I'm a granola (and dirt)-eating, tree-hugging, liberal/progressive. If I was called by a pollster asking about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), I'd be counted among the folks that disapprove, but only because I think it doesn't go far enough (I'm for single-payer, but I could have settled for the public option). I think we should tax the rich at much higher rates, expand social safety nets and reign in corporations. I support local farmers and shop at Whole Foods.
All that said, to me, science matters more than ideology. I wanted to join the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but I had experiments to do. And when it comes to genetically modified organisms in our food supply, I take the position that the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, and the Royal Society take, namely that GMOs are safe for consumption.
On Tuesday, voters in Washington state defeated a ballot initiative that would have required special labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms. As Christie Wilcox noted almost exactly a year ago when a similar measure was defeated in California:
The simple fact is that there is no evidence that GMOs, as a blanket group, are dangerous. There’s a simple reason for this: not all GMOs are the same. Every plant created with genetic technology contains a different modification. More to the point, if the goal is to know more about what’s in your food, a generic GMO label won’t tell you. Adding Bt toxin to corn is different than adding Vitamin A to rice or vaccines to potatoes or heart-protective peptides to tomatoes. If Prop 37 was really about informed decisions, it would have sought accurate labeling of different types of GMOs so consumers can choose to avoid those that they disapprove of or are worried about. Instead, anti-GMO activists put forward a sloppily written mandate in a attempt to discredit all genetic engineering as a single entity. The legislation was considered so poorly worded that most Californian newspapers rallied against it, with the LA Times calling Prop 37 “problematic on a number of levels”.
The language of I-522 in Washington was changed slightly from California's Prop 37, but
The proposed label system is too vague and contains little useful information. The supporting arguments suggest labeling could help consumers concerned with health, dietary, religious, environmental, and corporate control issues avoid GE products. The actual labeling, however, does not guarantee any GE content will be present in the product. The proposed labels are not required to specify what ingredients may be GE, nor the extent to which they may be present. In addition, the law does not require testing for the presence of GE components. Consumers wishing to discern between GE and non-GE products can already do so through existing, non-mandatory labeling designations provided by USDA Organic certification, or one of several private non-GE certification businesses. [emphasis mine]
And yet, despite the lack of evidence for harm, despite the fact that it's already possible to find food that doesn't contain GMO, people on my side of the political spectrum, who are generally pro-science when it comes to climate change, seem to ignore or misrepresent the science of biotechnology. Some of this is surely driven by anti-corporatism. Last night, the sum of Rachel Maddow's commentary on the loss of I-522 was based on the fact that public opinion was in favor of labeling, and then out-of-state corporations spent a bunch of money and swayed public opinion.
I love Rachel Maddow (I told you, I'm a liberal), and I'll admit, it pains me to take the same side as Monsanto on matters of public policy. Surely, Monsanto's position on GMOs is informed by profit motive, not the public good. But in this case, the profit motive lines up with scientific consensus. And Maddow, who I think generally cares about evidence-based policy, has it wrong on this one.
Whether to label or not isn't strictly a scientific question, but the arguments in favor of labeling are based on claims that can be addressed by science. In general, why would you want to label food?
Nutrition: The scientific evidence suggests that there's no nutritional difference between genetically engineered crops and their conventional counterparts.
Safety: The scientific evidence suggests that genetically engineered foods (at least those currently on the market) are safe for consumption.
Information?: Companies are already free to label their foods as GMO-free, or get certified as organic (part of the organic classification is lack of GMO).
Where we mandate labeling by law, we do so when there is are plausible health consequences, and we do so consistently. Proponents of labeling often claim "consumers have a right to know" what's in their food, but we don't mandate that food boxes contain labels informing consumers which pesticides were used to grow the plants in their food, nor what fertilizer provided the nutrients, nor where the food was grown. If a scientist bombards a corn seed with radiation to introduce hundreds or thousands of mutations, and then selects for mutants with beneficial properties, that would not warrant a label, whereas a targeted insertion of a single gene would.
Maybe we should have laws mandating that all foods that aren't processed to remove their DNA should contain "WARNING: Product contains genes." Or perhaps the sequence of all of the 2.3 billion nucleotides in the corn genome be put on the box of any product containing any form of corn. The labeling laws thus far proposed would be no more informative to consumers.