If you live in California, you may be deciding how to vote on Proposition 37. Prop 37 is an initiative which would require the labeling of GMO foods. Since I was seeking information on how to vote, I asked two talented Kossacks to weigh in on opposite sides of this debate so that we could have a diary representing both sides. Below are their thoughts. Thanks to both of them for providing food for thought in the upcoming election!
Yes on 37, by boophus
I have worked as a lab tech and a chemist in many different kinds of labs. I have a degree in math and read obsessively. I find myself irritated by the assumption that any questions of the relatively new science of genetic engineering were equivalent to those questioning the huge mass of information about the long established science behind vaccines and evolution, both of which are still subject to being overturned at any time or being improved upon by those still driven to do so.
A good scientist doesn't shut off collecting data and doesn't sift out what they don't like. This is a particular problem if they are receiving a payoff either in recognition or money, which raises questions about their claims. A good scientist would welcome data. Good science demands we reject theories even on long established science if counter-data should be presented. To block data collection in the area of our food supply is inconceivably arrogant and potentially devastating. If those self-proclaimed super scientists tell the rest of us we are ignorant and uninformed, they potentially are building a wall around important species survival data. How does blocking people from making the best choices for their own bodies make good science? How does blocking the collection of even anecdotal data in this great experiment that genetic engineers are carrying out for profit and yes, in many cases for their idealized vision of the benefits of good science, help those not vested? Many who call themselves scientists are just as rigidly protective of their claim to expertise as any religionist. You don't just seek information to back your own claims and then stop not just your own efforts, but also anyone else’s.
We have had scientists behind many products and procedures that were missing important information that proved eventually that their discoveries put into practice had consequences they did not foresee. DDT, antibiotics in everything, medications foisted on a trusting public that killed or damaged many; nasty experiments with syphilis and radiation; tobacco was considered in the early days to be a health enhancing product, and even as late as the 80s we had scientist rejecting data that it was dangerous. Do I have to mention science’s part in the practices that have resulted in Global Warming? There is science and there is commerce. It is an uneasy and potentially corrupt union.
I do not oppose GMOs just because they are GMOs, but I reject the idea that the public unwittingly buying these products should be denied information simply by virtue of the fact that they may choose to not use the product. This is our very bodies and the food we depend on. To block any pathway that may illuminate a danger unseen is arrogant and marginalizing others real interest in their own well-being. Some claim they know all potential interactions and reactions on the part of everyone’s expressions of their DNA and the chemicals involved in that expression. That is irresponsible and there is every historical reason to know that there people who are more interested in their monetary benefit then the science. To them, science is the tool to become wealthy and then to defend that generation of wealth.
The other part of this argument is that we have bred and crossbred new varieties of plants and animals for thousands of years. True, but those were carried out without crossing animals and plants that do not normally reproduce together. I was a farm child and I know about horse and jackasses producing non-reproductive mules, but I never saw a hog cross with a dog. I also am not an expert on viruses but I am under the impression that some are the result of shed DNA; in light of bird flu I think that is another concern. I am excited by some of what I read, but I am also wary of its real value and potential risks. I reject baseless claims of fevered nightmares, but I do not see any value in closing down any counter examples that may have tremendous importance to our very survival, because food is a necessity for life. To reject the gathering of information is authoritarianism in a very ugly and arrogant form.
Science does not need battalions of lawyers to force the supposed beneficial effects of the implementation of new science onto disrespected and despised clients. That is commerce plain and simple. It regards humans as feed-lot, income generating animals while disregarding the fact that the managers of that feed lot are indistinguishable from those they use for their benefit. Scientists utilizing the respect their role commands in this effort is like a priest using his position to harm a child, thereby damaging the decency and moral standing of all the good priests.
In commerce there are many obstacles to real beneficial science being uncovered. If we are going to run this experiment let us do it in a way that does not hide results that may counter claims of benefit. If it is a good thing, then it will prove itself. To me this is obvious, but to the investors and the vested it is frightening and so they look for ways to paint anyone who questions their efforts or products as stupid, ignorant or superstitious. To me that is a gigantic warning sign. LABEL IT.
I will be the judge of what is good for me.
