GMOs Win in Washington

One interesting election result this week was the failure in Washington of a ballot measure to mandate the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.  I am pretty unfamiliar with the law in question, but did quite a bit of reading on the topic last year when California was proposing a similar law (Prop 37).

In short, it’s a poor idea.  There is basically no evidence that GMOs are harmful, and Americans have been happily munching on them for twenty years.  On the other hand, they do carry huge benefits – lower-priced food that is often grown with much less pesticide exposure than unmodified crops.  Pesticide, we’re fairly sure, is bad.  The law in California would have created a huge compliance headache, most likely would have seriously impacted the price of produce, and would generally act as a regressive tax on those least able to bear it.  That’s not just consumers – it’s also small producers.  Most egregiously, there were huge exemptions that belied any conceivable public health rationale – including meat, dairy, and almost all packaged goods and prepared food.  In other words, the vast majority of GMOs people actually consume.

Aside from the narrow policy merits, I dislike the message it sends on the issue.  There’s no real credible reason to believe that GMOs are bad for you, and if you personally believe that you can avoid them.  Merely getting the issue on the ballot suggests that this is a legitimate argument for debate, and endorses reactionary skepticism of science.  If it were to actually pass, the implicit message of these labels is that the government is telling you to avoid GMOs.

At the same time, this isn’t really a generalizable principle.  There are plenty of times when the government doesn’t adequately protect citizens against genuinely dangerous substances.  The fight against trans fats was often grass-roots led, and they just won yesterday with the FDA’s decision to ban them.  Because they’re actually terrible for you and the food industry was dissembling about the effects.  It would be nice if one could look at these awful initiative efforts and conclude that citizen activism on regulation is either a wonderful or terrible idea, but one can’t.

What it does suggest is that scientists should more actively engage with activist groups.  The people fighting against GMOs surely have their hearts in the right place – unlike the conspiratorial anti-vaccination activists.  But scientists with deep competence in the issues should be more aware of these movements and more engaged with them.  Perhaps then citizen activism could be a bit better-targeted.

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