Contributor Post Created with Sketch. One of Tuesday’s Big Winners: Science

 

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.

The breakdown:

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.

There are 31 comments.

  1. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Troy Senik, Ed.: 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.

    Bingo.

    I didn’t realize this until recently, but the overwhelming majority of livestock have been fed GMOs for years; often, nothing but GMOs. If there were going to be problems with the technology — though I’ve yet to hear a plausible mechanism for how GMOs would be harmful to eat — we’d have learned about it from farmers.

    • #1
    • November 6, 2014, at 2:48 PM PST
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  2. Fricosis Guy Listener

    Nassim Taleb is a co-author of an interesting, if flawed, paper on applying the precautionary principle to GMOs. This blog post — and the comments — highlight the problems with Taleb’s premises.

    • #2
    • November 6, 2014, at 3:01 PM PST
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  3. Misthiocracy ingeniously Member
    Misthiocracy ingeniously Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Troy Senik, Ed.: As for Oregon — hey, I’ll take whatever margins I can get from the home of Portlandia.

    It could be that Portlandians figured that labelling GMOs would be tantamount to approving GMOs.

    • #3
    • November 6, 2014, at 3:11 PM PST
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  4. Misthiocracy ingeniously Member
    Misthiocracy ingeniously Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: I didn’t realize this until recently, but the overwhelming majority of livestock have been fed GMOs for years;

    See? That’s clearly why the nation has gotten so fat!!!

    • #4
    • November 6, 2014, at 3:12 PM PST
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  5. Tuck Inactive

    Oh boy.

    What it really boils down to is people would like to know what they’re eating.

    The “elites” say shut up and eat what we want to feed you. Trust us: it’s regulated!

    That’s not a particularly Conservative position to take, now is it?

    I’ll also observe that the safety of GMOs may well be overstated, since GMOs are assumed to be safe (and always have been), and safety testing is voluntary. They’re using us as the long-term test, as there’s very little follow-up in the population.

    In a country where 2/3rds of our population is now obese, diabetes is epidemic for the first time in history, and food allergies in children are increasing for unknown reasons, arguing that our food supply is “safe” requires a little more proof than is offered above.

    This statement “indeed, no cases of harm to humans or disruption to ecosystems have been documented” is not true.

    “Kraft Foods today recalled all taco shells that it sells in supermarkets under the Taco Bell brand after tests confirmed they were made with genetically engineered corn that isn’t approved for human consumption…. Kraft, which made the taco shells at a plant in Mexico using corn meal purchased from a Texas mill, said in a statement that the government should never have allowed farmers to grow a biotech crop that isn’t approved for human consumption.”

    StarLink corn recall

    As I put it on my blog a couple of years ago:

    “I’m not against GMO foods, per se. I think that, in theory there could be benefits, as in the case of “golden rice”. But there are risks to altering the genome of plants as well, as the creation of modern “wheat” demonstrates.”

    I think people should be free to make informed decisions. Or ill-informed decisions. But free.

    • #5
    • November 6, 2014, at 3:28 PM PST
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  6. Pilli Inactive

    Tuck:I’ll also observe that the safety of GMOs may well be overstated, since GMOs are assumed to be safe (and always have been), and safety testing is voluntary. They’re using us as the long-term test, as there’s very little follow-up in the population.

    This is the same argument that climate alarmists use. “Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution? Even if the climate isn’t warming, it won’t hurt to treat it as such…will it?”

    If we start labeling GMO products, the next step is to start banning them. Look at what Berkeley did with soft drinks Tuesday.

    The underlying assumption to the argument of labeling GMOs is that these huge, impersonal conglomerates are responsible for all kinds of mayhem and they are likely to ruin our whole food source using some kind of weird science. (See what I did there Troy?)

    Heck, we’re burning food (ethanol in gasoline) because environmentalists think we pollute too much.

    Troy’s right. Labeling GMOs will only lead to unintended consequences based on ignorance.

    • #6
    • November 6, 2014, at 4:16 PM PST
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  7. Misthiocracy ingeniously Member
    Misthiocracy ingeniously Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Pilli: If we start labeling GMO products, the next step is to start banning them.

    I don’t think that necessarily follows. Labelling all the ingredients in food products doesn’t mean we plan on banning all the ingredients.

    • #7
    • November 6, 2014, at 4:20 PM PST
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  8. Larry3435 Member

    Troy Senik, Ed.: 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.

    That’s a feature, not a bug.

    Look, the people spending tens of millions of dollars to get these laws passed are lawyers. Lawyers looking to file class action lawsuits over “mislabeling.” If it was easy to label these foods, nobody would make mistakes, therefore there would be no lawsuits, and therefore these initiatives wouldn’t be on the ballot in the first place.

    Always, always, always, follow the money.

