Saturday, July 25, 2015

Oh Monsanto

I have seen a lot of yelling about GMO food lately and the whole subject clearly illustrates how willing people are to make false and misleading associations in pursuit of illusory simplicity.  Case in point:  Monsanto and GMOs.  Monsanto and their ilk are a big problem.  A lot of their tactics are disgusting and/or evil.  They use their legal power to exact unreasonable control over farmers and crops.  They display a shocking lack of concern for people's health and environmental standards.  They are a poster child for corporate malfeasance, for good reason.

But people have this problem where they associate Monsanto with all GMO products and that is a big issue.

This has been big news lately because the US Congress passed a law that would prevent individual states from having laws that require GMO labelling.  I have no doubt that Monsanto wants this, no doubt that they intend to profit from it, and no doubt that they have legally and illegally tried to influence this legislation.  But that doesn't mean that GMOs are bad, or that the law is bad, it just means that Monsanto wants a particular outcome and they will get it in ways that are bad.

GMOs aren't bad as a group.  There certainly are some that aren't good - after all, there are thousands upon thousands of them so inevitably some aren't good for us.  But non GMOs aren't bad as a group in *exactly* the same way.  Eating rhubarb leaves is totally going to make you sick or die, even when they aren't GMOs.  GMO Golden Rice is a fantastic idea that could save huge numbers of lives.  Fact is, the health benefits or lack thereof in a food have essentially nothing to do with whether or not that food is GMO or not.

This is why I don't think mandatory GMO labels are at all a good idea.  Note the mandatory in that sentence - it is the important part.  If people want to label their food 'GMO Free' then I haven't got a problem with that, though I think it is misleading and worthless at best.  Not appreciably different from 'New and Improved' or 'Better than the next leading brand'.  However, forcing people to label ingredients in food implies that the government has a public health interest in doing so, and in the case of GMOs that is completely false.  It tells people that GMOs are dangerous enough that the government feels is *must* regulate them, which has no scientific basis.

GMOs aren't the problem.  Specific crops, GMO or not, are the problem.  Associating Monsanto with GMOs is a rhetorical tactic that tries to turn people's reasonable concerns about big business's corrupting effect on food and politics into a reason to hate all GMOs.  They aren't the same thing, they shouldn't be lumped together, and a strike against one is not a strike against both.

There are plenty of issues with agriculture these days.  Massive monocultures are a problem.  Excessive use of pesticides is a problem. (Which can be mitigated by GMO crops!)  Corporate control over huge swaths of genetic varieties is a problem.  Unfounded panic over all GMO crops is not going to help any of these issues.

The flip side of the coin is the conflation of 'natural' with 'healthy'.  It is a similar sort of tactic, but has the same issues.  Natural things are not especially healthier than man made things.  Rocks are very natural.  So is poison ivy.  Same with porcupine quills.  I don't recommend eating any of them.  GMO Golden Rice, high calcium carrots, and pest resistant corn are great, and I recommend eating them.  The word natural is just a smoke screen, a meaningless waste of space that evokes feelings of quiet country lanes and small gardens without making any falsifiable claims.

If you don't want to eat GMO food, go ahead.  I don't want to eat cheese, and that is equally arbitrary.  However, the government has no business forcing everyone to use GMO warning labels because there is no public health reason to do so, in the same way that cheese does not need a warning label because there is no public health reason to do so.  Feel free to put a big "CHEESE" label on your cheese, or a non GMO label on your non GMO food.  Have a blast!  But before we expect the government to step in and enforce labelling we should have actual reasons for that, and at this point we absolutely do not have those.  The government is not responsible for making the food industry cater to people's irrational fears.


  1. Wait, you don't each cheese merely due to preference? It's not some real or imagined medical thing? You just don't like cheese? At all? Any kind of cheese?

    1. All cultured milk products do not agree with me. It isn't an allergy though, just an issue from an incident when I was young. I really can't eat them - I will barf. But it won't kill me or anything.