The GMO industry should stop fighting labels and focus on public education

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been around for a long time now. They were first introduced in the 1980s and since that time no significant evidence has emerged that they are harmful. Despite this, bans on GMOs and calls for labeling genetically modified products at the retail level continue to gain strength.

Despite the fact that the GMO companies are right, their best bet at this point might be to win by losing. If companies stop fighting the labels and devote their time and energy to fighting the myths and educating the public I think they’ll find that most of the public doesn’t really care deep down. The labels may go on, but they’ll have little impact on consumer behavior and will serve to neuter the anti-GMO movement. 

GMOs have a bad reputation, in large part, because the general public doesn’t know any better. The companies that produce GMOs have done a terrible job of defending themselves and have allowed genetically modified foods to be cast as little more than poison by the anti-science cult of nature.

The debate over GMOs is being waged based, almost entirely, on myth. This includes both myths about GMOs and myths about organic products. To date more than 2000 studies have been done on the safety of GMOs and there is no evidence that they are harmful to humans. In short the anti-GMO movement has no more scientific backing than creationism or climate change denial.

Those fighting GMOs have been allowed to cast “big agriculture” as an sort of ultra-rich robber-baron with no concern for the environment, farmers or the safety of their products. Meanwhile, the anti-GMO forces are portrayed as fighting for the rights of consumers and the health and safety of us all against the corporate overlords.

This narrative itslef is largely based in myth. Farms have become much larger of the last hundred years but, as of 2013, more than 96% of U.S. farmland was still family owned. A breakdown by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, from September 2013, does a nice job of breaking things down by specific agriculture sector.

The opponents of GMOs, the "Davids" fighting the "Goliaths" of big ag, are largely not working scientists. They are professional public speakers, diet book authors and others who are making substantial amounts of money by ‘sticking up for the little guy’. To me, this draws another parallel to the debates around climate change and tobacco.

Advocates of GMO labelling argue that the public has a right to know. The companies that produce GMOs should see that they do. The public should know that there's no evidence that GMO products are unsafe; the public should know that almost everything they buy at their local grocery store contains GMOs and has for years; the public should know that the argument against GMOs is not one backed by science or medicine.

The public should know that virtually all foods have been genetically modified, albeit more slowly than they are now. For thousands of years humans have practiced 'selective breeding' to enhance desired traits in foods and weed out undesirable traits. This article from Vox shows how much many of our food staples have changed over time.

Now the same thing is being done, only much more rapidly, in laboratories. The argument has been made that by rapidly altering the DNA of plants that there is a greater risk to the environment; that these new strains may escape from their agricultural homes and begin to interact with the surrounding environment in dangerous ways. To date however, that has not been the case. As anyone with a garden can tell you, most agricultural plants do not simply grow by themselves. They require care and attention to flourish. You'll rarely see wild corn or tomatoes outside of a farm. You don't see cows and chickens roaming free in the wilderness.

Agricultural products, including plants and animals, are part of the human environment but not part of the "natural" environment. The natural non-human environment has evolved over millions of years. Agricultural products have evolved over a few hundred or a few thousand at most. Organic tomatoes are no more a part of the "natural environment" than genetically modified pigs.

The public may 'care' about GMOs, they may have concerns but I think when it comes time to check out at the grocery store, most people will buy the same things they always have. I think the more people know, the less they will care and the GMO industry certainly has no shortage of noteworthy spokespeople. Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson and BBC science host Brian Cox are just a few examples of well known individuals, with scientific backgrounds, who have publicly scoffed at the anti-GMO movement.

Over the next few decades, a few things are going to happen. First, the true impact of climate change will begin to be felt. Extreme weather, droughts and flooding will reduce the amount of cropland available to feed a rapidly increasing population. In order to avoid or at least reduce mass starvation, we will need to be able to produce more food and more nutritious food on less land, using fewer resources.

This is going to happen. Even if we shut off every automobile and shut down every coal plant today, the impacts of climate change wouldn't begin to reverse for many years. Given that we don't know exactly what the impact is going to be on specific areas, genetic modification is likely the only way to adjust as we go without a dramatic decline in the food supply.

The second thing that is going to happen is that genetic modification is going to move beyond plants and animals and into humans. In addition to providing enhancements such as greater intelligence and a longer live, this has the potential of completely eliminating birth defects and inherited, gene based, diseases. The anti-GMO forces will have a hard time making the case that it is ok to genetically modify humans to remove birth defects but it's wrong to genetically modify corn to increase yields.

Companies who do genetics research should move swiftly to cut off the anti-science, anti-GMO argument before it becomes truly dangerous to humanity and/or deprives us of the tremendous benefits that genetic manipulation can offer. A well funded public education campaign will help people to understand the science and alleviate their fears about genetically modified products. Eventually the labels will become meaningless and the forces that forced the labeling will have to move on to a new cause to scare people with.

The money currently being spent to lobby against product labeling would be much better spent educating consumers.

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