    • #8
    • November 6, 2014, at 4:46 PM PST
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  9. RPD Member
    RPD Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Darn that Gregor Mendel, screwing the food supply for the rest of history. If you’re honest, there isn’t much that can be labeled as non-modified.

    • #9
    • November 6, 2014, at 5:50 PM PST
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  10. luly Inactive

    I don’t like the assumption that scientists always know what the heck they’re doing. We’re constantly being told things are good for us or bad for us only to find out somewhere down the road, no, it’s the opposite. Look at artificial sweetener, one example among many. As Tuck says, we are dealing with all sorts of health conditions today that nobody can explain. Wouldn’t it make sense to stop and say, well, what have we changed? What are we doing now that we weren’t doing back when obesity was rare and every other person did not have an auto-immune disease or an allergy?

    Is caution really so debilitating? It’s nothing like the climate change agenda, which is hardly limited to labels. We don’t know much about climate and we don’t know much about gmo’s and we don’t know much about human biology. Look at all the new stuff about gut flora. Who knew? What else don’t we know?

    Always be wary of experts.

    • #10
    • November 6, 2014, at 6:17 PM PST
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  11. Drusus Coolidge

    Guys, don’t try to argue against Troy. He has invoked Science.

    • #11
    • November 6, 2014, at 6:53 PM PST
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  12. captainpower Inactive

    To be fair to the other side, it’s a bit different pairing two different strains of wheat together versus splicing plant and animal/insect/whatever dna.

    • #12
    • November 6, 2014, at 7:39 PM PST
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  13. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Troy Senik, Ed.: 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.

    Dat’s why you da man, Troy! Klein would have wiped the floor with his critics if he had just altered his assertion juuuust a *smidge*

    Instead of saying “THIS: The biggest loser in this election is the climate.” [the allcaps THIS was strong] – he should have said “THIS: The biggest loser in this election is Climate.”

    Persons of good intent could disagree about the addition-or-not of “The” before “Climate,” but had Klein followed your maxim, that would have been a Pulitzer-worthy tweet, and his critics could only have slunk away in defeat and despair.

    • #13
    • November 6, 2014, at 11:46 PM PST
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  14. das_motorhead Inactive

    RPD:Darn that Gregor Mendel, screwing the food supply for the rest of history. If you’re honest, there isn’t much that can be labeled as non-modified.

    This.

    The problem with “let’s label all the GMOs” is that most proponents of labeling don’t really understand what “genetically modified” actually means. In most cases, it is simply asking one organism to make a completely natural substance already produced by another organism. Of course we have to be careful about moving genes around, but at the same time, that’s all cross-breeding is. Heck, that’s all evolution and natural selection are. We’re just trying to do it quickly and rationally.

    It is also worth point out that synthetic biologists are extremely concerned with doing this stuff right. There is constant debate about how to use synthetic biology safely and effectively. I’m not denying that at the end of the day you have considerations of profit from companies like the ever-evil bogeyman Monsanto, but by and large the scientists doing this work are trying to find the best ways to do good.

    • #14
    • November 7, 2014, at 5:54 AM PST
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  15. das_motorhead Inactive

    Now that I’ve defended scientists, allow me to do a complete 180 and join the “scientists are irrational, emotional, political hacks” camp.

    I mentioned this on another post a few days ago, but I spent most of the last week at a synthetic biology conference/competition. It was mind-blowing, especially since most of the work was being done by undergrads. They were using synthetic biology to come up with – and build – amazing products with applications ranging from biofuels to cancer detection.

    What was so ironic was that in discussions throughout the week, the senior scientists there would continually lump the “anti-GMO” crowd in with the “climate change denier” crowd. One individual even specifically called out the Koch brothers for spending money that is holding us back from fixing the world. The absurdity of all this obviously never occurred to anyone. The ones crusading against vaccines (yeah, I just went there) and GMOs are the liberal soul-mates of these scientists, but it’s the Koch brothers (and, of course, conservatives by extension) who get called out for trying to do…what, exactly? Dunk baby seals in oil and set them on fire just for diabolical laughs?

    Talk about never letting the data get in the way of a good story.

    • #15
    • November 7, 2014, at 6:10 AM PST
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  16. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m going to sound like a free-market fundamentalist on this one.

    Sure, I like to know what’s in my food. But, we all understand that it isn’t in food producers interests to kill their customers, right?

    There’s this thing Bill Whittle calls the “web of trust.” It’s constructed by free people engaging in commerce for profit, and it’s incredibly complex.

    Regulation requiring GMO food labeling just destroys small, local producers and makes blood-sucking non-productive overseers rich.

    It’s not really about “science.” It’s about unknowable unknowns and the ill-effects of central planning. Regulators should be labeled with a scarlet ‘R’ for their hazardous central-planning impulses.

