The aim of this post is not to try to silence opposition to GE tech, but to stop allowing the uninformed to frame the issue. If real criticism is to be heard, and real progress made, then the elimination of red herrings is a must.
In order to avoid setting up strawmen here, I’ve included example quotes taken from the comments to posts on our page. Indeed, these three arguments often make up the bulk of any GMO discussion seen anywhere that accepts comments. You will notice I include zero reference links. That is because these arguments are based on personal ideology instead of any real-world data. Obviously, there are many evidence-based arguments that have been thoroughly debunked and so should no longer be used either, but those are outside the scope of this post.
As skeptics, we should be willing to believe any claim if it is backed up with evidence. These arguments fail to provide not only evidence of harm, but even a theory as to how GE could be harmful. When someone is trying to persuade you to take an anti-GMO stance, none of the following arguments should be tolerated.
1) Appeal to nature
“Should we really be messing with mother nature?”
Sometimes this is straightforward as in “it’s unnatural!” Other times it is a little more subtle, taking a form something along the lines of “a fish would never breed with a tomato”, but it is always an argument without substance. Whenever we pursue these arguments we find that “natural” is a term that means different things to different people, but often boils down to “stuff that I am already comfortable with.”
Logically, this is best exposed by talking about artificial selection. However, in the real world, the anti-GMO crowd misconstrues mention of selective breeding as deceit. They say it is wrong to present genetic engineering and selective breeding as the same thing, and on this point they are correct. Selective breeding (which is achieved through the method of artificial selection) is different from genetic engineering in several significant ways, and to conflate them is irresponsible. So why do we bring up selective breeding? Because an argument which draws objection from the property “unnatural” fails to distinguish selective breeding from GE. Artificial selection, by definition, removes the hand of nature (natural selection). It is capable of preserving deleterious genetic traits such as deafness in dogs. It can also produce sterile hybrids like the banana. These are things that nature tends to select against.
So, generic appeals to nature ignore the fact that selective breeding is “unnatural” too, and produces outcomes with the very same properties that those using this appeal deem unnatural.
If the logic behind your objection can be equally applied to selective breeding, yet you are not against selective breeding, something is very wrong. You should construct arguments that actually criticize what you are against and be able to explain the principles behind your arguments in no uncertain terms. A generic appeal to nature simply isn’t good enough to hold up an anti-GMO position.
Also, remember, on the level of DNA, there is no such distinction as “fish” or “tomato”. The source of the gene is of absolutely no consequence. While the anti-GMO crowd worries about where genes come from, science worries about what they do. This is where we should focus – on the applications and results of GE tech and the possible consequences, not some arbitrary notion of what is natural.
So, when you encounter an appeal to nature argument, ask for a definition of “natural”. Ask why “natural” substances are automatically better. If all you get is a re-statement of the appeal, then you’ll know that the person is trying to convince you with an argument that they are unable to think through themselves.
2) Not enough tests
“We do not yet know if GMOs are safe. The only tests have been by Monsanto. I do not want to be experimented on by corporations!”
This gambit tends to ring false when it is used by those groups who support the destruction of test fields. Obviously, it is hypocritical to call for more testing and then stand in the way. But, to be fair, not all of those calling for testing do advocate destroying test fields. Also, if this is made as a sincere request outlining clear goals that can be reached, then it is not a red herring. However, everyone I have ever asked who uses this argument admits that, for them personally, no amount of testing would cause them to drop their aversion to GE foods. While this is not as obvious as those who trample crops, it is just as disingenuous because it still seeks to use the precautionary principle indefinitely. They have moved the goalposts so far that even they can not see them. Furthermore, if they can not define what sufficient testing would look like, how can they define what insufficient testing does look like? Which crops should be further tested? What more should we test for? What faults are to be found with the current tests? Where is the nuance?
