True or false: Genetically modified animals are always bigger than ordinary animals.
Last week I introduced the word of the day: “agnotology,” or the cultural production, and study, of ignorance.
The expert in the field, Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, adds an interesting explanation to our lack of knowledge and understanding, saying ignorance can also be deliberately cultivated.
Companies, or public interest groups, consciously create the manufacture of doubt, of ignorance. And he’s written an entire book about how the tobacco companies conspired to block public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and cancer.
“The myth of the ‘information society’ is that we’re drowning in knowledge,” Proctor is quoted as saying in a March article in the L.A. Times. “But it’s easier to propagate ignorance.”
Unless you’re a scientist yourself and can sort the research wheat from the chaff, we have to trust someone smarter than us to tell the truth. But even scientists can have an agenda.
“Misinformation — whether cultural or manufactured — is very hard to dislodge,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Hiltzik in that Times column.
That’s where we sit — at a table surrounded by misinformation, on both sides, regarding genetically modified organisms, or transgenic foods. And debates about food are emotional and personal. Often, there’s no middle ground.
The argument for labeling products with genetically engineered ingredients is to improve consumers’ understanding of food products. Some of you will disagree with me, and that’s fine, but I say the label is manufacturing ignorance, not understanding.
You can find all sorts of facts and figures and charts and citations of anti-GMO positions, but they’re not replicated and peer-reviewed, and have probably been refuted by the larger body of scientists.
There is no statistically meaningful, scientific reason to label these foods. There are no reproducible data that say genetically modified crops are dangerous or more dangerous than traditionally bred plants. There are no health ramifications from eating foods produced from transgenic crops.
To suggest otherwise is to use bad science to incite fear. Fear that eating something with a GMO label will kill you. Fear that Big Ag is using us to fill corporate pockets.
“We don’t tolerate it when a company makes unreal claims about their products,” writes Kevin Folta, a molecular biologist and interim chairman of the hort department at the University of Florida. “We don’t allow labels to say something that is not true.
“Yet here we are contemplating a label that will be used to manipulate the consumer, not based on science, but based on fear.”
(And, no, he’s never received any compensation or funding from companies that commercialize biotech seeds.)
Vermont has just created new state law that requires labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients. Similar bills are proposed in California and Massachusetts, and I’ve read labeling measures may be on the Oregon and Colorado ballots this fall.
Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, tweeted he was proud to sign the bill because “Vermonters have the right to know what’s in their food.”
Yet the American Association for the Advancement of Science calls GE crops “the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.” And the American Medical Association said there “is no evidence that unique hazards exist” in the use of rDNA techniques.
“The risks associated with the introduction of rDNA-engineered organisms are the same in kind as those associated with the introduction of unmodified organisms,” the AMA says.
So my “right to know” is that my now-labeled food is more rigorously tested than the rest and no more or less risky than the rest?
The logic is, the “right to know” is about consumer choice. But labels infer there’s a legitimate health warning, taking us back to manufacturing fear, not knowledge.
We’re talking philosophy and ideology, not science. We resist facts that threaten our values, and that’s OK, but it’s not a reason to legislate our values onto the majority. This is not about information and transparency.
Oh, and the answer to the quiz at the beginning? False. Just like a lot of the other unsupported arguments against GMOs.
By Susan Crowell