GMOs and Democracy

The start of a comment made in response to my last post—“Maybe it is undemocratic but in this case…”—still bothers me.

It also worries me when I hear plant molecular biologists say: “I would normally be in favor of labeling, but not when it comes to GMOs.”

Why should anyone suspend democracy, and the capitalist principle of letting the consumer/marketplace decide whether a new product will succeed or not, for the sake of food products of genetic engineering?

Are genetically engineered (GE) food crops such a great innovation that the United States should set aside basic American principles to ensure that they end up on American dinner plates?

GE food products and ingredients have now been commercially available—in the U.S. and elsewhere—for more than two decades. What are the results of this social experiment so far?

According to Colin Macilwain, in an opinion piece published in the scientific journal Nature recently:

“Five-sixths of [the world’s] GM acreage is in the Americas. The rest consists mostly of non-food crops (mainly cotton) grown in India and China. Little of the harvest is in nations that need improved yields to feed themselves. Twenty years in, the GM strains currently under cultivation are still best suited to the needs of large-scale industrial farmers who can afford the seeds and inputs that accompany them.”

That is my take as well…although I would add that much of the yellow GE corn grown in places like China and the Philippines is also fed primarily to animals as opposed to humans.

These “results” appear to indicate that the citizens of the United States, as opposed to those in developing countries with food shortages, comprise many (if not most) of the humans on the planet who are actually eating GE foods. And, as opposed to the citizens of the more than 60 other countries in the world that require foods containing GE ingredients to be labeled, citizens of the United States, one of the most democratic nations on Earth (arguably it seems), don’t have that right…despite the fact that in poll after poll 80-90% of American citizens have indicated they want these foods labeled.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture!

As an American consumer myself, just the fact that genetic engineering has been used primarily in support of unsustainable, industrialized agriculture, combined with the fact that its promoters—including academic scientists, corroborated recently by the New York Times—don’t want me to know whether the foods I buy in my grocery store contain GE ingredients…are reasons enough, in my mind, to vote against such foods with my pocketbook. That I was once a genetic engineer involved in bringing a GE food to market makes me that much more disappointed in the non-tranparent, unsustainable trajectory the ag biotech industry has taken since I left the industry in 1995.

In the United States that I grew up in, these types of reasons–or any others consumers conceived of–were among those that buying decisions were based on. If I didn’t like a product, its packaging, or…whatever, I was free to forego purchasing that product. Back in the day, it was up to the sellers to convince consumers to become their buyers.

And now, after having had two decades to demonstrate the great “potential” of this powerful technology, but without having to take consumer demand into account while doing so, the ag biotech industry has relatively little to show for it…except a public that—for lack of: assurance of long-term safety, GE products that consumers could get excited about, and/or transparency—has only become more and more wary of the whole biotech food endeavor.

It may now be time to pay the piper.

According to Macilwain, there are decisions pending in countries like “Scotland, Germany, France, Italy and others to stand up to corporate pressure and keep GM crop technology out of the European country-side.” And even in the U.S., “John Holdren, science adviser to US President Barack Obama, [has, as of July 2, 2015,] directed regulators to revisit the U.S. framework for regulating agricultural biotechnology.”

Two decades in, it’s time to reassess this technology…why and how it is used, and how it is regulated and marketed.

And at this juncture, the truly democratic nations of the Earth would do well to heed Macilwain’s reminder: “good risk management involves early communication with the public and the careful weighing of many factors, not just scientific risk assessment.”

As for the U.S., being transparent (via labeling, etc.), conducting the long-term studies necessary to reassure the public about GE crops (starting with NK603 GE corn) and having regulatory agencies require case-by-case assessment of new GE products will, in my opinion, all be necessary for there to be any chance of turning public concern around.

And unless public concern is turned around, who knows whether the “potential” of genetic engineering evidenced by projects like Golden Rice (which, if all goes well, may be ready for market in 3-5 more years) will ever be realized?

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5 Responses to GMOs and Democracy

  1. Patty Smith says:

    As GMO labeling is being taken up in the Senate I believe we can use this as an opportunity to shine a light on current agricultural practices. I have written to my two Senators from VT and hope to encourage others to do so in their states. Here is a copy of the letter I wrote:

    As an esteemed Senator from Vermont, I am assured that you will reject any Senate version of Rep. Pompeo’s “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” (H.R. 1599) which prohibits states from requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods, or GMOs and prohibits any local control of how GMOs are regulated.