This is also an indirect contradiction to the claim that GE foods cause harm. It cannot be true that we have not performed enough tests to assess safety and also know that they are unsafe. This suggests a double standard where evidence of harm is believed based on unscientific standards that accept rumors and speculation, but evidence of safety is held to standards so strict as to be unobtainable.
The bottom line is that independent testing is already being done, and no scientists are calling for an end to it. All GE crops and foods should be individually tested for safety, and those results should be available for independent review and replication. Being anti-GMO is not a necessary precursor to being an advocate of rigorous safety standards.
So when you encounter this argument, ask them to tell you exactly, without being vague, what additional tests would be satisfactory to convince them to personally consume GE food. If the answer is that no test will remove their fear, then you’ll know they are trying to convince you with an argument they do not believe themselves.
3) The right to know. (What are they hiding?)
“Whether or not they are safe to consume, I do not really care, but I do have a right to know whether or not I am consuming them.”
On the surface, the right to know argument is perhaps the most compelling red herring on this list. Why should customers be denied the right to an informed decision? Why should corporations be able to keep secret exactly what they are doing to our food in their labs? The answer is of course that they shouldn’t, and this is another façade.
I think the first thing we should do is separate the right to know from the right to demand labeling. The unstated premise here is that labeling provides some pertinent information important to the consumer. However, if labeling does not reflect any sort of safety or nutritional concern, then what exactly is being conveyed? The single data point that a label would provide is that a product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. If each individual crop is rigorously tested before it is approved for market and the results available for review, then why does it matter which products those crops end up in? The only purpose for labeling is to mark the products for those already inclined to avoid them. Since this aversion is not based on any demonstrable safety, environmental or health concern, it’s a result of personal ideology. If we start labeling foods which violate personal ideology, then we’re going to have to label them non-kosher as well. My personal ideology says to avoid crops harvested under a full moon. I have no data to demonstrate that these crops should be avoided, but I’m going to need a label anyway.
So, labeling is not really about knowing anything of interest to anyone who isn’t anti-GMO. It does nothing to help the average consumer make an informed choice, and is likely to confuse instead. To argue the right to know is to argue for transparency, and what should be transparent is the research. The research says GE crops on the market are of no more concern than conventional crops. To ignore the research and focus only on a single data point is to disregard the very transparency you are asking for. Someone who is passionate about ‘knowing’ will have an interest in learning, and maybe even teaching. But what we see when we examine the anti-GMO rhetoric is that their interest in learning begins and ends with confirmation bias, and what they teach has very little basis in fact, seeking to influence rather than inform. To demand the right to know while remaining apathetic to knowledge is disingenuous.
I believe people have the right to boycott anything for any reason, but I object to the idea that this notion somehow supports mandatory labeling. I also object to the accusation that if labeling is not present, some information is being hidden. Your boycott is your problem unless you can demonstrate that it is a problem for everyone. Citing the right to boycott does not tell us why we ought to do so, yet this notion dominates most public discussions about anti-gmo activism. One can be completely for the notion of the public being as informed as possible about GE technology and products without needing to take an anti-GMO stance.
4) BONUS : Organic apples/tomatoes taste better.
And here is a bonus argument. It’s really nothing more than a pet peeve, but it is sure to make you look like a simpleton. I hear it all the time. “Organic apples/tomatoes just taste better than the GMO version.” It’s always apples or tomatoes for some reason. I am not sure where these people live since no GE tomatoes or apples are currently on the market, and never mind the fact that taste is not a measure of safety. When I see this statement, it tells me the speaker is not really interested in evidence or data or even with having a sincere discussion. They are willing to lie to sway others towards their opinion. Such people disqualify themselves from being worthy of attention.
Those opposed to GE food have every right to make their case and be heard, but those listening have a social responsibility to not be swayed by generic fear-mongering and specious reasoning . All parties should set their standards higher and rise above the petty manipulations employed by science deniers. If we are so easily swayed by broken logic and appeals to emotion, if we accept propaganda and forget to demand actual evidence, then we can be convinced of anything.