I know genetically modified food is a controversial topic, but it’s not one I follow closely. Based on what I’ve read, it seems like the genetically modified plants in use are safe–so this isn’t something I worry much about. Recently, I was leafing through the September issue of Scientific American and came across an article on GM foods that I thought summed up the scientific consensus pretty nicely: The Truth about Genetically Modified Food by David H Freedman.
In this article, Freedman drew a parallel between anti-GM groups and anti-vaccination groups that I thought was both interesting and apt. How are these groups similar? First, there is the cherrypicking of a few scary studies from mountains of better-designed studies that support GM safety. Second, there is the calling for an impossible standard of evidence for safety as well. Third, there is the tenor of the debate, which often devolves into personal attacks, name calling, and conspiracy theories. Like the anti-vaccination movement, this is a phenomenon that really illustrates how communication between scientists and the public breaks down in a big way. It really makes you wonder what can be done to bridge this gap!
In the same issue of the magazine, there was another article on GM foods, but I totally disagreed with this one. It was called Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea, and it addressed the growing controversy about whether or not GM foods should be labeled. The argument here was that even though GM foods appear to be safe, if consumers realize that a product contains GM ingredients, they won’t buy that product. Because GM foods are easier to grow, if producers start avoiding them as money-losers, food will get more expensive, which hurts everyone. So don’t provide consumers with labels, and they can’t unfairly penalize GM foods.
This rubs me the wrong way. Denying consumers information because they might use it to make irrational decisions seems pretty Big Brother-ish. Don’t consumers have the right to make irrational decisions about what they eat? f we’re concerned that people’s fear of GM foods is unwarranted, wouldn’t it make sense to give the public the labels they want and simultaneously provide better education about GM safety?
I’d be curious to hear what other people think!