The FDA is stalling approval of a GMO salmon being produced by AquaBounty–delays that may force the company out of business. This, despite the FDA finding in 2010 that the fish are safe and pose little harm to natural fish or the environment.
GMO, genetically modified organisms, specifically food and crops is very controversial. Proposition 37, a ballot initiative in California that would have required labeling for GMO food went down to defeat. Backers accused Monsanto, the favorite target of anti-production food activists, for funding a campaign to defeat it. (I’m sure if it had passed, the backers would have proclaimed victory based on the wisdom of the voters, not their own campaign efforts.)
This is one of those subjects that certainly provides more heat than light when it shows up in public discussion and the media.
PR Newser, a PR industry site, clearly shows a strong bias in the issue of AquaBounty and the FDA approval issue in their story about the issue. The headline is “Frankenfish” and the accompanying photo shows a frankenstein-like fish that is hardly appetizing.
I have some biases on these matters of food, food safety and production methods as well. They are:
– science, not emotion, fear tactics and unproven wild accusations should rule
– transparency including labeling and education should be the primary tools used
– unlike most activists, I tend to believe that consumers should have the right to decide food choices for themselves, even when some of those choices seem downright stupid to me
– the eagerness of government agencies and politicians to jump in and make decisions for me and other ignorant consumers is a far bigger problem that whatever it is they are trying to solve
So, let’s look at these issues from that biased standpoint.
1) Science and safety. Here’s what wikipedia says:
There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food. No reports of ill effects have been documented in the human population from GM food. Supporters of food derived from GMOs hold that food is as safe as other foods and that labels send a message to consumers that GM food is somehow dangerous. They trust that regulators and the regulatory process are sufficiently objective and rigorous, and that risks of contamination of the non-GM food supply and of the environment can be managed. They trust that there is sufficient law and regulation to maintain competition in the market for seeds, believe that GM technology is key to feeding a growing world population, and view GM technology as a continuation of the manipulation of plants that humans have conducted for millennia.
Another reason why I think the science tends to prove the safety is that there are so many out there right now eager for the slightest proof of risk. They (and the media who love these stories that generate fear) are incredibly quick to jump on the slightest evidence. But, none has been produced. (For how the media jump on phony research, here’s an example.)
2. Transparency including labeling. I would have been in full support of Proposition 37 if it were not for one thing. GMO has been and is being used as a fear tactic. The name itself has a negative connotation. Sort of like pinkslime and now frankenfish. The supporters certainly understand that with media complicity in the scare tactics, GMO has become identified with something very dangerous–despite the commonness and lack of proof. However, I think that full disclosure about our food products is very important and I fully support labeling including calorie counts which I think are helpful. I’d rather see this transparency emerge from industry understanding of consumer values rather than through legislation or regulation but that’s another issue.
The fact about GMOs is that we have been genetically involved with food almost since we crawled out of the caves. (See wikipedia again).Selective breeding is intentionally working to get the benefit of selected genes. Yes, the science has changed dramatically, but it is still well established that the newer methods of gene modification have no more dangerous consequences than the older methods, but provide a real promise to meet our growing need for inexpensive food.
3. Consumers should decide. One activists I know of clearly stated that people are too stupid to make decisions about what is in their own interests. I honestly feel this is the rationale behind so much of the regulatory and legislative pressure on food issues. And this thought leaves my blood running cold. I do not want a nanny state, I do not want those in government agencies to be dictating every action I take. I don’t even want Mayor Bloomberg telling me I have to order two sixteen ounce containers rather than one 24 ounce even though I may think he really means good for me. I see far too clear a line between these more or less innocuous decisions and the ones that tell me whether or not I can have children, how many, and how and where to worship and whether or not I can speak my mind on almost any topic. What strikes me as strange and frightening is that so many, particularly those increasing number younger than me, who see no connection at all.
4. Regulatory and political involvement–I guess I’ve already expressed my opinion about that. What concerns me is that the heightening of fear about food, food safety, production methods is used as justification for all kinds of things. I’ve been involved in global food issues where it is quite clear that approval or non-approval of agricultural products based on lab testing of substance levels and setting those levels is a tricky way of controlling imports or exports. It’s not about food safety, but about global trade. I’m also afraid because of the law of unintended consequences which seems to attend almost any effort to more strictly regulate. If people want to do something, want to consume something they will find a way.
We tried temperance and we tried a drug war. Did either end alcohol or drug abuse? No, but the drug wars have certainly resulted in trillions spent on prisons and in Mexico alone, perhaps as many as 100,000 deaths. These are deaths caused largely by the America demand for illegal drugs.
With all this talk about food safety and the FDA and regulations and new legislation, one thing seems to be continually forgotten. Our food is no doubt safer than ever and it is certainly very affordable. Maybe only the wealthy can afford to buy the high priced, low volume supposedly super-healthy food. But for those who can afford such food to seek to take good, healthy, inexpensive food away from those who do not have that luxury is simply wrong. And that includes the use of scare tactics on things like “frankenfish” and GMO.
Education, not regulation is the key. If the anti-GMOers have a case to make, let them make. Let it be based on strong science, not junk science and not mere fear tactics. In the meantime, let’s eat.