On GMOs, hysteria, and reason, A.K.A. navigating a very narrow minefield

Anyone who’s read me for any time at all likely knows that I have little patience for either anti-science superstitious hysteria, or ‘one-world’ government, Illuminati conspiracy hysteria. In this category of intellectually offensive and ridiculous nonsense I include things like creationism, anti-vaccers, aromatherapy, micro-chipping, the Bilderburg conspiracy, chem-trails, black helicopters, and so on.

That said, there have been plenty of times that a new technology hailed as the greatest thing ever, the wave of the future, FDA-approved, and perfectly safe has been anything but. Cigarettes, DDT, lead paint, RBGH, and frakking come easily to mind; there are plenty of others. These things, once ‘scientifically verified’ as safe and beneficial, have since been proven otherwise. And certainly, early protests against these things were critiqued as being anti-science, conspiracy hysteria.

So clearly not everything government and/or industry tells us is safe actually is safe. Mistakes are made. It then becomes something of a minefield to navigate the fine line between unreasoning hysteria and recognizing and revealing a genuine threat. Enter the GMO.

One the one hand, progressive and pro-reason icons like Dawkins and ScienceBlogs roundly condemn GMO opponents as little better than anti-vaccers. Even the DailyKos published an article entitled “GMO Truthers need to be kicked out of the Progressive movement.” The article offers both a strident condemnation of GMO-related “anti-science,” and a short list of refuted claims. And there is certainly a lot of hysteria about GMOs that does mirror the anti-vaccer rhetoric, including claims that GMOs cause autism, or all the studies in favor are industry funded, to name only two.

On the other hand, a lot of profit relies on this technology, and not just in terms of food production for the starving of the world (though there are other, arguably better solutions that involve changing our entire culture of food, but that is a related, but different topic; next post perhaps). But to what degree IS it reasonable and rational to hold corporate stakes as determinative in assessing the relative safety of a food technology? And while the mere fact that other nations have enacted partial or full bans on GMOs is not a testament to their safety in and of itself, consideration of which nations have done so gives one pause. Of the 26 (as of late 2013, almost double the 14 in 2012), many are progressive nations whose overall approaches to issues like sustainability, health, and the environment are admirable: Germany, France, Australia, Japan. These are not nations known for their hysterical, superstitious tendencies (like the US). And while the main consensus is that GMO foods do not produce nutritional harms, there are significant questions about environmental impact, both of the crops themselves, the impact they may have on insect populations, and even more significantly, the impact of the chemicals and pesticides these crops are so often engineered to withstand. Round-up ready crops mean Round-up will be used, in abundance. We know that both herbicides and insecticides can have serious negative consequences. There are also questions about adaptability, seeding, and loss of native species (both crops and the ‘weeds’ that such crops are designed to resist). While some of that may technically be a licensing and patent issue, it is nevertheless inextricably tied up with the question of GMOs as healthy for not just our bodes directly, but our environment, our economy, and our world. So perhaps a GMO tomato won’t hurt me. But what happens if one company ends up owning the vast majority of crops? Corporate monopoly is, I think it is safe to claim, never a benefit to anyone but the corporation.

Mind you, you will not see anything in this post about ‘meddling with nature,’ or anything of that sort. This is not, from the tomato’s perspective, an ethical issue. However, it might be an ethical issue an far larger scales. So perhaps the claim that eating a ‘conventional’ cucumber will give you cancer IS hysteria. But I am not convinced that the question of the safety of GMOs is as simple as that. I think it’s a far more nuanced issue, with much farther reaching implications and questions. And on that level I take some exception to the notion that raising those questions puts me in the same camp as the anti-vaccers and chem-trail believers (or Oprah, for that matter!)

What are your thoughts? Is this an issue for you, and if so, on which side? Why? For those outside the US; how is this issue perceived and debated in your milieu?