Here in Part 2, I take up a second prong of the issue. Even if one acknowledges that the production of genetically modified food is not a value-free endeavor, one still might think that proponents of labeling GMOs are anti-science because they (the proponents) refuse to accept the data that show that GMOs are not harmful to humans. However, there are three problems with this version of the anti-science accusation: 1) it falsely claims that there is nothing new about GMOs, 2) it overlooks the point that there is enough uncertainty about the studies of GMOs on human health to make it reasonable for individuals to want to decide for themselves whether to eat GMOs or not, and 3) it assumes that human health is the only relevant scientifically-based objection to GMOs,
First, opponents of Prop 37 claim that there is nothing new about GMOs because farmers have been genetically modifying food for centuries. While this is true to a certain extent -- for example, a pluot is a human created plum-apricot hybrid -- it is misleading, both because the techniques of genetic engineering are different from those used by hybridists and because those techniques allow the introduction of genes from one species to a very distantly related species. No one worries about combining a species of plum with a not-so-distantly related species of apricot. They do, however, worry about the insertion of a fish gene into a tomato; they worry about how the genes will behave in a very different genetic context (creating new proteins) and they worry about allergic reactions. Anti-labelers will say that that the "fish tomato" was only a test case and thus consumers should not be worried about it. But that's the problem -- not only don't consumers know which foods have been genetically modified, they also don't know in what ways they have been genetically modified. Perhaps consumers would embrace some genetically modified foods (say, vitamin A enriched rice) if they were told what they were. However, the industry has steadfastly refused any labeling whatever, which is what has brought us to the point where labeling legislation is being proposed.
Second, opponents of Prop 37 state that studies show that GM foods are safe to eat. However, in the U.S., the testing is performing by the companies creating the GMOs and not by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), calling into question the objectivity of the studies. The studies are, by and large, short term ones, raising questions about the long-term effects of consuming various GMOs. Some scientists have called for improved testing technologies. These are all reasonable, and moreover, scientifically-based concerns about the studies that have been performed to date. Of course, it could turn out that these worries are all unfounded. But that would not make them unscientific worries, and given that any harms would be borne by consumers themselves, it is not unreasonable for consumers to want to decide for themselves. If there is a reasonable possibility of risk -- and I think that there is -- then people ought to have the information to make the decision for themselves. Finally, people who say flatly that "GMOs are safe" are themselves being unscientific. A GMO is not a GMO is not a GMO. Each one needs to be tested; the safety of one does not show the safety of another containing a new, untested protein. Again, more transparency about the tests and the different types of modifications might actually convince some consumers in favor of some GMOs.
Third, those claiming that pro-labelers are anti-science often conveniently overlook the environmental harms wrought by the production of GMOs. There are several categories of possible harms here, including: possible effects on other species that consume the GM crops; evolution of "super weeds" as a result of the transmission of herbicide-resistance from the target crop to other, closely related species; increased use of pesticides and herbicides on pesticide- and herbicide resistant crops; general concerns about the safety and wisdom of big agribusiness monocultures. These concerns do not reflect a misunderstanding or rejection of "science"; on the contrary, they reflect an understanding of the relationships between different species and the sorts of evolutionary changes that can occur. If someone is concerned about these effects, they might well want to avoid consuming GMOs on those grounds alone. Again, of course, not all GMOs might carry such risks, but again, consumers do not have the information to choose "good" GMOs from "bad" ones.
In short, given current legislative and technological policies and practices, it is not anti-science to want to GMOs labelled as GMOs.
As a secondary point, I've come to see that events could have unfolded much differently than they did. GM foods might have been introduced more slowly. They might have been labelled as such from the beginning, with information readily available about modifications made and the tests that were performed -- ideally, performed by those without a financial stake in the results. More caution might have been taken about releasing certain kinds of GMOs into the environment. I don't think that the mere labeling of GMOs will mean an end to the industry, but if it does, the industry has no one to blame but itself.