An intelligent and educated friend, who rightly considers himself to be quite scientifically literate, writes:
I’m not sure if “GMO free” actually is supposed to mean anything considering there’s nothing we eat (or smoke, hippie weed smokers!) that hasn’t been modified over the last 11,000 years from its original “natural” form. But good for Cheerios. Very smart marketing on their part, says my inner cynic.
Slow botanical changes that derive from mutation, natural hybridization, or selective breeding (artificial hybridization) are relatively safe. Some changes will lead to sterility or plant death, which doesn’t affect much except that individual plant. If a hybrid or mutant foodstuff shows up and starts to kill those that interact with it — possibly from something like indigestibilty than from creating a vicious poison — then it won’t be passed on as much (given that those consuming it are supposed to pass on its progeny one way or the other, as plants are doing what they do to benefit themselves rather than us) and will tend to die out.
If, on the other hand, you make a command decision to change the genetic makeup of half the corn in the world over a decade — and then suddenly earthworms or bees or beans or pigeons start dying and it takes a while to learn that it’s due to some unexpected and barely even imaginable interaction (or even a higher-order interaction) having to do with a “downstream” effect of that mutation, then the damage is huge and the companies profiting from the change will be wholly unable to cover the bet they had made on their technology. (They will still likely be able to afford lobbyists to slip in a rider to some must-pass federal bill that will immunize them from civil and criminal liability for their acts, maybe capping the former at three months of their profits.) So, avoiding widespread and rapid adoption of GMOs into critical and complex systems where the technology is beyond the grasp of science to predict isn’t disdaining science, it’s respecting science.
Slow change, where the effects on the interconnected environment can be studied and monitored, is good. It allows for responsible scientific study. Change in the form of raindrops feeding a brook is usually manageable. Flash floods, not so much.
I think that more people think that they comprehend the process of adaptation than actually do. And I think that those who uncritically accept assurances of safety that science can’t possibly provide treat science as a religion rather than a method for discovering truth. And, as with religion, that’s going to be worst when mixed with commerce and political gain.
On the other hand, I’m a lot less cynical than some. The graphic posted above continues:
Yeah, yeah — trust but verify. I get it. But is this reaction, taken from a review of reactions to General Mills’s decision that can be found here, smart politics? No.
The fight against irresponsible adoption of GMOs takes place on three fronts: psychological, economic, political. What General Mills has done here is good on a psychological level because it contributes to legitimate questioning about corporations using science to justify placing bets by “writing checks that their assets can’t cash.” So we can thank them for that, right?
It is also, to whatever extent, reducing the market for GMO crops and increasing the market for non-GMO products. So we can than them for that too, right?
Yes, there is the problem with trace contamination — but there are similar problems in many processed foods with trace contamination by rat feces and insect parts. One just tries not to think about this (unless one has peculiar tastes, I suppose.) So as long as that trace contamination is the residue from good faith efforts to achieve substantial compliance, efforts that have the desired psychological and economic effects, can we cut them a little slack?
The political problem is this. The directors and officers in corporate board rooms and the officers and managers in meeting rooms are not monolithic. Some will be more sympathetic to cooperation with political activists, some less so. And the ones who are most opposed to such cooperation are probably saying something like the following:
Why should we even bother? Those critics are just going to say that they smell a rat, that this is some public relations stunt. They’re going to say we are criminals and that our promises are worthless. Then they’re going to move the goalposts. Why even play their game? It’s better to put the money into trying to discredit them entirely than to give them even an ounce of respect.
That’s the fight going on in corporate America (and corporate most everywhere, for that matter.) Without losing our critical faculties and willingness to fight, we should be strengthening the hands of those who don’t want GMOs to turn into the next asbestos or lead paint or DDT — not the cynics who say “well if that happens we can always go bankrupt.” We have to find allies where we can — and too much cynicism, just like too little, can be bad for the body politic.