    In view of the mounting scientific evidence that GMOs, and their accompanying agrochemicals such as Glyphosate, do indeed pose a significant risk to human and environmental health, I would ask that the Senate conduct a full investigation into the ‘science’ behind safety claims made by the industry and the FDA. We must also investigate whether conflicts of interest at the FDA and other research facilities have led to inappropriate approval of dangerous food production practices.

    We must also look at reforming laws and regulations to ensure our protective agencies serve the public good.

  2. liz3321 says:

    Just to add that Golden Rice can’t be ready for market in 3-5 years as you suggest above. The article you link to on Golden Rice reports it will probably be in the lab for 3-5 years. If successful in the lab it would need field trials to check whether it performs well in the field, plus tests on safety efficacy – so several more years. Or it might be back in the lab again ….

    • Belinda says:

      Thanks for the correction…I was trying to present the project in the most positive light possible.

      My understanding is that various field trials have already been undertaken, but that yields in the Golden Rice varieties tested are lower than what would be acceptable to farmers. Whether this yield problem can be fixed through traditional breeding of the current Golden Rice varieties with other, higher yielding rice varieties, or will necessitate going back to the lab (as you indicate)…only time will tell.

  3. Biotechie says:

    You favor a system in which food companies label GMOs with a GMO label and the US goverment sets up a mandatory system for monitoring this labeling. We have already had an exchange in an earlier post why a label for a process is scientifically questionable for food and feed rather than a label that says are the nutritional and toxicological components of the product itself.

    We have already discussed that a voluntarly labeling system is already in place. Companies are already perfectly free to put GMO-free labels on their products and get consumers to pay more for them.

    In Europe, the majority of European consumers don’t even read GMO labels when they go shopping. Survey show they only look at GMO labels when they are reminded about the GMO issue by survey questioners. So yes, there is a minority of people for whom GMOs and their potential risks is front and foremost in their consciousness everyday. Perhaps for them GMO labels would give them piece of mind. For most people, this is not important. Why? Because noone has shown that for products of the technology as a whole there are greater risks. We just see that risks are associated with specific products, like they are for specific products produced by other methods, including conventional breeding. This is why it is important to have labeling relating to products and not to technology. I am sorry if I sound like a broken record.

    Your argument continues to be that we should still persevere with the GMO label because the majority of people want to know this useless information. You continue to argue it is undemocratic not to give them this information.

    The answer is yes it is undemocratic. So what? Especially if it is illogical to give people information which encourages a stigmatization of a category of products that is meaningless anyway. It is a useless activity.

    99% of the world believes that God is as an omniprescient individual in our lives. It is a belief; it is not rational. Over 80% of the public believe that GMOs are scary and dangerous. It is a belief; it is not rational. As a scientist you are happy to promote a labeling system that plays into these irrational fears.

    • Belinda says:

      My argument continues to be that genetic engineering is very different than traditional breeding; it causes higher rates of mutation, can insert large pieces of DNA not meant to be inserted, can change the expression levels of vast numbers of other protein-coding and RNA-coding genes.
      And instead of admitting that the biological process(es) of genetic engineering is very different, and therefore entails different risks, and that the products of the technology should be thoroughly studied and regulated prior to landing on someone’s dinner plate, the regulatory system for GE foods in the US has so many loopholes in it that GE products can escape any pre-commercial regulation completely.
      And if developers of GE products are so convinced of the positive attributes of them…then they should just label them as Calgene did for the Flavr SavrTM tomato…and Campbell Soup is now going to do for its products that contain GE ingredients.
      I disagree with your assessments of “useless,” “Illogical” and “meaningless.” And what over 80% of consumers believe is that GMOs should be labeled.
      I agree with them. Campbell Soup Company agrees with them. It is the American Capitalist way to let consumers know what they are buying, to let the market decide on the success or failure of a new product.
      I believe in Science…there just hasn’t been enough of it carried out on most GE products and the process they were developed with. Science, it seems, has let us down on this technology.
      Democracy should not do the same.

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