What’s so bad about labels?

July 18, 2014

organic-gmo1Over the last several years, the issue I’ve probably been most heavily involved in — and certainly most heavily associated with in skeptics circles — has been dispelling anti-vaccine propaganda. And a year ago, I wasn’t very involved in the debate over Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs). And it wasn’t a subject I knew an awful lot about. But over the past year, as it became more and more clear that the media and most people of any consequence have stopped taking the anti-vaccine movement seriously, I’ve sort of shifted my focus onto advocating for GMO’s. This decision was largely fueled by the bombardment on my Facebook feed of anti-GMO posts by my fellow liberal Facebook friends.

Now recently, someone asked me why I object to laws imposing labels on GMO products, and it occurs to me that the answer to that question is very nuanced.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with labeling GMOs in theory, but the primary objection to them is that they’re just a Trojan horse for ideologues who will use them to do the opposite of their stated purpose for the labels, that they’ll be exploited to misinform the public about their food rather than educate them. We already see constant propaganda about how because some European countries have banned GMO products, that that’s in and of itself evidence they’re dangerous when it’s much more a product of scientifically ignorant or pandering politicians. There’s every reason to believe that once labels are imposed on GMO products (for no good reason because they’re as safe as their non-GMO counterparts), that anti-GMO activists will insist that the existence of labels is an admission by the U.S. government that GMOs are less safe. This is the Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire Fallacy.

And we’ve seen this logical fallacy used before by anti-vaccine activists who insist that the removal of Thimerosal, the ethylmercury-based anti-fungal and anti-septic agent once contained in some flu vaccines, fifteen years ago is evidence the substance is inherently harmful. However, the reality is the chain of cause and effect was the reverse. Thimerosal was actually removed because of that very political pressure by uninformed citizens groups insistent that it was harmful. Now, anti-vaccine fanatics exploit their own success in getting public officials to change policy to then claim we wouldn’t have removed it if it was truly safe. A very devious tactic, and sadly, often very effective.

Now if the GMO issue was all just a matter of personal preference, it wouldn’t be such a serious concern among scientists. But the problem is that by 2050, the world population is projected to reach 9 billion people, and we’ll need to increase food production by 70% to feed that many people. GMOs are not only one of the most important means of making that happen, but they’re also better for the environment and can save lives today in communities that lack certain forms of nutrition. For instance, a genetically modified banana, which has the potential to dramatically reduce infant mortality and blindness in children across Africa, is undergoing its first human trials. In those regions, the local bananas don’t contain enough Vitamin A, so hundreds are dying from Vitamin A deficiencies. This particular GM banana contains much higher quantities of Vitamin A, and will literally save lives. But those who are biased against transgenic foods refuse to accept these live-saving benefits and will inevitably use these labels as a pretext for pushing their ideology in a similar way to how creationists use the pretext of “academic freedom” to push their ideology in schools.