Why does the debate on GMOs matter?

| January 27, 2014
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So what if this orange is or isn't genetically modified?
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Shortly into the new year, Nathanael Johnson at Grist concluded his six-month odyssey to better understand GMOs with a piece that seemed to whimper more than bang. What did he say he learned? “None of it matters.”

“The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs,” he wrote, “is that the stakes are so low.”

Keith Kloor at Collide-A-Scape has written an excellent recap of the reaction to Johnson’s concluding piece. “My own foray into this world has led me to the opposite conclusion,” he writes.

The rebuttals to Johnson’s apparent apathy came swiftly, with plenty of reactionary (and understandable) ire from folks for whom this issue is of huge importance. As someone covering this topic for a website devoted to issues of genetics and it’s all too easy to take “none of it matters” to mean that none of the work done by the GLP matters.

Two broad categories of criticism of Johnson’s shrug have emerged. First, and most directly, that the debate over GMOs matters because the technology is more powerful (or dangerous) than Johnson was giving it credit for. Second, it matters because the debate has become emblematic of struggle of empiricism and expertise in our culture.

Kloor, in turn, highlights two rebuttals that exemplify these categories.

Technologist and author Ramez Naam (who has written for the GLP), focused on the practical benefits of GMOs in the developing world, using a case study of the economic success of Indian farmers using Bt cotton as an example of the underestimated potential of this technology.

Berkeley biologist Michael Eissen focused on the cultural implications, writing: “The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life.”

Johnson recently responded to the criticism, clarifying his position. It’s precisely the symbolic power of GMOs that he feels causing a waste of time and effort:

The symbol of GMOs has eclipsed the causes it symbolizes. Our urgent needs are to alleviate poverty, improve the environment, and face the fact that many of us no longer trust the people who bring us our food. Right now, our political capital is misspent if we’re only addressing GMOs narrowly without touching those larger issues.

You can find links to the additional rebuttals and to Johnson’s full series below.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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