People have been modifying the genes of food plants and animals for thousands of years. The process traditionally relies on selective breeding – what Darwin called “artificial selection.” More recently, science has facilitated a faster approach: altering genes directly, adding completely new, foreign sequences to an organism’s genome; knocking out or deactivating others. Plants can now be changed in ways never before imagined, and change is effected far more rapidly.
While in theory one can produce toxic plants via artificial selection, in practice the reverse has frequently occurred: plants that were toxic have been made edible through domestication. Almonds are one example: undomesticated trees commonly produce fruit containing lethal amounts of cyanide. Some today are concerned that so-called “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) might adversely impact human health. While their concerns have a theoretical basis, they remain empirically baseless. Despite the widespread use of genetically modified corn, soybeans, and numerous other fruits, there is absolutely no evidence that human health has been harmed. Meanwhile enormous benefits have been conferred, with food production costs dramatically reduced, productivity increased, and several crops saved from destruction.
The debate often centers around labeling requirements. Numerous western countries require that foods containing GMOs say so on their label. The US is not among them – but some states are independently entertaining such laws, including New York, where a bill is now pending. Advocates for labeling often couch their arguments in terms of consumer choice – but in the absence of any evidence that GMOs differentially impact human health, consumers’ desire to avoid them is a “pure preference”, without a basis in health, nutrition or otherwise. As such, it is proper to defer to the market to meet this particular consumer demand, and not legislate that market into existence.
The reason why these laws do not exist in the US is because of aggressive corporate lobbying against them – outspending proponents several times over. Counter-intuitive though it may be, not everything that agribusiness wants is bad. (!) Proponents include purveyors of so-called “organic” produce, who have also grown into big businesses, and have their own profit-motives.
One major advantage of liberalism is that one does NOT need to hide from the facts to maintain one’s positions. Those who pursue truth before any agenda can, in any case, make no exceptions. Liberals who take the scientific high road against conservatives on topics as varied as sexual education, evolution and climate science, should be true to their principles, and take the same approach on this issue. If GMOs were indeed harmful, we should expect to see some evidence of harm. In the utter absence of any, we can reasonably defer consideration of labeling requirements until circumstances warrant. As the facts now stand, required labeling for GMOs is capricious and unreasonable.
One must also consider the challenge of feeding a world of 7 billion people – expected to reach 8 billion in 10 years, and 9 billion in 25 years. GMOs are among our most valuable tools toward that end.
and for what it’s worth, the plants and animals we keep around us have in turn modified our genes.