No on 37, by pico
I began this issue as an agnostic: I support GM technology in principle, but didn't know enough about the proposition or the surrounding issues to have a strong stance one way or another. In the last few weeks, the more I've read, the angrier I've gotten. Prop 37 is bad policy, and I hope to convince you of that, but let me begin with two caveats. 1. I'm not questioning the "right" of consumers to demand whatever label they want, even (as in this case) a misleading and uninformative one, and 2. I'm not defending the No campaign as such, neither the donors nor their tactics so far. I'm arguing Prop 37 on the merits alone, and on the merits, it's a massive failure.
Let's start with the science. From its very first lines, Prop 37 writes bad science into the California lawbooks, arguing its necessity against the "unintended consequences" and "imprecise" methods that "can cause a variety of significant problems with plant foods". This is total bunk, relying as it does on widespread consumer ignorance about what GM is and how it works; the process is not imprecise and the belief in "unintended consequences" is largely a misunderstanding of the technology, of phenomena like pleiotropy, etc. (Since I don't have a thousand words to spare on the science itself, I encourage everyone to listen to this fantastic podcast on Skeptically Speaking, in which non-industry, Left-leaning scientists explain these issues in-depth). There can be unintended consequences with GM products, but to a much lesser degree than natural (sic) hybrids, for reasons that should be pretty clear. Likewise, the claim that GM hasn't been sufficiently studied is simply not true.
Second, as a question of semantics, demanding GMO be "proven safe" is literally nonsense, because "GMO" is not a single technique with a single result. The GMO label doesn't say tell you anything about the nature of the product: it can involve manipulating genes within a single species or bringing in a sequence from a different species; it can effect herbicide resistance, nutrition, disease resistance, speed of growth, or purely cosmetic issues; and all of these are more specifically and concretely targeted than non-labeled techniques like natural (sic) hybrids or like barraging genes with radiation to cause mutations, neither of which are labeled. If a particular GMO were found to carry risks, the specificity of that risk gets obscured by the blanket labeling; if a particular GMO finally gains widespread support as "safe" (whatever that means), it still gets stuck gets the label. The labeling focus is all askew: GMO as a technology is not controversial in the least.
Third, let's deal with the industry issues. The threats of environmental harm that Prop 37 lists, from monoculture to cross-pollination, exist with non-GMO crops as well; natural (sic) hybrids are just as capable of, and are usually better equipped for, spreading into the neighboring environment. How labeling relates to these concerns is assumed rather than explained. The bigger issue is that no one likes Monsanto, and with good reason... But Monsanto is only one GM company, not the sum of genetic technology. If your reason for supporting 37 has to do with Monsanto business practices, e.g. the fear of farmers being penalized for cross-pollination (etc.), then I have good news: California law already covers these issues directly. And here's an unintended consequence: note that a behemoth like Monsanto can manage the economic hit of Prop 37 more effectively than small and more conscientious tech companies, so Prop 37 tilts what's left of the GM market toward corporations that can absorb the inconvenience. (As an added bonus, the proposition as-written also bans the label "natural" for any processed foods. A little miffed by the backlash, the Yes campaign swears this wasn't their intent, but the state legislative analyst disagreed: this is the plain language of the statute (pdf). California voters may remember the last time authors of a proposition made a claim of intent.)
Finally, follow the money. If it's unnerving that Monsanto is the major backer of No (no wonder: it's their bottom line), it should be equally unnerving that Mercola is the major backer of Yes (AIDS-denialist, anti-vaccine, anti-fluoridation, repeatedly censured by the FDA for providing misleading health information to consumers). With Prop 37, he's selling his usual snake oil. I totally understand why people don't trust corporate (sic) science, but our major advocates on the Left for better science policy - people we frequently cite here, like PZ Myers (Pharyngula), Orac at Scienceblogs, or even Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science) - have all defended GMO tech against the widespread, reactionary ignorance of our own side. At the risk of making an appeal to expertise: I don't expect 100% agreement with everyone, but when we trust these people on climate science, on evolution, on vaccines, on AIDS research, on environmental topics, on the intersection of science and politics, etc.... maybe we should pay attention when they tell us we're wrong on GMOs, too?
Thanks to both of these two for their comments here. And now we welcome your thoughts.