Science, well sort of….my dog ate my GMO’s!

OK…Imagine this scenario…there is an issue that is being debated in the public sphere that is heavily informed by science.  But within the scientific community there is little real debate and in fact there is a broad, overwhelming consensus.  All leading scientific organizations, national academies around the world, and international agencies agree.  But there is a small group of folks who question or deny the science….and their influence on the policy debate is disproportionate to their numbers.  They may be at times motivated by economic interest, but almost always by an adherence to ideology over scientific data.  They utilize long debunked but well-worn methods in furthering their cause, such as cherry picking data to skew results, impugning the motivation of the scientists and using fear as a weapon in their fight. They ask science to provide what it cannot, absolute certainty, and cite this failure in their cause. Many are veterans of previous campaigns.

You’d be forgiven if you thought this was a summary of the battle lines in the climate change debate…but that’s not the issue I’m describing here today..... sorry folks…this is about the debate around GMO’s.  I’ve consciously not weighed in on this one to date (ugh, which would have meant reading a whole bunch of sciencey stuff…who has the time these days?), but I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.  And while there are a host of battle lines in this issue as well, today I’m going to focus on the debate around food labeling as embodied in California’s Proposition 37.

I’ll start by saying I’m honestly not trying to sway the opinions of the firmly decided.  Many have staked out their positions on both sides of this debate, and I can appreciate their perspectives.  Nor am I going re-litigate the whole GMO debate in this limited space. It is, however, my objective to share my thought process on how I have come to the conclusion that I will be voting “no” on Prop 37.

First, it claims to be simply a right to know issue, as in “we have a right to know what is in our food.”  What could possibly be wrong with that…well a few things.  Implicit in the argument for the “right” to know is a “need” to know, that this information will somehow benefit or protect the consumer.  Here comes the pesky science… the simple fact is that after decades of both laboratory (experiments to see if this stuff is bad) and real world (billions of people and animals eating billions of tons of GMO’s) results, there has been no data to show this stuff is bad for us. Now, the use of GMO’s may in fact lead to other consequences we might wish to debate, such as the value of large agri-business over local organic farms, the use of pesticides, etc.  But here, too, when we look at the data, we get a mixed bag of results.  While some GMO crops lead to more pesticides, others lead to less.  Many are drought resistant which, in a rapidly changing climate, is a good thing.  And while I love and eat almost exclusively organic foods, I can afford to, and I’m not yet convinced we can feed the world’s population using only organic methods.  So for me, and the folks at the National Academies of Science, the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, the AMA, and the Royal Society of Medicine to name just a few, there is no scientifically based “need” for this labeling.

But wait, you say, all those scientists have been wrong in the past…shouldn’t we play it safe, just in case?  I appreciate how attractive and benign the use of the precautionary principle feels here.  But my concern is that the real intent of this proposition is to slow or completely stop the use of GMO’s.  As I’ve said, I believe the consequences of that are potentially far more detrimental than some minute and as yet unproven risk, so I’m drawing my line in the sand here.

Other problems with Prop 37 for me include that even if we stipulate that the theoretical risk of GMO’s does constitute a “need” for labeling, how is it that the proposition excludes meat and dairy producers, as well as restaurants from labeling? This just makes no sense to me, and leads me to question the judgments of those behind this initiative (…yup, I do that too).

Finally, I feel it is very important for all of us, if we are to win the larger debates around public policy as impacted by science, that we are consistent in our approach to the science underlying those debates.  If by default we pick and choose our “science” based on our ideology, what our friends say or some blog on the internet, how can we effectively stand up to other science denial around issues such as climate change and evolution.  And perhaps most importantly, our kids are watching us…they have finely tuned BS meters that can ferret out our inconsistencies…how do we arm them for their future, and embolden them to think critically,  if we ourselves don’t follow the course we wish for them.

So, what do you believe?