On November 6, 2012, Californians will vote to decide if genetically engineered foods, whether raw or processed, should be labelled as such (see details here). If it passes, it would be the first such law in the U.S., even though at least 50 countries worldwide, including all of the European Union, China, Japan, and Russia, already have GMO label laws. The ballot measure, Proposition 37, has generated a lot of heat on both sides.
Although the debate is complex, one meme has caught my eye in particular: those who advocate for "yes on 37" have been termed "anti-science" by members of the "no on 37" camp. Some have even likened pro-labelers (presumed to be anti-GMO, although that is not necessarily the case) to climate change deniers and evolution deniers.
I find this bothersome for two reasons. One, it assumes as though "science" (or should I say "Science"?) is some monolithic entity that provides univocal answers to value-laden questions of the day. And make no mistake, the debate over GM foods is about as far from value-free science as one could get. The reasons for developing GMOs in the first place were all value laden, whether you think those reasons were making money for large corporations and their shareholders, feeding the hungry, developing new and exciting strains of food, or reducing pesticide and herbicide use. Furthermore, the question over whether to label is a question about the public's right to know what they are eating -- again, a value-laden issue. Even if it turned out that GMOs were the best thing since sliced bread, citizens arguably have the right to the information necessary to decide for themselves if they want to eat them. Does science tell us what our rights are or what our values are? Even if one thinks that value-free science is a myth and that all science is value laden, it seems to me that it would be a mistake to think that science only had one set of values, as though somehow the mere creation of GMOs by science and scientists made them right and good. On the contrary, to take a stand for labeling GMOs involves values, and in this aspect, it is not anti-science. Nor is taking a stand against labeling GMOs pro-science; rather, it evinces a different set of values.
However, some anti-labelers insist the very labeling of GMOs as GMOs implies that there is something wrong with GMOs, akin to the warning labels on cigarettes or alcohol. Even ingredient labels, anti-labelers argue, are there to inform those who may be allergic to or otherwise harmed by one of the ingredients. So, are pro-labelers anti-science because they assume, falsely, that GMOs are dangerous? Does "science" give us a univocal answer to the question of whether GMOs are dangerous? In a future posting, I'll argue that there are scientifically-based reasons to be concerned about GMOs (although again, these will turn out to be value-laden as well).