Saw this article today in the New York Times about the debate over putting labels on genetically modified food. Of course, this is one of those topics that immediate rips open fierce debate, like the vaccine-autism debate or the Laffer curve or Tom Cruise’s sexuality. In all those cases, the ferocity mainly seems to accrue to the minority that can’t seem to make it’s point without the conviction of the fire it breathes.
I personally am not frightened of genetically modified food, and look askance at the alarmists who shun GMO on principle. One day we might find out it’s harmful. Just like we might find out there are lots of all natural things, like tobacco, that are harmful. But dismissing genetically engineered foods out of hand smacks of back-to-nature idealism. Nature sometimes knows best–say, when an injured brain heals itself. Sometimes it doesn’t, say when lots of women without access to advanced medical care die in childbirth or when uncircumcised males pass more venereal disease than their snipped freres. Food activists have made great strides in uncovering some of our dirtiest food secrets–including the way tastes and smells are manufactured in labs and the way our increasing drift toward protein in our diets could augur environmental and economic upheaval. What they haven’t done is convince everybody that the concept of “Frankenfood” is in itself somehow evil if it had no adverse effects and and actually nourished an overpopulated planet, a world in which water and arable land are going to become scarcer and which could probably use a helpful nudge from human ingenuity in the form of technology. People who automatically fear an assault on the integrity of nature are in essence hawking religion. They mix up caloric intake with karma.
Having said that, one questions the reasoning of multinationals lining up against GMO labels on food. This is an argument of a different abstraction, and you don’t have to hate genetically modified food to think labeling is a good idea. Transparency being the watchword of our age, why would such companies fear honesty? If it was important to put warning labels on rap music, once upon a time, because of the unproven harm it could do to children, wouldn’t it be a no-brainer to label something that’s actually going into our bodies? Isn’t that a choice consumers ought to be allowed to make? If organic food and genetically modified food stood side by side, that’s a marketplace of ideas, not just food.
It also is distasteful that a decision against labeling could be unduly influenced by 8,000 pound biotech companies like Monsanto, who even profit motivated investors sometimes shun for its anti-competitive practices and bad corporate citizenship.
I think genetically modified food is OK, but if I didn’t, I’d demand the right to know when I’m buying it. Even our investments, our children’s toys and our drugs these days come with all sorts of disclaimers. Whether you think it’s necessary to be inside everything or not, GMO labeling sits well inside the pale of a public’s need to know. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if there weren’t powerful companies arrayed against public interest and (my old saw) a weak political establishment steered by anti-government hysterics woefully bereft of its power capital to do anything good for anybody.