See what I did there in the headline? If I’ve learned anything about modern political communications, it’s that the use of “Science” as a proper noun ends any and all arguments decisively in favor of the speaker. While Ezra Klein is declaring that the biggest loser in this year’s election was the climate (because Ezra Klein is a person who’s paid handsomely to be wrong in print), I’m actually much more bullish about the scientific literacy of voters. Why? Because of this bit of good news from two unlikely places. As reported by NPR:
An effort to label genetically modified foods in Colorado failed to garner enough support Tuesday. It’s the latest of several state-based GMO labeling ballot measures to fail. A similar measure in Oregon was also defeated by a narrow margin.
Voters in Colorado resoundingly rejected the labeling of foods that contain the derivatives of genetically modified — or GMO — crops, with 66 percent voting against, versus 34 percent in favor.
In Oregon the outcome was closer, with fewer than 51 percent voting against the measure. Political ad spending in Oregon was more competitive than in Colorado, where labeling opponents outspent proponents by millions of dollars.
My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that Colorado, a state with a healthy ranching and farming sector, knew better. As for Oregon — hey, I’ll take whatever margins I can get from the home of Portlandia.
First things first: the anxiety about GMO is profoundly misguided — even though it’s most fervently advocated by many self-appointed avatars of Science. As Hoover’s Henry Miller — founder of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology and friend of Ricochet — has noted:
The fact is that GMOs and their derivatives do not amount to a “category” of food products. They are neither less safe nor less “natural” than other common foods. Labeling foods derived from GMOs, as some have proposed, thus implies a meaningful difference where none exists – an issue that even regulators have acknowledged.
Humans have been engaging in “genetic modification” through selection and hybridization for millennia. Breeders routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant’s DNA and generate new traits.
A half-century of “wide cross” hybridizations, which involve the movement of genes from one species or genus to another, has given rise to plants – including everyday varieties of corn, oats, pumpkin, wheat, black currants, tomatoes, and potatoes – that do not and could not exist in nature. Indeed, with the exception of wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, and fish and shellfish, virtually everything in North American and European diets has been genetically improved in some way.
Despite the lack of scientific justification for skepticism about genetically engineered crops – indeed, no cases of harm to humans or disruption to ecosystems have been documented – they have been the most scrutinized foods in human history. The assumption that “genetically engineered” or “genetically modified” is a meaningful – and dangerous – classification has led not only to vandalism of field trials, but also to destruction of laboratories and assaults on researchers.
Which I doubt comes as a surprise to anyone who has ever argued the topic with a true believer, the defining characteristic of whom is belief not subject to falsifiability.
Occasionally you’ll hear conservatives make what I think is an unnecessary concession: “No one wants to ban these things — what’s so wrong with truth in labeling?” Two objections immediately spring to mind: 1) It’s not difficult to discern the difference between GMO and non GMO-food under the status quo, because the labeling of the latter is so flamboyantly promiscuous. It has to be — it’s the only way to keep up the profit margins. 2) Given the widespread illiteracy on this issue, it’s hard to argue that the very act of labeling doesn’t send a cautionary signal to people who don’t know any better.
And by the way, some people do want to ban it outright. And they have. From later in the same NPR piece:
Meanwhile, a proposal in Maui County, Hawaii, skipped the labeling debate altogether. Voters there narrowly approved a moratorium on GMO crop cultivation. The state has been a battleground between biotech firms and food activists. Some Hawaiian farmers grow a variety of papaya genetically engineered to resist a plant virus.
With all due respect to the voters of Maui County — one of my favorite places on the globe — this is a little too perfect, isn’t it? The defining ethos of the place is luxurious insulation from the outside world. We can all afford a couple extra bucks for subpar papaya, right? And If you’re going to harsh that mellow, bro, we’re going to have to throw you in jail. Aloha!
I’ll happily admit that — Hawaii aside — I’m a little surprised by the dynamics on this issue. When this started coming down the pipeline a few years ago, I was fairly certain that demagogues would get these sorts of laws passed in blue states across the country. Yet Colorado and Oregon now join Washington and California — it was too crazy for California! — as places where these sorts of measures have gone down to defeat. I don’t understand it — but I’ll take it.