As a person who attempts to be reality based and is comfortable with nuanced views of issues - and uncomfortable with black and white dichotomies - I often find myself in the position of being uncomfortable with my allies. And occasionally opposing those with whom I would like to be allied. This seems to be particularly true in areas where science and policy intersect. I can't call myself expert in any scientific field, but I try to be at least reasonably scientifically literate. We often point out the anti-science beliefs of those on the right - but leftists are not entirely immune. No false equivalence here - the left has never made anti-science into dogma the way the right has. But we don't always avoid it either. One of the most troubling areas for me to discuss with many of my friends is the subject of GMO crops and the foods produced from them. I want to share a little bit of my own thinking here, in a forum where at least a few people may be willing to take the time to grasp the nuances. And please be decent enough to read to the end before attacking - you might be surprised at the conclusions!
So what is it we are talking about when we discuss GMO technology? A term I like better is recombinant DNA technology (rDNA). It is a set of techniques for inserting genetic material into an organism that does not occur there naturally. Its first large scale uses were in the production of certain medications. Nearly all the insulin in use today is produced via rDNA methods. As a nurse working with many diabetic patients, I'm well aware that these modern methods of producing human insulin are a vast improvement over the animal derived insulin that was common at the start of my career. Another medication example is Factor VIII used in the treatment of hemophilia. Another life-saving advance.
Most of the controversy around rDNA technology today is around its use in farming and development of new crop forms. Lots of people are concerned about the safety of these crops, both for the people eating them and for the larger environment. Here's where things get tricky to talk about. The two main policy prescriptions offered by those concerned about rDNA crops are either outright bans or required labeling. A lot of the rhetoric used in support of those prescriptions is designed to convince folks that all products of rDNA/GMO technology are inherently dangerous. Much of that rhetoric is extremely weak from a scientific standpoint.
Remember that rDNA is a method - a set of techniques - to insert genetic material into an organism. Now an organism's DNA controls virtually everything about how that organism grows and develops and behaves in the world. So the DNA is critically important. But does how the DNA got there matter? So far, no one has shown me, nor can I imagine, a plausible mechanism by which the mere fact of rDNA technology being used can make an organism dangerous either to the environment or to those using the organism. What the DNA is matters, of course. But how it got there? I'm open to being convinced, but it will take some heavy convincing to make me believe that creates inherent danger.
Does that mean we can rest easy?
Well, no, it doesn't. Some uses of rDNA are obviously benign and useful. Some are questionable. Others are very troubling. To me, the most troubling - and probably the largest scale use - is in the production of herbicide resistant ("round-up ready") corn and soybeans. Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, weeds can become resistant to herbicides. This requires the application of larger and larger doses of the herbicide. Eventually the herbicide starts to affect the crop. Herbicide resistant crops make it possible to use larger and larger doses of the herbicide. Is that entirely benign? Again - I suppose I could be convinced, but it would take some doing.
So, believing - as I do - that there is nothing inherently dangerous about rDNA technology, but that some of it's applications may in fact be dangerous, what is the right answer from a policy standpoint?
Well, in the world people like most of us would like to see, there would be effective regulatory mechanisms to sort out the benign uses from the dangerous ones. There would be people we could trust with the power and the resources to thoroughly evaluate these technologies and sort out the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent much time at all paying attention to public policy in modern times has been confronted with numerous examples of regulatory capture - the effective control of a regulatory agency by the industry it is supposed to be regulating. From both my reading and my own experience farming before I went to nursing school, I am quite convinced that the areas of agriculture and of food production and processing are one of the worst examples of regulatory capture we have in this country. The people working for the big ag. companies and the people regulating them went to the same schools, believe in the same principles and cycle back and forth between business and government with regularity. And this goes on pretty much regardless of which party is in power. So I have to reluctantly conclude that we aren't going to be able to rely on government to keep us safe on this one in the foreseeable future.
There are a batch of other issues related to rDNA that are of concern besides just safety. I'm not going to go into those in detail, but they include issues around patents, the ability of farmers to save seeds, the promotion of monopoly big business, the loss of biodiversity, the economics of farming and the power that seed and chemical companies and food processors exert over our food supply and over farmers themselves. Some of these issues are particular to rDNA crops, others are part of a much larger picture. But they are real issues.
Now, circling back to policy. I dislike a lot of the rhetoric that the "anti-GMO" movement throws around. I don't think the rDNA/GMO crops are inherently dangerous. I wish that we had regulators we could count on to keep us safe. I don't think labeling laws are the optimum policy prescription to improve either food safety or the health of the environment. But those regulators I wish for aren't there and I do believe there are real and valid concerns about some rDNA crops - though more from an environmental than a food safety perspective . So until someone can convince me that the regulatory agencies are truly working for us and not for big ag. - and that those regulators have the resources and freedom from political interference to do the job right, I'm going to end up supporting labeling laws as the "least worst" option - despite my discomfort with them.