When Vermont became the first state last week to require labeling genetically modified foods, it was hardly alone. Maine and Connecticut have already passed bills requiring GMO labeling with mandates that they would not go into effect until other states did the same, and there are 85 pending GMO labeling bills in 29 states. What all these bills amount to is a stunningly anti-science campaign driven by the so-called party of science, Democrats.
It's a cause that's been growing for years on the left.
When GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were first introduced in the mid-1990s, there was a lot of promise associated with the idea. They would increase crop yields, helping farmers and reducing world hunger, and aid the environment by reducing the need for pesticides. And while they have yet to live up to such lofty promises, GMOs have been successful. Today, the most widely-known examples in the U.S. are genetically modified corn, which produces its own insecticide, and genetically modified soybeans, which are resistant to pesticides and create healthier soybean oil.
Early on, resisting GMOs was often synonymous with opposing Monsanto, the chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation that has made a name for itself in multiple high-profile lawsuits against small-scale farmers and for its questionable ties to the FDA, EPA and even the Supreme Court. That, and the fact that at the time, there were limited scientific studies of health and environmental effects that led to instances of alarming conjecture, were enough to cast doubt on whether the gains were worth the costs.
There's still debate over whether or not GMOs have fulfilled their potential and if they ever will. But one of the biggest factors fueling the anti-GMO argument today is that the European Union, which is generally ahead of the U.S. on the liberalism curve, allowed member states to ban GMOs in 2001. Since then, Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK have all implemented bans.
But what's important to note is that the arguments for doing so are based on statistics and assumptions that were prevalent 15 years ago. A lot can change in 15 years. And a lot has changed. Recent data shows that Monsanto is not the sole or even primary beneficiary of GMOs — small-scale farmers, particularly in India, the Philippines, and China have noted some of the most significant gains.
And in response to the concerns over lack of adequate information, lots of scientists have conducted lots of studies. There are literally thousands of them. And earlier this year, a team of scientists published a paper summarizing 1,783 of the most in-depth studies. Their findings?
We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE [genetically-engineered] crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops. [Critical Reviews in Biotechnology]
So, even though the anti-GMO cause may have made sense for liberals 15 years ago, that's simply no longer the case. For a party that prides itself on adhering to rationality and facts, and derides conservatives for doubting scientific truths such as climate change and evolution, the perpetuation of a vehement anti-GMO stance isn't just irrational. It's hypocritical.
After all, the left has widely mocked conservatives for climategate, the name of the conspiracy conservatives imagined when presented with the overwhelming evidence that proves global warming. But when the left-wing is shown a similarly overwhelming body of scientific evidence, it doesn't need a conspiracy to basically ignore the findings.
In fairness, there are some, like Mark Lynas, who was one of the founding leaders of the anti-GMO movement, who have since recanted. At last year's Oxford Farming Conference, he went so far as to make a formal apology. "For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops," he said. "I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment."
But other activists, such as best-selling author Jeffrey Smith (who is also a former Congressional candidate for the left-wing National Law Party) haven't been so eager to change their tune. As far back as 1996, Smith was traveling the country to preach the health hazards of GMOs. There might have been a slight case of conclusion-jumping involved, but that's more or less excusable given the climate of the time.
But in the 18 years and myriad proclamations of scientific consensus later, his message remains notably unchanged. In a March interview with CNN, he touted the same claims that he always has: GMOs are associated with multiple health hazards including infertility, accelerated aging, and changes in major organs. The only problem is that every single claim of his has been debunked by the scientific community.
It would be one thing if the perpetuation of the anti-GMO cause was restricted to people like Smith, who blatantly tout easily refuted lies. But the problem goes deeper than that. In an interview with PBS, Gov. Shumlin (D-Vt) said he was proud to sign Vermont's GMO labeling law — not because he personally believes that there are any hazards associated with GMOs, but because "consumers have a right to know what they buy. People feel differently about it. Strong feelings on both sides. My view is pro-choice. Let consumers know."
And this is where most Democrat politicians and centrist left-wing apologists have settled on the issue. If consumers want to know, they have the right to know. On the surface, it's an admirable — even democratic — sentiment. But at its root, the "consumers have a right to know" argument tolerates and enables the kind of ignorance that liberals resent when it comes from the right.
While there are plenty of arguments for how politics makes us stupid, there are certain scenarios that can actually make us smarter. If we expect rationality and adherence to the facts from our opponent, it's only common sense that we expect it from ourselves. Watching the mainstream argument evolve from ignorance to knowledge, all the while allowing fringe beliefs continue to dictate legislation is not only lazy, it's dangerous.
Individuals certainly have the right to be ignorant, but GMO-labeling inherently implies a reason for that labeling — that there really might be health hazards involved. By giving in, the government would be empowering those who oppose the scientific community and helping further propagate misinformation. With something as seemingly low-stakes as GMO labeling, the impact of that may appear to be trivial. But if this tendency is any indicator of where we allow the power to lie, we've got more problems ahead of us than fake health hazards.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- Alien conspiracy theorists think the government is on the verge of spilling big secrets
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- A brief history of the Christmas present
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week