Anti-GMO activists rally in Los Angeles last year, protesting Monsanto and its development of genetically modified organisms and seeds. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Columnist, Food

Break out the party hats! Unearthed is one year old — and it has been one interesting, gratifying year. To celebrate, I’m revisiting the issue that kicked off this column a year ago: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). You might not think much of my idea of celebration, but I’m guessing you’d agree that the public debate about GMOs isn’t playing out in a constructive way. Both sides have dug trenches, and they’re lobbing grenades over the wall while nothing much changes. It’s the World War I of food issues, and something’s gotta give.

I’m going to suggest five somethings. Each is an argument, from one side or the other, that I think should be retired. If we all agreed to stop lobbing these particular grenades, we could move on to more substantive issues and perhaps generate a little goodwill in the bargain.

 1. GMOs are dangerous to eat. 

It’s impossible to be certain that a GM food, or anything else, is safe. But all uncertainty is not created equal, and the chance that the genetically modified crops in our food supply pose a danger to human health is extraordinarily small. There have been thousands of studies on these foods, many of them long-term and independently funded, and virtually every mainstream science organization has come down on the side of safety. 

One of the most compelling studies came out just last month, and it had billions of subjects that eat GMOs almost exclusively: livestock. Researchers from the University of California at Davis looked at health data on more than 100 billion animals and found no ill effects — in fact, no effects at all — attributable to a switch from non-GMO feed to GMO. 

There is a consensus on the safety of GM crops. Consensus doesn’t mean every last person on the planet; there are people who still say GMOs are dangerous, and some of those people have advanced degrees. But siding with those people, in the face of the consensus, just makes it easier for others to dismiss you as an anti-science (more on that later) zealot. Arguing that GMOs pose a significant human health risk is unreasonable.

 2.  Labeling is unnecessary because GMOs are safe.

This argument misses the point. If GMOs were dangerous, the FDA wouldn’t label them, it would ban them. The items on our food labels run the gamut and include substances that pose a risk to some people (peanuts), substances that public health authorities recommend we should all limit (salt) and lots of ingredients with no health implications at all. There are indications of how a product is made (orange juice from concentrate) and where it comes from (country of origin). Some vitamins and nutrients are listed, others aren’t. There is no grand unifying theory of what goes on a label. It’s all case-by-case.

The argument for labeling is simply that consumers want to know, but that’s not a particularly strong argument. Anyone can come up with a “want to know” list that includes both the ridiculous (farmworkers’ race) and the reasonable (farmworkers’ wage).  Is wanting to know about GMOs reasonable? 

Sometimes it’s not (see Argument 1), but let’s take a GMO skeptic who says herbicide-tolerant crops concern her because they might foster herbicide-intensive agriculture, with negative environmental consequences, and that we need to start building more transparency into our agricultural system so consumers can vote with their wallets for the kind of system they want to see. You might disagree with her, but I don’t think she’s unreasonable. 

A constructive debate has to address reasonable concerns. The safety argument doesn’t.

3.  Only Big Ag benefits from GMOs.

It’s unfortunate that Americans’ first exposure to genetically engineered crops was to herbicide-tolerant corn and soy. Because the benefits of those most widely planted GMOs do accrue chiefly (not exclusively, but I won’t quibble) to commodity farmers and agribusiness, all other genetically modified foods have been tarred with the same brush.  The ringspot-resistant papaya is rarely part of the discussion and, no matter how often I flog my favorite, the yeast that produces healthful long-chain omega-3 fats, it just doesn’t make a dent in the association that GMOs have with Big Ag. 

The list of GMOs with benefits to the rest of us is long. There’s the mosquito that helps control dengue fever by mating with disease-carrying mosquitos and passing on a gene that kills the offspring. A cow resistant to the organism responsible for sleeping sickness (a trypanosome) can no longer pass the disease to humans via a tsetse fly. How about the orange tree resistant to citrus greening? Or crops with more vitamins, or more healthful oils? And don’t forget my omega-3 yeast.

Don’t let your distrust of herbicide-tolerant crops extend to GMOs in general.

4.  We’ve been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years.

What GMO supporters mean, of course, is that we’ve been cross-breeding for thousands of years. Which is true but irrelevant, because the people who are concerned about GMOs are concerned precisely because the technology is very different from cross-breeding.  In making this argument, supporters completely ignore the basis of opponents’ skepticism, and that’s condescending and counterproductive.

It also undermines what may be one of the most interesting and compelling arguments in favor of GMOs: That the techniques used to insert individual genes enable changes in the organisms that are much more predictable, and therefore less likely to be harmful, than the wholesale changes that come from cross-breeding. That argument works only if you admit from the get-go that transgenic breeding is materially different from what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.

 5.  GMO supporters are Monsanto shills, and opponents are anti-science.

The shill part is pretty obvious. Please just stop.  

The anti-science part is more complicated. The people who study how we make decisions about issues of science and policy tell us that our positions on those issues tend to determine our perception of the science, not the other way around. Most GMO opponents aren’t anti-science; they’re anti-GMO, and therefore see the large body of science that contradicts their ideas as tainted by association with industry, flawed methodologically, done by biased scientists or otherwise dismissible. They are, in fact, pro-science — toward science that confirms their beliefs. (GMO supporters, and humans in general, are just as susceptible to this kind of confirmation bias.)

Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, whose Cultural Cognition Project investigates how values and group affiliations influence beliefs, says that “conflict entrepreneurs who are trying to turn GM food risks into a polarizing issue” may deserve the anti-science charge, but that the charge itself, deployed more widely, is also polarizing. “In general, the anti-science trope is noxious,” he says, both because “it’s not an empirically supported account of the sorts of positions it is usually invoked to explain, and because it tends to pollute the science communication environment.” Most of the public doesn’t give a fig about GMOs, but the more we throw around the anti-science charge, the higher the risk that this issue becomes entrenched as an emblem of cultural identity. Think climate change. 

Entrenchment is what we’re trying to avoid here.  Stop making these arguments, at least for a while, and see if it doesn’t help. While you’re at it, reach out to someone you respect who disagrees with you, and listen. If you’re a scientist, academic, activist, journalist or any other type who gets invited to speak on panels, insist that the panel represent both sides fairly; choir-preaching doesn’t help. We need to come to some kind of reasonable consensus on this issue. Give peace a chance. 

A note to readers: To those of you who have read, have written, and have commented over the first year of this column, I’d like to say thank you. I’ve gotten interesting, thoughtful feedback from many of you and almost none of the uncivil commentary that so often pollutes these discussions. A number of you have told me that you’ve started to think a little differently about some of these issues, to which I can only respond, “Me, too.”  I hope you’ll stick with me as Unearthed starts Year Two.

Haspel farms oysters on Cape Cod and writes about food and science. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel. She will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.