Voters Also Have a Right to Know the Science Behind GMOs

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 A guest post by Viet Le

On November 6th, California voters will decide if foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) will require labeling. Prop37 argues that consumers have a right to know so that they can make informed choices regarding the foods they buy. One of the issues that scientists have with this initiative is that Prop37, as well as media coverage of GMOs, contain misleading language that distorts the science behind how GMOs are made and how safe they are for consumption. This raises the question of how useful GMO food labels would be if there is general public misconception on the topic.



“Katie PhD” explains “what exactly IS a genetically modified plant” on her blog, see below.

 Many scientists and science communicators are seizing this opportunity to educate the public about GMOs. Some are taking the opportunity to explain to the public what a GMO actually is while others are providing insight concerning the safety of GMO foods. Others are exposing flaws in a recent study that claims GMO maize causes cancer (More related links can be found in Keith Kloors’ article in Slate).

Unsurprisingly, those entering the fray can also expect to have their credibility questioned. The food industry corporations, having spent a considerable amount of money in an effort to defeat Prop37, have provided the anti-GMO/pro-labeling crowd with a convenient way to dismiss or discredit scientists defending GMOs: they are all corporate shills (or worse).

This, of course, is absurd. Could industry money be swaying science’s stance on GMOs? Maybe. But if buying off scientists were that easy or rampant, then why aren’t more scientists climate change skeptics?

Absent polling data, it’s unclear to me where scientists fall on the issue of GMO labeling. Informally, in my interactions with other scientists, their stances on GMO labeling are not monolithic. Some are pro, some are anti, while others are ambivalent. The issue for most scientists, I think, is not so much the labeling requirement itself, but the distortion of information being used to justify it and how that ultimately undermines science. The difficulty, of course, is that scientists are trying to engage the public dispassionately about a topic the public takes very personally.

In my view, I don’t think GMO foods require labeling, but I certainly respect the public’s right to vote on this issue. However, by Prop37’s logic, if the consumer has a right to know if foods contain GMOs in order to make informed decisions, then the public also has the right to information so that they can make an informed vote. By frivolously discrediting scientists, anti-GMOer’s instill doubt in science and in some sense, deny the public access to that knowledge.

Not every scientist defending GMOs is a corporate shill–most of us are just making sure that the public is getting accurate information.

Related Reading:

“Katie PhD” blog

Prop 37 and the Right to Know Nothing: ”…the central irony of Prop 37 that in backing the bill they are, in tangible ways, working to ensure they do not get information that will be actually useful to them.”

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The transfer of genes between unrelated organisms happens. All. The. Time.

Viet Le is a graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. He describes his research interest as “Understanding how cells communicate via molecular languages, known as signal transduction pathways.” Not surprisingly, he’s also interested in how the scientific community communicates with the general public. He believes that a well-informed public will be essential in shaping the policies that affect science education and research in our country. Viet Le blogs now at Amasian Science. Later this fall he’ll be joining a new public health blog debuting on the PLOS BLOGS Network.
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