The GMO Conversation

Moving beyond the pro/anti science debate

Filed under: Essays

Being for or against GMOs is all-too-often proclaimed as a matter of being for or against science.

by Maya Bialik

The first layer of the public conversation about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has divided people along already existing lines of passionate disagreement, and has painted an overly simplified picture of the decisions we are facing as humanity. It has made a complex issue simple, through this inaccurate and delicate question: Are you for science, or anti science?

The media outlets ask this question both explicitly and implicitly, as they boil the discussion down to a false dichotomy. Unlike the cases of evolution and global warming (also dividing people along this line), it is not actually true that virtually all scientists agree on the issue. There is a real discussion happening about the effects of GMOs on the environment, the ethics of their testing, the sustainability of their outputs, the dangers of monoculture, etc. But by the time the discussion makes its way out of journals and jargon and into the public’s awareness, the nuance of the issue has been flattened and sculpted into a clear and superficial debate that has almost nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Since the false discussion has painted science as unanimously sided with the pro-GMO side, here is a short list of scientific arguments against GMOs.

  • We cannot fully predict the effects on the larger system which GMOs would affect if they spread, and it seems like we cannot fully control their spreading. Just as there are massive unintended effects with every introduction of a non-native organism into an ecosystem, GMOs could interact with the current network in unpredictable ways. They also present a serious risk of monoculture, which is dangerous.
  • There is a clear conflict of interest with the people and corporations who stand to benefit financially from GMOs. Additionally, there is often a long term strategy for those people to stay in power, as farmers become dependent on the less sustainable GMO crop.
  • It is not true that there is not enough food to feed all the people in the world, and GMOs are a silver bullet to fight world hunger. Rather, it is our systems that have organized food and power in such a way that keeps many people hungry.
  • Finally, with regard to calculating risk: absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Assuming everyone conducting research on GMOs has no conflicts of interest and they’ve perfected the mechanisms that would keep GMOs from spreading to the larger ecosystem, where is the reasonable place to draw the line of what we consider safe? Europe and the US have decided on different positions on the spectrum of safety, and this part of the evaluation should not be glossed over, but should be discussed thoroughly.

Of course, the reasons many people who are against GMOs give are not the reasons listed above. The flat representation of the debate does in fact stem from real feelings of real people. They often do boil down to an aversion to things that feel “unnatural” and a distrust of science. On the other side, many of the reasons given in support GMOs are inaccurate: artificial selection and selective breeding over many years is in fact qualitatively different from cutting and pasting parts of the genome, and the confidence of knowing about the risk of long term effects is over-estimated and over-emphasized.

The more nuanced conversation would acknowledge that science is not an ideal process for revealing Truth with a capital T. It is conducted by people, and is subject to bias, power struggles, and flawed methodology. It does, however, do its best to be aware of its own biases and eliminate them, and it is meant to be viewed at a high level. That means that while each study might be flawed, overall the picture painted by science will be our best guess as to how to understand the world around us and the decisions we must make.

“Science progresses not because scientists as a whole are passionately open-minded but because different scientists are passionately closed-minded about different things.” — Henry Bauer

And of course, the media is not just evil — that is itself an oversimplification. Social science researchers such as Cass Sunstein have showed that we drift toward extremes when we interact with like-minded people. It is a well-observed emergent property of people in social groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s unavoidable.

If each side approaches the discussion genuinely seeking to understand what is right for humanity, and concedes to the other side the salient but superficial points used to create an us-them division in the media, we may be able to stop the whirlwind of polarization we have gotten swept up in. Only then will we sidestep the temptation of group-think, learn from each other, and survive as a species.

Maya Bialik is a contributor and editor at Uneven Earth. She is also the Associate Director at The People’s Science, working on bridging the gap between scientists and the public, and the Research Manager at The Center for Curriculum Redesign, where she synthesizes cognitive science and education research to create educational goals that meet the needs of the 21st century. She enjoys photography, social dancing, and is currently dabbling in improv comedy.