Few things will be as contentious in the coming weeks as the fate of GMOs -- plants that are genetically modified to produce certain characteristics.
This week, the World Food Prize was given in Des Moines to three pioneers in the development of genetically modified organisms, against the backdrop of protests in the city against the decision. In early November, residents of Washington state will vote on whether food containing GMOs need to be labeled as such. According to polls, the vote will be tight, but the initiative looks as if it will pass.
Proponents contend that GMOs are safe creations that help farmers improve their yields while reducing the dependence on pesticides and herbicides. The opposing camp sees GMOs as an invention without enough long-term studies to show that lasting damage won't be caused to humans and the environment.
Originally, it's fair to say that I was someone who was all-out opposed to GMOs. But as I have researched the topic further, my stance has -- not surprisingly -- become more nuanced.
The maddening thing about evaluating where my compass stands is that it is very difficult to come by research that is not, in some way, supported or funded by the industries that would benefit the most from a certain outcome.
That's why, after hearing a speech from GMO supporter Mark Lynas, I think one thing is clear: Everyone benefits from labeling GMOs.
There's no question that those who oppose GMOs would like to see them labeled in the food stores. The way the thinking goes, consumers who are more conscious about what they put into their bodies could make better decisions and avoid these foods. Because that's fairly obvious, I won't be diving to deep on this side's perspective.
Many who are opposed to this initiative, including the Big Six GMO companies -- Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) , Dow (NYSE: DOW ) , DuPont (NYSE: DD ) , Syngenta (NYSE: SYT ) , BASF (NASDAQOTH: BASFY ) , and Bayer -- are worried that consumers will stop buying products with GMOs in them. The products, they contend, are still safe, but because the public doesn't fully understand what a GMO is, these products will be unfairly punished as being "unsafe."
Fighting the public will: a losing battle
But Lynas, someone who publicly states his support for GMOs, thinks these companies simply aren't doing a very good job of looking at the big picture. For starters, he argues, these companies were very slow in getting their message out to the public.
That has left them with two distinct possibilities. The first is to oppose labeling, and the second is to try to educate the public. By focusing more on the former than the latter, this is bound to be a losing fight. As Lynas states:
Just think of the psychology this provokes: "If you say these GMO foods are so safe, why won't you tell us which products and brands contain them?"... If people think you are hiding something from them, they will inevitably perceive whatever it is you are hiding as more risky.
And attempts by experts at reassurance may even be counter-productive because they heighten the sense that people themselves are not being allowed to judge, and that men in white coats in their laboratories have something to hide. ... Consumer right to know, however unjustifiable on scientific grounds, is an argument that -- once a critical mass of people are demanding it -- it is political suicide to oppose.
Focus on the long term
In the end, Lynas thinks that once the fear is removed and people are allowed to see for themselves what GMO products really are, GMOs will gain wider acceptance.
While I may not be nearly as gung-ho as Lynas is on GMOs, I think letting people make their own decisions -- and increasing transparency in the process -- is really the only way to resolve this debate. As Lynas says:
If enough people say that GMOs should be labelled, then labelled they must be. So, let's think how this can be done, and moreover how it can present some opportunities to shift this debate in a more sensible and science-based direction.
It's then, and likely only then, that folks like me might be able to access research -- or conduct our own anecdotal research, which, though not very scientific, is very powerful to the individual -- to help us draw our own conclusion.
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