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5 Arguments from the GMO Debate That Have Lost Their Gusto

October 29, 2014
The Washington Post recently published a piece titled The GMO Debate: 5 Things to Stop Arguing, which looks at common arguments surrounding the use of genetically modified organism (GMOs) and how they have lost their vigor.  Specifically in her article, Tamar Haspel suggests 5 somethings taken from both sides of the debate that need to be retired. Haspel argues that moving beyond these 5 points could mean moving one step forward in achieving a happy medium between the two parties.

1. GMOs are dangerous to eat.

It’s impossible to be certain that a GM food, or anything else, is safe. But all uncertainty is not created equal, and the chance that the genetically modified crops in our food supply pose a danger to human health is extraordinarily small. There have been thousands of studies on these foods, many of them long-term and independently funded, and virtually every mainstream science organization has come down on the side of safety...

There is a consensus on the safety of GM crops. Consensus doesn’t mean every last person on the planet; there are people who still say GMOs are dangerous, and some of those people have advanced degrees. But siding with those people, in the face of the consensus, just makes it easier for others to dismiss you as an anti-science (more on that later) zealot. Arguing that GMOs pose a significant human health risk is unreasonable.

2.  Labeling is unnecessary because GMOs are safe.

This argument misses the point. If GMOs were dangerous, the FDA wouldn’t label them, it would ban them. The items on our food labels run the gamut and include substances that pose a risk to some people (peanuts), substances that public health authorities recommend we should all limit (salt) and lots of ingredients with no health implications at all. There are indications of how a product is made (orange juice from concentrate) and where it comes from (country of origin). Some vitamins and nutrients are listed, others aren’t. There is no grand unifying theory of what goes on a label. It’s all case-by-case.

In this case, the argument is simply that consumers want to know, but that’s not a particularly strong argument. Anyone can come up with a “want to know” list that includes both the ridiculous (farmworkers’ race) and the reasonable (farmworkers’ wage).  Is wanting to know about GMOs reasonable?....

A constructive debate has to address reasonable concerns. The safety argument doesn’t. 

3.  Only Big Ag benefits from GMOs.

It’s unfortunate that Americans’ first exposure to genetically engineered crops was to herbicide-tolerant corn and soy. Because the benefits of those most widely planted GMOs do accrue chiefly (not exclusively, but I won’t quibble) to commodity farmers and agribusiness, all other genetically modified foods have been tarred with the same brush.  The ringspot-resistant papaya is rarely part of the discussion and, no matter how often I flog my favorite, the yeast that produces healthful long-chain omega-3 fats, it just doesn’t make a dent in the association that GMOs have with Big Ag.

The list of GMOs with benefits to the rest of us is long. There’s the mosquito that helps control dengue fever by mating with disease-carrying mosquitos and passing on a gene that kills the offspring. A cow resistant to the organism responsible for sleeping sickness (a trypanosome) can no longer pass the disease to humans via a tsetse fly. How about the orange tree resistant to citrus greening? Or crops with more vitamins, or more healthful oils? And don’t forget my omega-3 yeast.

Don’t let your distrust of herbicide-tolerant crops extend to GMOs in general.

4.  We’ve been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years.

 What GMO supporters mean, of course, is that we’ve been cross-breeding for thousands of years. Which is true but irrelevant, because the people who are concerned about GMOs are concerned precisely because the technology is very different from cross-breeding.  In making this argument, supporters completely ignore the basis of opponents’ skepticism, and that’s condescending and counterproductive.

It also undermines what may be one of the most interesting and compelling arguments in favor of GMOs: That the techniques used to insert individual genes enable changes in the organisms that are much more predictable, and therefore less likely to be harmful, than the wholesale changes that come from cross-breeding. That argument works only if you admit from the get-go that transgenic breeding is materially different from what we've been doing for thousands of years.

5.  GMO supporters are Monsanto shills, and opponents are anti-science.

The shill part is pretty obvious. Please just stop.

The anti-science part is more complicated. The people who study how we make decisions about issues of science and policy tell us that our positions on those issues tend to determine our perception of the science, not the other way around. Most GMO opponents aren’t anti-science; they’re anti-GMO, and therefore see the large body of science that contradicts their ideas as tainted by association with industry, flawed methodologically, done by biased scientists or otherwise dismissible. They are, in fact, pro-science — toward science that confirms their beliefs. (GMO supporters, and humans in general, are just as susceptible to this kind of confirmation bias.)...

Entrenchment is what we’re trying to avoid here.  Stop making these arguments, at least for a while, and see if it doesn’t help. While you’re at it, reach out to someone you respect who disagrees with you, and listen. If you’re a scientist, academic, activist, journalist or any other type who gets invited to speak on panels, insist that the panel represent both sides fairly; choir-preaching doesn’t help. We need to come to some kind of reasonable consensus on this issue. Give peace a chance.

Read Tamar Haspel's article in its entirety.  Additionally, we encourage you to read more columns from her "Unearthed" series.