Thursday, February 13, 2014

GMOs - Evil or Genocidal?

Image courtesy of Stockvault
In what can best be described as a "man bites dog" story, the normally reflexively crunchy-liberal Reno News & Review published as their front page article, "The organic food lie: What's up with this liberal war on science?":
The crowd stretched entirely around the front of the downtown Reno federal building. 
Protest signs attacked transgenic food. “Your food—brought to you by the makers of AGENT ORANGE.” “It’s a SAD day when ’NORMAL’ food is hard to find!” “HELL NO GMOS.” There were also angrier signs attacking Monsanto, and for other causes—Native American, veterans, the National Defense Authorization Act. 
It would have been easy to assume this was a group of flat earthers, and I suspect they were being characterized that way by plenty of observers on this day of coast-to-coast anti-transgenic food protests. But I knew some of these people as smart and sensible. Like a lot of science-oriented people, I didn’t understand why some of them were present. This was another sortie in what scientists have begun calling “The Liberal War on Science.” 
Many in this crowd cite the fact that there’s no known instance in history of death caused by marijuana but endless deaths caused by booze and tobacco. But they reject the fact that no one is known to have ever died from transgenic foods but plenty of people in history have died from natural, organic foods through salmonella, E. coli., etc. “Transgenic” is the scientific term for what activists call genetically modified food or organisms—GMOs. 
Many of those present are frustrated by the refusal of climate change critics to accept the findings of a scientific panel that has examined all the science and found that climate change is real and mostly caused by human activity. But most of them ignore the findings of a similar panel that upheld the safety and usefulness of transgenic foods (
Read the whole thing.

The RN&R isn't the first publication to wonder about this - The American Interest has published a number of editorials touching on the irony of "pro-science" liberals suddenly fighting the scientific consensus when it doesn't go their way. However, it's as good of a spot as any to discuss the topic of GMO food labeling.

The argument for mandatory, government-led GMO food labeling goes something like this:

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are poisonous and evil.
  • Government requires food producers to label other poisons in their food, so GMOs should be no exception.
  • If people learn the truth about what's really in their food, they will stop buying GMO food, Monsanto will go bankrupt, and everyone will buy organic. The end.
This argument, however, assumes a false dichotomy: GMO Frankenfoods vs. All-Natural God & Gaia Fearing Organic Produce (available from Whole Foods or, better yet, the locally owned neighborhood co-op). The truth is, there are actually three kinds of foods:
  • GMOs - they require fewer chemical inputs and are thus cheaper!
  • Non-GMOs grown with the best chemical pesticides and fertilizers the Green Revolution has to offer, along with all of the well documented environmental side-effects tied to overuse of those chemicals. These were cheap enough to feed India and China in the '70s, and, depending on your age, would be what you or your parents were raised on while watching Scooby-Doo.
  • Organic produce, which is more expensive since it produces lower yields per acre.
So, if GMO foods are labeled, people are going to be faced with three choices - cheap GMO-labeled food, slightly less cheap but unlabeled chemical-marinaded food, and already labeled and expensive organic food. Since we know that most people in America shop for food based on price (hence why Walmart's market cap is roughly 10 times Whole Foods'), we can safely assume that, if people actually do avoid GMO foods the way activists hope they will, most Americans will instead preferentially shop for the produce of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. How this will benefit the environment is anyone's guess, especially since we already know full well what high-chemical agriculture does to the environment

For that reason alone - without getting into the effectiveness of government food labeling programs, the added costs required to ensure compliance with such a regimen, the wisdom and morality of imposing upper-middle class consumption sensitivities on those least able to afford them, and so on - anti-GMO activists should seriously rethink their strategy if they care about the health and safety of the environment.

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