Hawaii's GMO paranoia: A vision of the future of American politics

As of the first day of this year, the culture wars that still linger from the 1960s are over. The beginning of legal marijuana sales caps off an amazing decade of victories for social liberals. In that period, gay marriage has been legalized in 16 states, and such marriages are now recognized by the federal government. The President is now a black man with a muslim name who is the son of an immigrant. In a partial victory old-school social conservatives, politicians have stopped talking about guns, but gun ownership is in steady decline.*

No formal treaty of surrender has been negotiated, but marijuana, gay marriage, intolerance toward muslims and gun rights are as good as finished as viable political issues. Conservative politicians will back away from them the same way that they have backed away from racism. The question is what we will argue about next?

A viable candidate, I think, is the advance of scientific research and the development of new technologies. Anti-scientism cuts across America’s current political divide, including  such diverse issues as the conservative dogma of skepticism about climate change, teacher unions opposing all efforts to use evidence to improve education, and damned near everyone seeming to hate and fear wearable technology like Google Glass.

The biggest political debates, however, seem to be over the use over GMO foods. This NY Times piece on Greggor Ilagan, a councilman from Hawaii’s Big Island, highlights the combination of passion and disbelief in empirical evidence that characterizes the anti-GMO movement. Mr. Ilagan took the time to learn about the science on GMOs ahead of a vote on banning them on the island. He was rewarded for his careful thought with mockery and hatred by his constituents. The article is worth reading in its entirety; it provides a wonderful combination of laying out the science on GMO foods and casual anthropology on the most passionate GMO opponents. Particularly telling is a passage in which every single claim made by ban proponents collapses upon further investigation, which features this damning paragraph:

He heard many times that there were no independent studies of the safety of genetically modified organisms. But Biofortified, which received no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred such studies, including a 2010 comprehensive review sponsored by the European Union, that found “no scientific evidence associating G.M.O.s with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” It echoed similar statements by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Margaret Wille, the main proponent of the ban, says things that sound like Republican talking points with the word “GMO” in place of “climate change”. All the scientists who oppose banning GMOs are characterized as being in the pocket of corporate interests. A lot of the quotes in the article sound like dialogue from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a videogame whose plot was driven by the debate about enhancing humans via technology. We increasingly have the capacity to do exactly that. It is hard to know what kinds of political coalitions will form as technology becomes the key social issue of the day, but Hawaii may be a window on the future of debates on social values. Things don’t look promising for science: the ban passed 6-3, with overwhelming support from constituents, and most people I know from Hawaii are rabidly anti-GMO.

Full disclosure: I have never received a penny from firms who engage in genetic engineering (do people still call it that)? I have probably eaten a large number of GMO foods, especially if you consider that almost everything we eat was bred specifically to select for crazy mutations such as fruit not having seeds.

*In sharp contrast with most liberals, I have been shooting quite a few times, and rather enjoy skeet shooting. I can’t really understand what people see in handguns, though.

3 thoughts on “Hawaii's GMO paranoia: A vision of the future of American politics”

  1. Skeet skeet skeet! As a liberal, I too enjoy shooting as a sport. I also support its use for personal home defense. I do think better background checks are in order, but I wont go into that right now.

    Jason, I agree that thus far in my reading that the science behind GMOs in and of itself is not harmful in health. I will have to look at more primary literature to see how comparable the crops they are testing match with Monsanto’s. We’ve been GMO’ing for millenia and I’m sure that those peas that Mendel bred were just fine for consumption.

    To me, what does not sit well with me is the power the Monsanto yields. The litigation for patent infringement against farmers to me seems excessive. At the same time, protecting one’s product to be compensated for research and development is logical under the principles of capitalism (something I am increasingly beginning to question, but I wont discuss that here.) Initially being influenced myself on the anti-GMO/Monsanto business ethics, I tried to do some background reading and a few themes came up in regards to Monsanto:
    -terminator gene technology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_use_restriction_technology (aka sterile seeds): Understandably, should this gene get cross pollinated to other plants, this could wipe out ecosystems. I had heard that these were already being used by Monsanto, but could not find objective evidence of it decimating crops. It should be noted that Monsanto does own the patent for the technology but there is a current moratorium on field testing (per link referenced)
    -farmers buying seeds annually from Monsanto is entrapment: turns out, even prior to Monsanto, farmers were buying seeds from seed companies on an annual basis (http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/260671/aib786g_1_.pdf). Not sure though if the license agreements between farmers and companies were quite as strict (Monsanto has sued for farmers saving seed from one year to the next without proper licensing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#Legal_actions_and_controversies)
    -the Monsanto-FDA-USDA—US Supreme Court revolving door: I’ll admit that this still hangs me up in terms of absolving Monsanto from controversy. As a medical professional, we see the FDA-phrma revolving door, which to me its effects are much more blatant. Thus it is plausible that things like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_R._Taylor and Justice Clarence Thomas, represents Monsanto’s foot hold in law and policy. On the other hand, since I am in a field where knowledge is super specialized at times, having people on committees making policies with experience is usually a desirable (such as creating guidelines and forming health policy) thing.
    -crop yield concerns: granted that the seeds are engineered to be pesticide resistant rather than increasing yield, this still raises concern for me that Monsanto can and may be limiting yield, so farmer have to purchase more seed.

    Ultimately, I still distrust Monsanto as an entity, but its not because of the science.

    1. I am 100% on board with distrusting Monsanto. It’s something of a moral compunction for economists to hate monopolies, and Monsanto has massive market power. You list a number of totally reasonable fears about GMOs, and they are really not about GMOs at all – they are about Monsanto’s immense market power, and how it abuses that power (or could in the future).

      So the question is whether banning GMOs outright is a good way of constraining Monsanto’s domination of the marketplace. I think it is not, for two reasons. First, there are plenty of good uses of GMOs – things that could literally save lives – that would be done away with. Second, doing that gives credence to the wild anti-science fringe, and I think the implications of that are pretty scary.

  2. Its really not about the GMOs at all. In fact, If I replace GMO and Monsanto with the words Phrma and pharma industry, its pretty much the same thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *