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Are GMOs the Climategate of the Left?

May 23, 2014
gmo_protestI've heard the word "momentum" a lot lately. Vermont signed its GMO labeling law on May 8. Voters in Jackson County, Oregon this week approved a ban on GMO cultivation, a move that will dictate to area farmers what they can and can't grow. And just today, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) shepherded through the Appropriations Committee an amendment to mandate the labeling of the genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon, when it is approved by the FDA.  Despite its two-decades of scientific study, Murkowski calls the salmon "a Frankenfish experiment."

A lot of media have called me lately for a response. How should an industry respond when a member of Congress describes a proven safe and beneficial technology a "science experiment?"

The fact is, the debate of biotechnology and GMOs is not a level playing field. The other side can play fast-and-loose with the facts and spout fearful rhetoric in soundbite-sized morsels, while the biotech side responds with explanations of a complicated but promising science.

It's myth vs. fact and ideology vs. science. As Hayley Munguia describes in The Week (excerpted below), this kind of "momentum" could have dangerous consequences:

When Vermont became the first state last week to require labeling genetically modified foods, it was hardly alone. Maine and Connecticut have already passed bills requiring GMO labeling with mandates that they would not go into effect until other states did the same, and there are 85 pending GMO labeling bills in 29 states. What all these bills amount to is a stunningly anti-science campaign driven by the so-called party of science, Democrats.

When GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were first introduced in the mid-1990s, there was a lot of promise associated with the idea. They would increase crop yields, helping farmers and reducing world hunger, and aid the environment by reducing the need for pesticides. And while they have yet to live up to such lofty promises, GMOs have been successful. Today, the most widely-known examples in the U.S. are genetically modified corn, which produces its own insecticide, and genetically modified soybeans, which are resistant to pesticides and create healthier soybean oil.

Early on, resisting GMOs was often synonymous with opposing Monsanto. And, at the time, there were limited scientific studies of health and environmental effects that led to instances of alarming conjecture. This was enough to cast doubt on whether the gains were worth the costs.

But a lot can change in 15 years. And a lot has changed. Recent data shows that Monsanto is not the sole or even primary beneficiary of GMOs — small-scale farmers, particularly in India, the Philippines, and China have noted some of the most significant gains.

And in response to the concerns over lack of adequate information, lots of scientists have conducted lots of studies. There are literally thousands of them. And earlier this year, a team of scientists published a paper summarizing 1,783 of the most in-depth studies. Their findings?
We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE [genetically-engineered] crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.
[Critical Reviews in Biotechnology]

So, even though the anti-GMO cause may have made sense for liberals 15 years ago, that's simply no longer the case. For a party that prides itself on adhering to rationality and facts, and derides conservatives for doubting scientific truths such as climate change and evolution, the perpetuation of a vehement anti-GMO stance isn't just irrational. It's hypocritical.

After all, the left has widely mocked conservatives for climategate, the name of the conspiracy conservatives imagined when presented with the overwhelming evidence that proves global warming. But when the left-wing is shown a similarly overwhelming body of scientific evidence, it doesn't need a conspiracy to basically ignore the findings.

While there are plenty of arguments for how politics makes us stupid, there are certain scenarios that can actually make us smarter. If we expect rationality and adherence to the facts from our opponent, it's only common sense that we expect it from ourselves.

Watching the mainstream argument evolve from ignorance to knowledge, all the while allowing fringe beliefs continue to dictate legislation is not only lazy, it's dangerous.

Individuals certainly have the right to be ignorant, but GMO-labeling inherently implies a reason for that labeling — that there really might be health hazards involved. By giving in, the government would be empowering those who oppose the scientific community and helping further propagate misinformation. With something as seemingly low-stakes as GMO labeling, the impact of that may appear to be trivial. But if this tendency is any indicator of where we allow the power to lie, we've got more problems ahead of us than fake health hazards.