This is a guest post by Allallt.
He writes prolifically on science and atheism. I’ve always been amazed at the simplicity of his arguments. I once jokingly referred to him as the Steve Jobs of atheist arguments, but I well and truly meant it. He knows how to write about both science and atheism in such a way as to make you slap your head at the obviousness of his arguments in hindsight. He makes his arguments and polemics very simple, and that is the most powerful thing about them, so I challenged him to write a post about GMOs a little while ago in the hope he could likewise make a difficult subject simpler. He dutifully accepted. I’d like to say he succeeded. (There’s another article written by him on organic farming coming in the pipeline.)
Knowledge, generally speaking, is a good thing (so long as it’s true). I’ve poked my head into the world of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) for the sake of food, and people are making the seemingly harmless demand to simply know if the food they’re buying is the result of genetic engineering or not. And, on the face of it, I’m happy with a little green sticker that says “GMO” in the bottom corner of my packaging. It’s about as important to me as the name of the person that sealed the box; whatever, who cares?
Normally the information on a packet helps me make certain decisions and answer certain questions: that’s too many calories; I can’t cook that for my cousin, he’s allergic to nuts; I feel ill if I eat that much salt; I’m trying to see if I feel more mentally focused if I cut aspartame out of my diet; I’m boycotting palm oil because there’s no distinction between orangutan friendly and unfriendly palm oil etc. What do you hope to know by seeing the “GMO” label, or not, on your food? That is the central question I want to discuss, and suggest that people will only be misinformed.
I spoke to a friend about GMOs and she is wildly against them, under the banner of “we don’t know what we’re doing”. She even had a reference for her issue: thalidomide. Now, there’s a word with a legacy. Thalidomide was an anti-nausea pill and sleeping aid, marketed at helping women with morning sickness. But it also induced birth defects in children and a high infant mortality rate. This, according to my friend, is what happens when we mess with nature and we don’t ’now what we’re doing. We have a good reason to fear new things.
My friend sees “GMO” as a thing she doesn’t understand and things she doesn’t understand as potentially being thalidomide. If there were truth in this, would we not know about it already? Thalidomide was on and off the market in the UK in 3 years. GMOs are not some idea that might be introduced and people are protesting. GMOs already happen, and they are widespread. I was learning about their application in terms of case studies when I was doing my GCSEs (when I was 16, 8 years ago). And there is simply no evidence to suggest there is a problem. Despite research.
I may need to digress momentarily to make a note about science, but as I’m guest-posting on Random Rationality I suspect I won’t need to say much. There is a big difference between there being no evidence and there being no evidence despite research. To be clear about the difference (and perhaps a little facetious) “there is no evidence that my sock is under my bed because I haven’t looked” is very different from “I have looked, and there is no evidence my sock is under my bed”. These mean “I haven’t looked” and “it’s not there” respectively. We have looked for health effects from GMOs and we haven’t found them.
“This box was packed by Steven; it will be identical to the boxes packed by Jill” is useless information. Trivia. “This food was produced via genetic engineering; it will be identical to foods not produced by genetic engineering” is an equally useless statement, and so any non-zero effort made to put a label on the box is a disproportionate amount of effort. But the issue is not just that the label is a disproportionate effort, but that it is misinformation.
You may wonder how correct facts can be misinformation. And that paradox is a fair question. So long as GMOs (wrongly) mean ill-health and disease and FrankenFood* and contaminated ingredients to people, the label “GMO” is simply misleading. GMOs are not these things, despite public perception and fear. To me, GMO means feeding the world, pest-resistance, better sustenance, more nutrition, bigger yields, longer shelf-lives. These are profoundly excellent things.
Imagine a child in sub-Saharan Africa who is both starving and malnourished. This means that she is immensely hungry, to the point the body is atrophying away, and what food she has eaten is so nutritionally imbalanced that she has life-threatening deficiencies of certain nutrients. She’s starving because farmers can’t grow enough food in the current drought, and pests and disease attack what is grown, and that which farmers can harvest doesn’t have the shelf-life to make it to her village. And she is malnourished because that is the nature of the food she can scavenge or does reach her village. There is hope, and it’s no mere glimmer. There’s no problem in this paragraph that cannot be eradicated by GMOs. GMOs would transform this poor girl’s life, and the thousands who live like her. They would be her saviour.
BandAid, in 1984, released “Do they know it’s Christmas (feed the world)”. And your one-off donation to buy a cheesy but delightful Christmas song made big differences in Ethiopia. But to feed the world, to have enough food successfully delivered to every remote corner of the planet, will take a lot more than your one-off donation. Feeding the world will take GMOs.
*Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great metaphor for GMOs. Throughout most of the book, Frankenstein’s monster is a kind, humane, misunderstood and terrified creature. He seeks acceptance and love and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s health or wellbeing. Frankenstein’s monster is a good person. It is the DeLacey family, in their ignorant fear, who started the hatred.