In preparation for the Ohio State Food Summit in September, Professor Ken Lee passed along an op-ed from Scientific American on the subject of labeling food that contains GMOs. The article is here. The upshot is that labeling food made from GMOs is a bad idea because such food is mostly safe and irrational fear of it would leave humanity worse off.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of how safe GMOs are, it is appalling to find respectable adults devoted to scientific enquiry who actively advocate the enforcement of ignorance. Scientific American’s Board of Editors clearly believe that the ends—the benefits of food made from GMOs, like golden rice—justify the means of keeping people in the dark about what’s in their food. They are mistaken.
First, regardless of how right or wrong people are in their beliefs on a given subject, in a democratic society it is deeply offensive to advocate ignorance on that subject as a means of achieving a more enlightened outcome. Certainly, scientific evidence should inform opinion to a much greater degree than it does. Yes, scientific evidence should inform public policy, as in the case of taxes designed to make prices in a free market more accurately reflect costs to society. But none of this justifies legislating ignorance as a shortcut to one’s preferred outcome.
Second, the Board of Editors conflates labeling food made with GMOs with banning such food. These are entirely different issues. The Board writes that distribution of genetically modified golden rice, which contains life-saving beta carotene, has been delayed because of anti-GMO agitation. That’s true, and golden rice is probably the best case one could make for GMOs. But labeling it, rather than banning it, would only forestall its distribution if people choose not to consume it—which should be their choice, not ours or the Board’s.
Finally, the Board argues that, given how widespread GMOs are (they estimate that 70% of processed food in the US contains GMOs), labeling would increase the average American’s food bill significantly. Maybe it would; but again, Americans should be given the choice. Those who sign on to the scientific consensus can save money on their monthly food bill.
For these reasons, we would urge Scientific American’s Board of Editors to reconsider its position on GMO labeling. Their current position reflects, not the scientific integrity for which the publication has rightly become well known, but a degree of intellectual arrogance that is unworthy of their masthead. We would also urge interested individuals in the Columbus area to attend OSU’s food summit and represent their views on the GMO labeling issue to the audience and the speakers.