Friday, 18 October 2013

Distinct viewpoints on GMOs and GMO labeling

The debate over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is shrill and frequently lacks clarity.

For example, people commonly fail two distinguish two separate issues:
  • Is GMO technology dangerous or beneficial?
  • Should GMO labeling be mandatory or voluntary?
This scatter plot separates the two issues by putting attitudes toward GMOs on the horizontal axis and attitudes toward mandatory labeling on the vertical axis.

At the top left, most anti-GMO activists are against GMOs and in favor of mandatory GMO labeling.  For example, I recently was asked to lead a discussion for the Northeast Massachusetts Dietetic Association (NMDA) about the anti-GMO movie Genetic Roulette.  I found the film unpersuasive.  It overstated its case, preyed on parents' emotional fears for the health of their children, and misrepresented the balance of scientific viewpoints on the safety of GMOs.  Here is an online review.

At the other end of the spectrum, toward the bottom right, most conventional food industry organizations are in favor of GMOs and against mandatory GMO labeling.  Food industry presentations commonly overstate the necessity of genetic engineering for addressing the world food situation, fail to mention non-technological solutions (such as eating less meat), exaggerate the potential of specific appealing GMO technologies (such as drought-resistant maize), and omit discussion of reasonable concerns that have been raised on particular issues (such as Monsanto's control of the seed industry or the development of glyphosate resistant weeds).

The leading GMO labeling campaign, Just Label It, clearly is in favor of mandatory labeling (and hence clearly is located high on the vertical axis).  But the campaign tries to have it both ways when taking a stance on attitudes toward GMOs more generally.  Sometimes it implicitly endorses the fear-mongering anti-GMO crowd (and so might be located toward the left edge of the diagram).  The campaign should be embarrassed for linking out to the movie Genetic Roulette, whose faults are mentioned above.  At other times, the campaign seems to say, "We don't engage in those unscientific food safety claims; we just think everybody should have a right to know what's in their food" (and so might be located toward the middle, neither left nor right).

Some environmentalists have more unpredictable views, some of which are summarized in a recent article by Monica Eng.  In the lower left corner, the maverick farmer Joel Salatin takes a delightfully market-oriented approach to revolutionizing the food system, so he doesn't think it's the government's business to make labeling rules mandatory.  In the top right corner, Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist turned pro-GMO zealot, surprised the audience at a recent conference by favoring mandatory GMO labeling. 

For myself, I am a soft GMO critic.  For a long time, I've been covering concerns about monopoly control of the seed industry, about glyphosate resistant weeds, and inadequate FDA review of some proposed new technologies such as GMO salmon.  But I have no fundamental objection to GMO technology in principle.  With adequate review from federal agencies, as more beneficial new seeds come down the pike, I may have to go on the record in support of future GMO technologies.  With regard to mandatory labeling, I think it is not enough to say "people are curious about this issue so labeling should be mandatory."  If I broadly thought GMO technologies were systematically dangerous, I would favor not only stronger labeling rules, but also stronger regulation.  Mandatory labeling is not the right policy tool if you believe there is a safety problem, and mandatory labeling is hard to justify if you think there is not a safety problem.

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