(For the record, I eat organic fruits and vegetables when available and I am practically a vegetarian—although I occasionally eat fish. I also accept the argument that Monsanto and other corporations are interested in profit alone. However this doesn’t mean that everything they produce is bad for you.)
I was introduced to the issue of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while teaching a few years ago. Looking dispassionately at the pros and cons it became apparent that there was a broad scientific consensus that GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional ones. 1,2,3 It was also obvious that the opponents of GM crops were generally modern-day Luddites who opposed technology. The pro side of the argument won handily as best as I could ascertain. (I’ll leave aside the issue of GM animals, and the issue of the means by which companies like Monsanto get (force) farmers to use their products.)
Some students were surprised that I advocated strongly for vegetarianism—for environmental, moral, and health reasons—and for organic food—for health reasons—but that I didn’t mind my food “engineered genetically.” I responded that I would ingest whatever was healthier, whether that was organic plants or a magic nutritional pill. (Ideally, this pill would also prevent death and disease too! Yes I’m serious.)
GMOs, Climate Denial, and Politics
There is a perception among some that opposition to GMOs among so-called liberals is higher than it is among so-called conservatives. There is also the perception that such opposition from liberals is ideologically driven, similar to how climate change denial is among conservatives. I argue that both claims are mistaken.
The perception that opposition to GMOs is higher among self-described liberals rather than self-described conservatives one can be refuted by the data.4 The perception probably exists because of the publicity given to certain events. For instance, efforts to ban GM crops in Hawaii were led by so-called liberals who disregard the scientific evidence for GMO’s safety.5
But even if so-called liberals did oppose GM crops more than so-called conservatives, the latter are generally more anti-science, as has been carefully documented in numerous well-researched books.
- The Republican War on Science
- Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the …
- The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny …
Opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change and reverence for the Bible are virtual litmus tests to be a Republican in America today. Or to take another example, only 32% of Republicans believe in evolution, while 66% of liberals do. (Although to be fair, there is scientific illiteracy among all Americans as even this latter percentage reveals. In fact, only about 1/2 of all Americans know that the earth revolves around the sun and that it takes a year to do so!)
There is also another difference regarding the extent to which ideology drives the debate. So-called conservatives seem to wear climate change or evolution denial as a badge of honor. Even Republicans who know the truth of climate change–like Mitt Romney or John McCain have to fall in line. No doubt ideology drives so-called liberals too, but hardly to the same extent. Liberals may be mistaken about the harmfulness of GMOs, but they don’t generally wear this as a badge of honor. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, something of a liberal icon, has recently stated that GMOs are not harmful.9 And in the hearings over banning GM foods in Hawaii were heard this: “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 banning GM foods.
Hopefully, some educated conservatives will speak this way about climate change, evolution, opposition to vaccines, and similar scientific illiteracy.
The Most Important Issue
The most important issue in all this, as I have stated many times in my writing and teaching for almost thirty years, is that truth matters. We should all have a truth fetish. We should follow reason and science wherever it leads and we ignore scientific truth at our peril. For in the end scientific truth does not depend on us, it depends on what is true.
- American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Board of Directors (2012). “Legally Mandating GM Food Labels Could Mislead and Falsely Alarm Consumers“
- A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010)(PDF). Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Biotechnologies, Agriculture, Food. European Union. 2010.doi:10.2777/97784. ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9. “”The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” (p. 16)”
- Ronald, Pamela (2011). “Plant Genetics, Sustainable Agriculture and Global Food Security”. Genetics 188 (1): 11-20. doi:10.1534/genetics.111.128553.PMC 3120150. PMID 21546547.
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