    • #16
    • November 7, 2014, at 7:03 AM PST
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  17. Misthiocracy ingeniously Member
    Misthiocracy ingeniously Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Drusus:Guys, don’t try to argue against Troy. He has invoked Science.

    • #17
    • November 7, 2014, at 7:36 AM PST
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  18. Solon Inactive

    The GMO issue is pretty big in my neck of the northern Cali woods. It’s really the same crowd that thinks ‘organic’ is automatically better (better for you, better tasting, better for Gaia). They hate McDonalds, and are paranoid about pink slime. One thing I see is that lefties of this sort are kind of obsessed with food!

    On the other hand, I do always find it funny when I go to the grocery store and, for example, a jar of strawberry jam advertises that it ‘contains real strawberries!’ What is next, are they going to have to advertise that something ‘contains actual edible material!’ I get that it’s kind of creepy to think that you are eating synthetic stuff, I just don’t get as het up about it as others. I don’t mind eating a GMO, pesticide laden snack every now and then, it keeps me honest!

    • #18
    • November 7, 2014, at 9:29 AM PST
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  19. Misthiocracy ingeniously Member
    Misthiocracy ingeniously Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    J Flei: What is next, are they going to have to advertise that something ‘contains actual edible material!’

    • #19
    • November 7, 2014, at 9:32 AM PST
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  20. Mendel Member
    Mendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    RPD:Darn that Gregor Mendel,

    Hey, you wanna take this outside?

    • #20
    • November 7, 2014, at 10:48 AM PST
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  21. Mendel Member
    Mendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Pigpiling on the theme of Troy’s post, I don’t see the labeling issue as having very much to do with “Science!” in the first place. To be completely frank, the loudest voices on both sides of the issue usually betray a lack of understanding of how science really works, so it is really just an emotional debate like almost any other.

    Even though I have no problems with GMO food and eagerly consume it, I think it’s a good idea for people to at least have an inkling of what they are putting in their bodies and where that came from. What I find amusing about the labeling debate is that the marketplace has already shown it can force manufacturers to label their foods as being GMO-free if the consumers so choose (see the organic movement).

    Seeing as how most people don’t read any of the information already mandated on food labels, while those who do want to know where their food comes from are catered to, I don’t see why there is a need for a new law.

    • #21
    • November 7, 2014, at 10:59 AM PST
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  22. Mendel Member
    Mendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Two comments on the safety of GMOs:

    – The biggest danger with GMOs are the unknown unknowns. As das mentioned, scientists have been quite thorough in testing the crops already introduced, and most of the worries people have about them have been shown to be unfounded.

    But we can only test for the dangers we know about. As someone mentioned above, the degree of manipulation we can now exercise on crops is orders of magnitude greater than what our ancestors did through traditional crop breeding methods. Is there a possibility that some type of genetic modification will pose a danger of which we currently cannot conceive? By definition, yes.

    – But let’s put things in perspective. Every scientific advance has some downside. There are very plausible theories that most of the infectious diseases which have plagued mankind are direct consequences of the domestication of animals. Yet even with that setback, domesticating animals was an absolute benefit to our species.

    Even if some unknown danger lurks with GMOs, it likely won’t be as cataclysmic as what we have already done in our past, and the benefits of GMOs will very likely still outweigh its costs.

    • #22
    • November 7, 2014, at 11:05 AM PST
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  23. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Mendel: What I find amusing about the labeling debate is that the marketplace has already shown it can force manufacturers to label their foods as being GMO-free if the consumers so choose (see the organic movement).

    Sadly, so true. I tend to eat sort of crunchy and it annoys me to no end how many of them advertise that they don’t use GMOs.

    Mendel: As someone mentioned above, the degree of manipulation we can now exercise on crops is orders of magnitude greater than what our ancestors did through traditional crop breeding methods. Is there a possibility that some type of genetic modification will pose a danger of which we currently cannot conceive? By definition, yes.

    I agree with this, but I’m still waiting for someone to describe a plausible, physical process by which GMOs qua GMOs would be dangerous.

    • #23
    • November 7, 2014, at 11:19 AM PST
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  24. Tuck Inactive

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: I agree with this, but I’m still waiting for someone to describe a plausible, physical process by which GMOs qua GMOs would be dangerous.

    I don’t think as a class they’re dangerous, because each one is a unique case. I agree that the people who condemn them as a class don’t have science behind them, but they are instead relying on a mistrust of authorities.

    That’s not an irrational position today…

    • #24
    • November 7, 2014, at 11:51 AM PST
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  25. Tuck Inactive

    Pilli: If we start labeling GMO products, the next step is to start banning them.

    We have laws requiring that ingredients be listed. We haven’t banned all those ingredients, have we?

    We have laws prohibiting adulterants in foods.

    GMOs, pretty much by definition, involve introducing adulterants into food. That’s the point.

