as scary as they sound.
  • Useful Food Labeling. What I really would want to see in food labeling if we normalize labeling non-safety related information.

But first, let me set a few things down with little explanation but so you’ll know where my biases lie:

  • I don’t in general object to labeling that food contains genetically engineered ingredients. Rather I think current proposals are ill-thought out and don’t add more information than currently. Since such labeling might also have unfortunate long-term effects, I’m even more skeptical of their usefulness. But, I also tend to believe mandatory labeling should be primarily about nutrition and safety and that voluntary systems are very effective at providing niche labels (e.g. the NonGMO project). It’s not clear to me that it’s so hard to find non-GE food that a mandatory label is necessary.
  • Genetic modification is a neutral technology and can be used for good or bad. I think most GM crops on the market are generally useful even the ones Monsanto and similar companies provide. They may not be saving the world from hunger, but they are reducing pesticide applications by massive amounts as well as decreasing soil and runoffs and decreasing CO2 outputs (through “no till” methods possible on a large scale with herbicide resistance traits).
  • I think conflating bad actors in the field (e.g. Monsanto) with the technology is bad for our civilization. Regulate the bad actors, but don’t excessively restrict the technology. Restricting the technology means it’s harder for “good actors” (such as universities and non-profits) to create useful technology that isn’t controlled by profit-driven interests.
  • I think people are in general very bad about considering trade-offs with unfamiliar technology and somewhat unwilling to try. We accept risks like getting into car accidents because they are familiar and we understand what we get in return. But for technology, we tend to consider the “worst case” as most likely and don’t consider benefits. In the field of genetic engineering, this means some of us believe proof of absolute safety is needed before it can be used, even though historically this isn’t how new technology is introduced.

If you want to know any of my other biases (I have many!) feel free to email me or contact me on twitter.