Last Sunday’s New York Times ran an extensive article about the highly emotional grass-roots effort to eliminate or label GMOs--genetically-modified organisms–and the political risks to those who resist that emotionalism in favor of reliance on the science.
This is an issue that drives my cousin, a cardiologist and scientist, up the wall. At his own blog, he has written extensively on the subject, pointing out–among other things–that foods made with GMO crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the world for more than 15 years with no discernible ill effects; that virtually all processed foods sold in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients; that genetic engineering simply “speeds up” the conventional cross-breeding and hybridization that humans have done for thousands of years.
He also points out that genetic manipulation allows us to produce plants more resistant to insects and disease–which in turn allows us to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides that can be harmful. He also points to the promise of better nutrition for people in third-world countries.
The scientific community is solidly in my cousin’s corner on the issue.
There is one thing, however, that I think my cousin gets wrong. He has concluded that “the irrational opposition to these products is likely being propagated by the same individuals who deny, among other things, global warming and evolution.”
“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”
So why are liberals willing to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and evolution and most other things, but so suspicious of that same science when it comes to GMOs?
There is a lack of scientific literacy that contributes to all “denialism,” of course, and we all suffer from a lack of good reporting on scientific issues. But I think something else is going on here. Liberals are willing to trust scientific expertise in other areas–why not in this one?
I think at least part of the answer is that the GMO issue has become confused in the public mind with other practices of the food industry that are far less benign.
Add these unquestionably valid concerns to our very imprecise use of the term “genetically-modified” and you get an understandable–if misplaced–reaction to anything considered remotely “unnatural.”