    Some may be safe, some may not. A blanket assurance that they’re all safe is not, frankly, scientific. Even the FDA doesn’t take that position.

    “The safety of a food is regulated primarily under FDA’s postmarket authority of section 402(a)(1) of the act (21 U.S.C. 342(a)(1)). Unintended occurrences of unsafe levels of toxicants in food are regulated under this section. Substances that are expected to become components of food as result of genetic modification of a plant and whose composition is such or has been altered such that the substance is not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) or otherwise exempt are subject to regulation as “food additives” under section 409 of the act (21 U.S.C. 348).”

    The problem is one of trust. As even the FDA’s sometimes over-the-top testing protocols have allowed some pretty disastrous substances onto the market, that mistrust is well-founded.

    “…We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn. Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population. The FDA studies had proven that use of Vioxx led to deaths from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, and these were exactly the factors driving the changes in national mortality rates….”

    Vioxx is estimated to have caused more deaths than the Vietnam war, in only five years. It was FDA-approved.

    Following the existing ingredient and adulterant laws for novel foods is a perfectly reasonable course.

    • #25
    • November 7, 2014, at 12:22 PM PST
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  26. Tuck Inactive

    das_motorhead: In most cases, it is simply asking one organism to make a completely natural substance already produced by another organism.

    That’s the Appeal to Nature Fallacy! Congratulations! ;)

    Botulinum toxin is a protein and neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.[1][2] It is the most acutely lethal toxin known…”

    Of course it’s also 100% natural… :)

    Mind, to my knowledge botulinum toxin has not been added to food, but others have. And certain GMO Bt-Corns have been withdrawn from the market due to concerns over their environmental effects.

    • #26
    • November 7, 2014, at 12:48 PM PST
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  27. Mendel Member
    Mendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

     it annoys me to no end how many of them advertise that they don’t use GMOs.

    I don’t have a problem with producers labeling their foods if it is in response to market pressure.

    Sure, most of the people who buy organic have no idea what the underlying science is. But at least such labeling will help consumers in 10 years better assess the safety record of GMOs by making it clearer which foods were indeed non-GMO.

     I’m still waiting for someone to describe a plausible, physical process by which GMOs qua GMOs would be dangerous.

    As I said above, it’s a matter of unknown unknowns. Nobody can give a plausible explanation of something they can’t yet conceive of.

    And to be fair, many of the individual questions and doubts surrounding GMOs were initially justified. For instance, the notion that a crop with engineered resistance to pests might outcompete other neighboring crops, thereby spreading in an unwanted fashion, is certainly not far-fetched.

    • #27
    • November 7, 2014, at 1:47 PM PST
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  28. Mendel Member
    Mendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tuck:The “elites” say shut up and eat what we want to feed you. Trust us: it’s regulated!

    That’s not a particularly Conservative position to take, now is it?

    At least on the conservative side, and especially in this thread, I don’t hear a lot of people basing their support for GMOs on the fact that they have been approved by regulators.

    Instead, most everyone has used scientific evidence and market principles to back up that claim.

    Granted, as I said above, many of the supporters of GMOs do not necessarily have a better grasp on the science than their opponents do. But in the context of this discussion your accusation above is off the mark.

    • #28
    • November 7, 2014, at 1:56 PM PST
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  29. Mendel Member
    Mendel Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tuck:“Botulinum toxin is a protein and neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is the most acutely lethal toxin known…”

    Of course it’s also 100% natural… :)

    Mind, to my knowledge botulinum toxin has not been added to food, but others have.

    Of course, the fact that hundreds of people safely inject botulinum toxin into their bodies every day doesn’t strengthen your argument.

    Personally, I don’t think the term “natural” has any real meaning anymore when it comes to food. Leaving aside the fact that all of our crops have been engineered for millenia, we now have such a hodgepodge of organisms, techniques and ingredients that there’s no clear border for the term.

    A corn plant with a cucumber gene is not completely natural. But is it less natural than high fructose corn syrup, which can be made from normal corn but is then treated with enzymes purified from bacteria? How about the “natural flavors” in milkshakes or ice cream, which are first extracted with noxious chemicals from fruit, only to be reinserted in purified form back into the end product? Or cows treated with rBST?

    And let’s not even get started on “natural” sweeteners like stevia…

    • #29
    • November 7, 2014, at 2:05 PM PST
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  30. Bigfoot - Human Impersonator Thatcher

    Misthiocracy:

    Pilli: If we start labeling GMO products, the next step is to start banning them.

    I don’t think that necessarily follows. Labelling all the ingredients in food products doesn’t mean we plan on banning all the ingredients.

    The stated purpose of the left is an outright ban on GMOs. The right has fallen prey to this over and over. Incremental-ism in favor of the stated goal works for them.

    • #30
    • November 7, 2014, at 4:50 PM PST
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