The Problem with the GMO Debate

Something strange happens whenever I'm out and about -- since we're setting the atmosphere here, let's go ahead and say at a fancy dinner party with nautical-based hors d'oeuvres and champagne flutes galore -- and decide to mention the current debate regarding GMOs:

People lose their minds.

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The reactions fall into two distinct categories: (1) Those who believe that GMOs are evidence of science gone mad and everyone associated with their development needs to be arrested and exiled to an island prison (at the very least, Riverside) to live out their days away from a position of influence and with only rabbit ears on their TVs so they won't know how "Breaking Bad" ends; and (2) if you're worried about GMOs, you're a bonehead who's so scared of scientific advancement of any sort that you might we well trade in your cell phone, car, the GPS in that car, your microwave, and any kinds of electronic coffee-making devices you own, and go live off the grid somewhere in Montana where your toilet's a hole in the ground and your bidet's a hose with your thumb over the nozzle.

The problem, as you can tell, is that there's no nuance or respect to the debate. In fact, it's not a debate anymore as much as two sides yelling over each other, believing that if they simply find the stronger decibel level they'll "win."

This is what happens while living in a society that's increasingly partitioned and echo-chambered by specialized slanted news services and links from like-minded individuals on Facebook, where the only opinions a person allows into their sphere of influence are those the person already agrees with. If you go into a conversation knowing absolutely, positively, 100% that you're right without any possibility of being mistaken, and the other party has that same feeling burning inside of them, then the argument takes on the form of a snowball fight. The whole thing starts casually enough with impromptu barriers and lightly-packed snow, until someone decides to pack them a little tighter so they can fly faster. Then the other side, feeling the sting of the more-packed projectiles, decides to pour a little water on top to make them balls of ice. And then someone finally just goes and and picks up a rock. Then, it's just a rock fight.

And that's where we are with (1) and (2) above. We're just chucking rocks at each other.

The truth is that, no, the developers of GMO foods (Monsanto in particular), are not hell-bent on global destruction by poisoning us all. They are a business. And, as is the case with all businesses, their primary function is to make a whole lot of money. Sure, they're also interested in using this new technology to alleviate world hunger by making plants resistant to invasive pests, diseases, and bracing winter cold. But if that kind of effort didn't lead to massive profits they wouldn't be dabbling in the field. Altruistic, they are not. But they're also not evil, so much as simply tunnel-visioned with a bright green dollar sign glistening in the distance.

But on the other end of spectrum, in regards to being worried about the current state of GMO use in our food supply: No, it does not make someone a scared-of-science luddite. And this piece by Beth Hoffman over at Forbes nails why a little hesitation when it comes to "bold new food technologies" is worthwhile:

Science has a credibility problem. It has for too long been used to distort food and twist the natural into long-lasting Twinkies and nutritionally void Lunchables. Tobacco was good for us, we were told, and DDT was fine to spray on our fields. Food dyes are all still considered safe for our kids to eat, and "natural" foods, we are made to believe, are made of naturally occurring ingredients.

In all cases we have been misled, and today it is not "false fears" that has bred skeptical consumers, it is experience.

As Hoffman notes, it's not a skepticism without some actual field testing to back up that mentality. For example, despite claims that cross-pollination between GMO crops and naturally-raised ones would be "extremely limited," biotech rice that was never approved for consumption showed up in our food supply back in 2006. While that's a rarity, only a few of those mishaps have to take place to possibly have devastating results.

The whole thing puts us all in a weird place right now: GMO technology is, ideally, something that will benefit mankind. But it also makes sense to be worried when futzing around with that kind of stuff on a massive level -- and there's no more massive level than a world's food supply. To not be at least a little bit hesitant, you not only have to trust the technology, but also the people in charge of that technology, as well as the people overseeing the people who are in charge of that technology. The whole thing's reminiscent of the debate over nuclear power. In the right hands, it can power the world. In the wrong ones, it can wipe us all out.

Which is all a way of saying you can certainly trust the concept of GMOs, and even look forward to a future when they will be the norm, while still questioning the state of their use today. And you can question without believing that the people using them are monsters trying to kill us all. Only once we start realizing both realities, and trashing the over-the-top angry/condescending rhetoric in the process, we may finally get somewhere.

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