Anti-GMOers Are Irrational About Risk
When you wake up in the morning, get out of bed, shower, and drive to work or school, you’re taking countless risks. There’s the risk that you’ll slip in the shower and have a concussion or that you’ll have an accident during your commute, for instance. You are aware of those risks, but they’re so small you don’t let them become debilitating; you still get out of bed and go about your day.
These are known risks, and you rightly judge them to be acceptable risks given that they’re unlikely to occur. But there are also unknown risks, the risks that you had not even conceived of, that might have changed your decision to take those steps outside your door and into your car. When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), this is the space to which its opponents often retreat. They say that more research needs to be done on the safety of GMOs, despite the fact that the current evidence overwhelmingly supports their safety.
It is true that it’s possible scientists will discover a previously unknown risk that comes with GMOs. Perhaps they are carcinogenic only after eating them for 50 years. Skeptics are not wrong to be concerned with such unknowns, but they are wrong to selectively apply such skepticism. The alternatives they present lack the benefits of GMOs while failing to eliminate the chance of such unknown risks from cropping up.
The problem with this way of thinking is that you could still do all the studies in the world and opponents of GMOs would never be satisfied. It’s fundamentally unfalsifiable, which is a core tenant of scientific thinking. There will always be unknown risks and someone has to decide whether to go ahead with a new way of doing things despite that possibility or simply wallow in the status quo. So what is the best way to decide whether and how we implement new technologies like genetic engineering? Democracy provides one way to claim legitimate decision-making, but the majority’s views oftentimes do not reflect a deep understanding of the issues at stake. That’s why, for instance, a Pew Poll found a 51% gap in opinion between scientists and the public on the safety of GMOs.
Not only do scientists feel that GMOs are safe, they believe that GMOs provide a huge potential for innovation in agriculture: they can increase crop yields, reduce food costs, protect the environment better than non-GM techniques, and help reduce waste in the food supply. Despite these and other benefits, many activists continue to focus on non-issues like GMOs. They discredit themselves among those who might otherwise sympathize with their causes as a result of an emotional ideology that irrationally favors the anti-corporate and “natural.” They do this in spite of the high costs of this obsession to public health on issues ranging from vaccines to alternative medicine. That is why groups such as the National Academy of Science or the Center for Science in the Public Interest and even individuals like Bill Nye the Science Guy that stand with leftist organizations on issues like climate change dissent from the left here -- because it’s irrational.
Activists would do better to focus their efforts on credible issues, such as the causes of our obesogenic environment or on food deserts, rather than squandering it on fearmongering. Regulations have a necessary and proper place in our society, but misinforming consumers by implying that GMOs are dangerous, as Vermont has attempted to do, is unnecessary and unjustifiable. Furthermore, it makes it more difficult for those engaged in legitimate, evidence-based efforts to protect public health.